Happiness As A Law

Bhutan. A country that you may or may not have heard of. It is located in South Asia, bordering China and India, has a population of approximately 743,000 people, Dzongkha as its official language – and secures the right to happiness as a law of the land and policy.

“[…] it is not a question of whether we can do something or not, whether we have enough or not, whether we are permitted or not. The question is, are we going to do it or not” His Majesty King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan, 7th June 2016

Gross National Happiness (GNH) is not only a development philosophy but also an index to measure a nation’s progress by its happiness. The term was coined in 1979. When Bhutan’s king at the time, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was asked what Bhutan’s Gross National Product was, he said, “We do not believe in Gross National Product. Gross National Happiness is more important.” Eight years later, the Financial Times London published an article in their Weekend FT edition titled, “The Modern Path to Enlightenment”, in which GNH was highlighted for the first time ever as a development philosophy.

In 2015, the Centre for Bhutan Studies & GNH Research carried out the most recent GNH survey. The survey was developed by the Centre for Bhutan Studies, which received help from Canadians Michael and Martha Pennock. The Pennocks also developed a shorter international version, which has been used in their home town Victoria (British Columbia, Canada) and in Brazil. Bhutan’s first survey was carried out in 2010; a sample size of 8,500 Bhutanese, aged 15 or above, was questioned.

The results of the second survey from 2015, questioning a sample size of 8,870 Bhutanese, are as fascinating as they are significant:

  • 2% of Bhutanese are narrowly, extensively or deeply happy;
  • 4% of Bhutanese are extensively or deeply happy – which is an increase from the 40.9% measured in 2010.

Bhutan has a Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC), committed to “promoting an enabling environment for all Bhutanese to be happy.” With the development of a five-year-plan, the GNHC focuses on selective topics to ensure a constantly high index for the nation’s GNH.

As of the most recent edition of the five-year-plan (12th edition), the focus lies on:

A Just Society: “here every citizen has equitable access to resources and opportunities to pursue and realize individual and national aspirations.” This includes but is not limited to:

  • Reducing inequality and promoting gender equality
  • Creating employment
  • Improving the quality of education
  • Access to health services

A Harmonious Society: “a society where every individual lives in harmony with oneself; with community; with nature; and with culture and traditions.” This includes but is not limited to:

  • Preserving and promoting culture and traditions
  • Maintaining a healthy eco-system
  • Ensuring safety and sustainability

A Sustainable Society: “a society able to sustain its social, economic and environmental development needs.” This includes but is not limited to:

  • Ensuring macro-economic stability
  • Enhancing economic diversity
  • Ensuring water, food and nutrition security

All of the above are funded on the base of the Triple C: Coordination, Consolidation and Collaboration. These are underpinning every goal, strategy or program in the five-year-plan. Coordination focuses on the current lack thereof in policy and implementation. Consolidation is about strengthening the socio-economic infrastructure, whilst Collaboration wants to improve the togetherness with entities outside the government.

An institution that focuses on happiness as a law and measuring its nations growth by it is not immune to criticism, of course. The main one is fairly obvious: Is a nation’s happiness really properly measurable? Whilst the Gross National Product, for example, is based on statistics and evidence, happiness is an entity that is not objectively tangible. Critics also find fault with the seeming ignorance of racial and ethnic problems and intolerance, which Bhutan has faced in the past. This leads back to past problems between the Bhutanese and Lhotsampas, who are the Bhutanese people of Nepalese descent. The idea of approaching happiness as a law and the GNH has been called a propaganda to distract from the abuses against human rights.

As stated in the GNHC’s five-year-plan, the issue of racial division and inequality is on top of the agenda. Whether this is to counteract the accusations and cover the country’s problems up or whether it is a reaction after facing reality is up for discussion.

Either way, laying the focus on measuring a nation’s growth and prosperity in happiness is definitely a futuristic approach which not many countries have tried. Other nations have, in the meantime, attempted similar paths: As of February 2016, The United Arab Emirates Cabinet has placed Her Excellency Ohood bint Khalfan Al Roumi as the nation’s very first Minister of State for Happiness. Perhaps other countries should consider enshrining national happiness as a law, who knows what benefits it could have.

Make sure you check out the rest of the articles in our series on happiness:


Photo courtesy of pixabay
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