The 5th International conference on Gross National Happiness (GNH) ended on 24th November, 2009. It was held in Iguacu, Brazil and was attended by about a thousand participants from several countries of the world represented by all cross sections of societies.
According to the Center for Bhutan Studies, the aim of the fifth GNH conference was to bring together policy makers, civil society, intellectuals and academics and explore issues pertaining to development.
Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the 4th King of Bhutan first coined the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) when he was barely in his 20’s. As King of a small and poor country, he sought the unconventional path to development by focusing on the quality and happiness of his people rather than GDP/GNP as the ultimate goal.
The 4 pillars of GNH include socio-economic development, preservation of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and establishment of good governance. And these include many indicators like psychological well being, health, education, living standards etc.
The premise of such a philosophy is more or less embedded in E. F Schumacher’s 1973 revolutionary book, “Small is Beautiful; Economics as if People Mattered,” and something he called “Buddhist Economics.”
But as the world tries to grasp onto the idea of whether GNH can work or whether it is just a fuzzy notion, Bhutan – the country where the concept first originated – has been asking whether GNH has run ahead of itself.
The debate started when the Bhutanese Prime Minister returned from the conference last week and said that GNH has spread so fast that it is being taken more seriously in places other than Bhutan, its country of origin, and that the country is falling behind.
The leader of the opposition in Bhutanese parliament, Tshering Tobgay, avidly retorted on his blog:
“Very good. Our government now understands what the common man has long known: namely that, to increase happiness levels, we need is less talk and more action.”
Invisible, a reader, commented on his post:
“I strongly disagree with our Lyonchhen and say that, “Bhutan is not lagging behind in GNH.” Bhutanese Society is GNH Society. GNH is in our “values” and in our “thinking.”
And Tangba, another reader, commented:
“The fact is GNH was there since long time back and all the civilized nations had been implementing it for centuries. The only difference is that they didn’t call it GNH as we do. They called it by other collective names: quality education, good health care, clean environment, nature and wildlife conservation, preservation of culture and traditions, strong economy, freedom of speech, corruption free administration, human rights and so on. Then why are we making a big fuss about it?”
Meanwhile Rubiks at Kuzu-Bhutan Weblog begged to differ:
Some people may ask, “why all this fuss against GNH now?” Well! I say this – it has become incredibly difficult to have a meaningful debate about anything without someone dragging the term “GNH” into it…I am tired of this cliché.
…I know I am living in a real world and not some fairy tale world. In order to measure happiness, we need to have a very clear understanding about happiness. Happiness is a state of mind, which is not constant. Philosophers have been trying to define “mind” for centuries, yet they are still left with the same fundamental question – what is mind? Happiness is a subjective entity hence to measure it objectively is just a fallacy.
Awakened fellow, a commenter on the above post, countered:
“Nobody says that Bhutan has achieved GNH. We all accept that there is much to strive for even to reach near GNH. But that doesn't mean that GNH is crap.
GNH is a broad idea. It is a guide and inspiration – not a rule, solution or a prescription. Yes, we have many problems and we are far from GNH. But, even just having GNH as our guide, and striving for it is a big thing.”
But Unagi agreed in another post on Kuzu-Bhutan Weblog:
“GNH does not mean having a Land Cruiser and living in a comfortable Duplex and getting a degree from the U.S. BUT what is GNH is the fact that every one is happy because they have the basic NEEDS.
GNH is a mutual benefit philosophy and you should share the unhappiness of those fellow citizens who are apparently NOT happy because their children are walking for hours to get to school, because they don't have enough food to survive and they definitely cannot worry about a Land Cruiser, believe me.
GNH is beautiful, I accept that but what I'm saying is…for GNH money is essential and for GNH to be ACHIEVED, resources need to be SHARED equally among everyone. Not some owning Land Cruisers and other not even being able to afford taxis. That is when MONEY comes into play for happiness.”
Some bloggers like Sonam Tshering argued that giving GNH a formal platform had, instead, made it worse for the commoner:
“In 2004, the Centre for Bhutan Studies for the first time organized an international conference on Operationalizing of Gross National Happiness. Subsequently, the centre organized similar international conferences in Canada, Thailand and this year is Brazil. Since then, the concept of GNH has grown beyond the comprehension of the common people.
Now the question that remains is how it can be applied in the ground realities of the common people. The concept has grown too high, most common people today feel that GNH is only for the experts and high level officials.”
The Bhutanese Prime Minister put the onus on the individuals to make it happen:
“It [a government] must try to create the right conditions, but the individual himself and herself must pursue happiness.”
As the debate rages on, it seems – at least – that they inadvertently agreed one thing: that Bhutan needed to work on GNH at home, rather than letting international academics seek definition and run away with the idea. So far, however, Bhutan has been pretty successful in selling it. This summer the President of France Nicolas Sarkozy also wanted to measure his country’s economic progress through GNH (the proposal was later rejected). Now the challenge remains to bring the concept home to roost.