As a U.S. presidential candidate, Robert Kennedy once said that the gross domestic product (GDP) of a country “measures everything except that which is worthwhile.” Although his message that materialism does not measure all that we want rings true to many people, today there are still few policy frameworks that recognize money as what it is: a means, not an end. Yet unbeknownst to most Americans, a small Himalayan country in between India and China has shed the goal of maximizing GDP. Bhutan instead organizes its politics and economy in order to raise gross national happiness (GNH). Bhutan’s system helps reveal some flaws in our own, offering less invasive alternatives to the dominant global order, which prioritizes zero-sum resource exploitation. The GNH approach of promoting wellbeing rather than material growth provides a living example of the idea that Kennedy was striving towards that can help us establish a more meaningful basis for policy-making.
The country of Bhutan has existed as an independent Buddhist theocracy for centuries, but in 2008, it transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary democracy. Although still considered a UN Least Developed Country, Bhutan has been recommended for graduation from the list. The country ranks first in South Asia in economic freedom and peace, and its GDP has risen by a factor of 16 since 1980. As of 2018, Bhutan has the third fastest growing economy in the world. Considering the country history of seclusion (it lifted a ban on television and internet in 1999), Bhutan has done well by conventional standards. Yet it is its unconventional governmental objectives that have garnered international attention.
In 1972, the king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, first proposed the idea of GNH, but the philosophy and index have spread, particularly since the country’s democratization in 2008. In 2012, Bhutan’s prime minister Jigme Thinley and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon convened a high level meeting on this “new economic paradigm,” and established the World Happiness Report. The report incorporates and expands on measures from the Bhutan’s original gross national happiness index, which includes nine domains: psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. Adopting a happiness basis for governing may at first sound utopian and unpragmatic, however the genuine implementation of such an approach leaves us with many concretely altered policy objectives.
Some of Bhutan’s unique laws and accomplishments may provide hints about where the larger paradigm of prioritizing happiness over materialism can lead us. Bhutan’s biodiversity and environmental conservation efforts have become a model for how to effectively balance development and sustainability, according to organizations such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature. This is primarily because of a shift to view human development as synonymous with the harmony of nature rather than an exploitive force for resource extraction. Bhutan has thus prioritized protecting land, as the country has reserved over 40 percent of its territory for national parks, reserves, and other public lands. Hydroelectric power and agriculture generate economic growth that does not depend on the degradation of the climate or habitat. In fact, not only does Bhutan emit no extra greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere–it is actually carbon negative. This is partially due to the vast amount of forestry that absorbs carbon dioxide, but Bhutan has also been quick to implement environmental measures that have lagged elsewhere around the world. For example, as of 2014, one tenth of Bhutan’s cars ran on electric power. If we are to try to maximize happiness, we should look to Bhutan where future generations and wildlife are counted as a critical part of the equation rather than mere means to help achieve our short-term profit-maximizing impulses.
Bhutan is also well-known for being the only nation to ban the smoking in public or selling of tobacco. The move highlights public health in terms of a core idea in Buddhist philosophy: oneness. Public health and sickness is something to which we all are connected, whether it be through taxation or merely the air that we breathe. When we start to examine our interconnectedness in terms of our environment or are seemingly private health choices, the rule of individualism no longer seems an adequate basis for governance.
In the face of increasingly dangerous climate change, automation, and inequality, the relationship between economic growth and happiness maximization appears less clear than ever. It’s worth considering what other policy objectives a Bhutanese-style GNH system might have.
If happiness is the end to which money is the means, then the most important part of a GNH system should be that happiness is an unconditional good. This means that happiness is a good regardless of its subject or source, unless it inhibits the happiness of others. So not only must we cease to assign different values to different subjects of conscious experience by incorporating racism, sexism, or religious bias into our thinking, but we must also consider the well-being of criminals or even members of different species. Correspondingly, all punishment should be considered rehabilitating and not retributive. And non-human animals cannot continue to be considered as mere means for our personal enjoyment. Factory farming and animal experimentation must be reformed so as not to inflict the mass suffering that they currently do.
A famous study by psychologist Daniel Kahneman and economist Angus Deaton found that positive correlations between individual income and happiness fail to appear at incomes above $75,000 a year in US dollars. Findings like this help illuminate the mass inefficiency of stark income inequality. In accordance with social comparison theory, it appears to be human nature to habituate ourselves to ever more luxurious living conditions after we have achieved basic standards. The relationship between wealth and happiness then becomes ever more tenuous, as our well-being becomes more about our comparative social status than the inherent worth of money and the products we buy with it. In an effective GNH system, we must change our system of distribution to give more to people struggling to meet basic needs for comfort and less to rich people whom we know will not benefit as much from each unit of wealth they accrue.
These examples are only a few of the many possible policy implications that a GNH system could have. It is worth asking, however, whether the theoretical appeal of GNH is strong enough to support its radically pragmatic ramifications. To this, I would respond that an attitude of moral skepticism is exactly what could lead us to support a GNH system. Once we dismiss the notion that anything that exists has an innate and independent positive value to it, we realize that our goals to maximize “objective moral goodness” are misguided. We can liberate ourselves from the moral supremacy of money or the rule of one “true” god instead of the thousands that we choose not to believe in. When we give up the idea that the universe can be seen from an objective point of view, we are simply left with an aggregate of subjective experiences. Then we can begin to make the world better purely on our own terms. By defining pleasures as experiences that we desire to have and pains as experiences that we desire not to have, we can try to maximize pleasures and minimize pains, i.e. increase happiness.
Dasho Karma Ura, the president of the Center for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research and a leading proponent of the GNH system worldwide, talks about how the GNH mentality can cause us to think differently about concrete issues such as air pollution: “Maybe air is very unpolluted across the country, we know this in Bhutan, but in some pockets you may be breathing very bad air. So it is not the objective measurement of air quality, but how do you feel your air quality is around you.” We all stand to benefit when we talk about feelings in this way. Our perceptions are the only things on which we can rely, and now our perceptions are relying on us to provide them the conditions for the pursuit of happiness. Bhutan’s GNH system has made this pursuit into an official government goal, and the rest of the world would be smart to adopt and expand it.