Aristotle once said, “Happiness is the meaning and purpose of life. It is the whole aim of human existence.” That statement is taken more literally in some societies than others. Bhutan is a tiny Buddhist kingdom high in the Himalayas between India and China, and the Center for Bhutan Studies recently announced it will be convening an international seminar on “Operationalizing the Concept of Gross National Happiness,” to be held in Bhutan from February 10 to 20 of this year. The development philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) is in stark contrast to the traditional Gross National Product (GNP), which measures material and financial wealth. Gross National Happiness represents the highest Bhutanese values. The king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, is the founder of this unique philosophy.
Bhutan is a relatively isolated place, but the people of Bhutan started complaining to their king that tourists were spoiling the environment and trampling their sacred lands. They were also concerned that economic development would cause them to lose their cultural identity. In an address to 150 heads of government at the United Nations Millennium Summit on September 8, 2003, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba said, “The growth of material poverty and spiritual hunger which undermines the value of human life are some of the greatest challenges faced by the governments around the world. His Majesty, the King, believes that the ultimate purpose of government is to promote the happiness of the people.”
This may all sound rather corny to the average American, but remember that the foundation of our country was built on the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The only problem is that we as a nation seem to be pursuing money instead.
Gross National Happiness is not just an “airy fairy” concept that a small country in the Himalayas is concerned about. It is on the minds of many of the world’s most progressive leaders. Here is the reason: Since 1950, the material wealth and consumption of industrialized nations has more than doubled. However, the happiness reported by citizens of those countries has not increased. And in many countries, social ills and depression have reached alarming levels. Many social planners, government officials, and bankers around the world are concerned that Gross National Product–tracking what each country produces–is not an effective way to measure true progress.
Why? If a country manufactures bombs, produces toxic chemicals, or creates an increase in visits to psychiatrists, the resulting increase in the Gross National Product is celebrated as a sign of progress. However, I do not think many people would consider the production of these goods and services as representing progress. Many world leaders are now concerned that the GNP is an outmoded tracking mechanism.
The Triple Bottom Line
This simplistic measuring system was developed to track countries’ economic progress as they rebuilt their economies after World War II. Its primary purpose was to guide countries that were using grants and loans to recover after the devastation of the war. But in today’s world, many organizations are experimenting with more comprehensive measurements.
For instance, the World Bank, the IMF, and the United Nations have been discussing the concept of the triple bottom line. The triple bottom line holds profit-oriented organizations accountable in three different areas. Number one is “financial accountability,” which is a measure of the organization’s financial sustainability. Number two is “social accountability,” a measure of how much the company is contributing to the social well-being of the country. Number three is “environmental accountability,” which measures the company’s pollution, and depletion or conservation of natural resources.
Many non-government organizations are experimenting with a quadruple bottom line. In addition to financial, environmental, and social accountability, they also are accountable to their values. In other words, how effectively are they promoting, upholding, and encouraging the values that their founders and contributors believe in?
The current tracking system encourages social disruption and environmental destruction, especially in developing countries, since short-term profits are all that are tracked. What gets measured, gets done. The need for a better international scorekeeping system is clear.
Rethinking What’s Important
Bhutan’s orientation towards Gross National Happiness does not negate the scientific, ecological, or economic benefits of modern society. It merely asks how these benefits will, in fact, increase happiness and the overall well-being of humans.
Traditionally, there was an assumption among economists that if people had more money, they had more options, and they would use those additional resources to select the options that made them happiest. Essentially, the concept of Gross National Happiness encourages people to rethink what is important to them and how the success of a nation should be judged. Should success be judged solely on the ability of a group of people to produce and consume, or should it be based on the quality of life?
It is interesting to note that the U.N. has for many years now rated Canada as having the highest quality of life of any country on the planet. Many Americans look down their noses at Canada’s higher tax structure and socialized medicine; however, when you look at the overall quality of life enjoyed by Canadians, it is in many ways superior to ours.