What kind of stuff is Happiness made on?



Once upon a time, the fourth “Dragon King” of a tiny reign on Himalaya range asked  to his counsellors: What we talk about when we talk about Happiness?

He wanted his people to be happier. Is this a fairy-tale?

Apparently not.  It might comes weird, but this is told to be a true story from the contemporary state of Bhutan. I read thousands of papers about this and still I could not trust the narrative. I decided to investigate it myself: I went to Bhutan.

This tiny green land, as big as Switzerland, is worldwide known since the government  rules the country on  “Gross National Happiness” Index (GNH) instead of the worldwide spread “Gross National Product” (GNP).

The idea underlying Gross National Happiness is that happiness for human beings is made of much more stuff than Gross National Product measures.

Despite scientists, intellectuals and visionary leaders had long ago discussed Gross National Product as an imperfect index to measure our life’s prosperity, we are keeping on relying on it: evaluating against it the impact of actions and decisions by our governments, as well as – to some extent- the degree of our happiness.

Yet economic security is an important factor for all human beings, however, the problem with Gross National Product is that it includes whatever is related to financial issue. It includes for example the revenue generated by the selling of medicines and army, meaning that the more ill you are (or the more war you make) the more GNP goes up.

One of the most famous speech about this, was the one by JFK, at University of Kansas, in March 18th, 1968:

Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them…. 

 So what? Can we do something to find a more appropriate measure for our prosperity in life?

 Bhutan took this challenge seriously. It settled a research institute with the aim to define and update a number of parameters which contribute to our happiness in life. They called it Gross National Happiness (GNH) and started evaluating their government’s decisions against it. It’s interesting to notice that this idea, dated 1972, came from the fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

What  does Gross National Happiness (GNH) mean practically?

According to the King, the essence of ruling the country trough GNH is:

  • peace and happiness for his people;
  • security and sovereign for his nation.

How does this work?

Technically speaking, GNH is a single number index developed from 33 indicators categorized under 9 domains. Each set of parameters aims to investigate happiness trough classical domains (Standard of Living, Health and Education, Time Use, Good Governance and Ecological Diversity & Resilience) as well as trough innovative ones (Psychological Wellbeing, Community Vitality and Cultural Diversity & Resilience).

Immagine1 pixel On the basis of these parameters, the government conducts a periodical survey trough the Bhutanese people aimed to investigate the impact of its decision-making process in increasing their happiness in life. The assumption is that a person is accounted as happy when he/she enjoy sufficient to 6 or more domains out of the possible 9.

Thus my question: is this such stuff as Happiness is made on?

 Bhutan in the eyes of a visitor coming from the western side of the earth is mostly about

the whisper of peaceful flags blowing with the wind; the rolling tinkling of bells dispatching prayers to the sky; astonishingly beautiful monasteries settled on a cliff, a river or a forest; traditional archers player, ghee butter candles and holy water offering; Tibetan Buddhist culture, astrology and the divine madman odd tradition; spicy Ema Datshi with rice and salty Suja tè; stylish gho and kira dresses; paddy fields, Himalayan trekking and sustainable cities.

During my
stay I experienced by first hand the extreme kindness of Bhutanese people as well as the smart intelligence of the governors and the precious care of the Buddhist monks. I saw a place where man ad nature share life in harmony and where stray dogs and bulls -freely walking around the streets- looked relaxed too.

Is this all there is to this country?

From a politic point of view the country is currently  a parliamentary democracy. This  was established in 2008, due to the will of the King. Since then a group of people elected by citizens keep on ruling the country and measuring the impact of their actions trough Gross National Happiness Index.

According to the Prime Minister Annual Report on the State of the Nation, despite facing major critical problems like a high rate of unemployment, Bhutan is making impressive progress in ensuring equal opportunities to its citizens. Especially in providing free education as well as free health care and achieving socio economic progress.

From an economic point of view, along with what seems an enlightened governance, Bhutan had a rapid growth, with rates that averaged +7.9% in the past 2 decades[1]. This growth was principally driven by the all-dominant hydropower sector and this made Bhutan, shifting basically from a rural economy, very vulnerable to external shocks. A key challenge for the future of this country will be to channel the income generated by the hydropower sector for a sustainable and inclusive growth.  Gross National Happiness Index had been designed to incentive this kind of growth.

Are policies really made to develop a sustainable and inclusive growth?

I asked this question to a member of the parliament.

She explained me that, trough an holistic approach, they are trying to find a way  to scientifically define what “sustainable and inclusive growth” means for a population in order to give equal importance to economic and non-economic aspects of wellbeing.

“This is a long term job- she said –and it is not an easy one to carry out!”

Apparently they are seriously trying to make this happen into reality and they are experiencing big steps ahead as well as few steps back.

Thus my question: can this big effort assure happiness in life?

Definitely any measure is imperfect and Happiness is a deeply personal matter.

Thus Gross National Happiness Index can only make statistical suggestions on the possibility for a person to benefit happiness in life.

Bhutan is a peculiar country which is difficult to compare to many of the western ones.  Its land is as big as Switzerland and the total amount of its people is the same as those living in a medium size city in Europe. Additionally, its policy changes were carried out trough the  preservation of national culture and traditions.

Thus we have to wait and see what time and policies will bring about, as well as which consequences will come to Bhutan from globalization, cyber-culture and increasing pressures from both outside (like multinational companies) and inside the country (unemployment rates).

However -and beyond any doubt- the efforts of these  people in the definition of a multidimensional concept of Happiness as a driver for policy makers should be taken into serious account.

Is this happening already?

In 2011 a UN General Assembly resolution invited member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use this to help to guide their public policies. In 2012 the first World Happiness Report was published and the first United Nations high level meeting on happiness and wellbeing took place.

Bhutan ranked at 79 among 158 countries in the World Happiness Report 2015, ranking countries on the basis of six variables: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom to make life choices, generosity and the absence of corruption.

Not being ranked as the happiest people on earth is not a concern for Bhutanese people. “In some areas, we may be the happiest people- said the Prime Minister –  but in some areas we can’t be, especially in this Asia globalisation, international communications and social media”. However, Bhutan ranks two places above the close country of Pakistan which could be considered more similar to it then the first ranked Switzerland.

On My opinion Gross National Happiness Index is an interesting example of a different scientific and measurable model for desirable futures. And especially, it’s something to think of when the politicians of our western countries come up with “new” solutions to “rock our happiness up”.

First of all: do we have any idea of what “to rock our happiness up” means practically?

 PS. Italy, my country, ranked 50th in the 2015 World Happiness Report, below Colombia, Thailand, Uzbekistan and Ecuador. Despite Italian Gross National Product is higher than the ones of these countries, this result does not come as a surprise: it is mostly due to both high level of corruption and the small range in freedom we have in making our choices in life.

Is this the right time to ask for multidimensional results instead of multidimensional chatting?

Further readings