The small, Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has been described as the last Shangri-La. With only 800,000 citizens, sandwiched between the giants of India and China, it is easily overlooked.
Yet this tiny nation has offered the world a compelling idea — that the goal of development should not be to solely improve the economic activity and income of a country, but also to improve its sense of happiness on a national level.
It sounds eminently sensible to measure happiness instead of economic activity but the idea remains a radical one in our current economic system.
The term Gross National Happiness was coined in 1972 by the 4th King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who stated at that point that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product”.
In July 2008, Bhutan’s new constitution included a commitment to the pursuit of GNH.
Since then, GNH has become deeply embedded in Bhutan’s governance and culture, with the implementation of GNH spearheaded by the Gross National Happiness Commission. This commission has defined four pillars of GNH:
- Sustainable and equitable socio-economic development
- Environmental conservation
- Preservation and promotion of culture
- Good governance.
These pillars are further divided into nine domains, such as governance, health, education and use of time. Progress against these pillars and domains is measured stringently, using a GNH Index made up of numerous indicators.
Perhaps most importantly, Bhutan scrutinises new policies and projects for their contribution to GNH using screening tools. Policies or projects can be stopped if it can be shown that they will not increase happiness.
Bhutan might be small, but the idea of GNH is big, and catching on outside Bhutan.
For example, in 2011, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution urging member nations to follow Bhutan’s example and measure happiness and well-being.
I was fortunate to be part of a team of researchers from the Institute for Sustainable Futures that travelled to Bhutan in May 2018 as part of a collaboration with the Royal University of Bhutan. The Institute was awarded an Australia Awards Fellowship by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, to build Bhutanese research sector capacity and address development issues through transdisciplinary methodologies.
A delegation of nine researchers from the Royal University of Bhutan visited the Institute in February 2018 for two weeks of training and project development.
The delegation engaged in workshops on transdisciplinary research, systems thinking, futures thinking and many other topics. During their visit, we worked together to develop three transdisciplinary research projects:
- An exploration of the connections between transdisciplinary research and GNH
- A climate studies program to build Bhutanese capacity to understand the local impacts of climate change and develop responses
- A research project on the sustainability of Bhutan’s energy system.
In May, Professor Stuart White, Dr Isabel Sebastian, Katie Ross and I visited Bhutan, to train additional researchers and continue the development of these three research projects.
We spent time at the Royal University of Bhutan in Thimphu, and visited the Paro College of Education and the College of Natural Resources in Punakha.
A key event was a stakeholder workshop to involve government agencies, donors and others in the three projects listed above.
Bhutan felt like a country at a crossroads.
It is a carbon neutral country, yet faces significant impacts from climate change. It is currently classified as one of the Least Developed Countries in the world, but is on the cusp of graduating to developing country status.
This can be a difficult transition, especially when outside development assistance is reduced.
Bhutan’s development has been largely driven by development of hydro power resources. Much of the resulting electricity is sold to India, but Bhutan at the same time imports a growing amount of fossil fuels to fuel its vehicles. Bhutan has substantial remaining hydro power resources that it can develop, but some in the country are concerned about the environmental impacts of hydro power on its river systems, and the impacts of climate change on future river flows.
Difficult decisions on how to develop in a way that builds Gross National Happiness may lie ahead.
Despite these challenges, Bhutan remains a beautiful place — a biodiversity hotspot, infused with a Buddhist culture that values happiness and hospitality. The ISF team feels very fortunate to have had the opportunity to visit, and we would like to thank our colleagues at the Royal University of Bhutan for being generous hosts and collaborators.
We look forward to continued collaboration.