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Bhutan’s Pursuit of Happiness

For this month’s article, I am going to take you into a much-neglected part of the world, where the summits are high and the forests boundless. Where one encounters happy people and no traffic lights. As American author Karan Bajaj puts it, “it is almost like you’ve stepped into a Shangri-La or a vortex of time 200 years ago. Those kinds of experiences are very much of the countryside of Bhutan, where people are truly happy in the sense of not creating and wanting more.”

Farmers, Gangtey

The Kingdom of Bhutan, a small Asian nation landlocked on the roof of the world between two of the giants of the modern world, India and China, is exceptional in every way. The country truly is not rich: The United Nations classifies it as a Least Developed Country (LDC) and for most of the population, economic activity in Bhutan consists in subsistence farming and animal husbandry. The economy is largely dependent on agriculture, forestry, and exports of hydropower to India, its main trading partner. Despite a budding industrial sector, the government is still relying tremendously on economic aid from the large neighbor. And still, Bhutan is developing in such a way that its per capita GDP (PPP) exceeds that of most nations of southern and south-eastern Asia. One new sector bringing about economic growth in Bhutan is tourism of a special kind: environmentally conscious, upmarket travel. And there is good reason for that to happen. Since foreign visits were legalized in 1974, the country has successfully marketed itself as a destination of unique, preserved cultural traditions and an untouched natural environment with an astounding degree of biodiversity. In net terms, in fact, Bhutan is the only country in the world with a negative balance of greenhouse gas emissions. The immense forests covering more than 70% of the country more than match the carbon dioxide emitted. The forests and the wildlife are strictly protected by government regulation and so are many cultural traditions. Thus, travel to the country only works by means of officially approved tour operators and mandates a minimum daily fee of 200$ to 250$ for lodging and supplies, rendering independent and individual tourism impossible. All of this is part of Bhutan’s governing national philosophy, which is the strive to increase the collective happiness of the people.

The concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), a term unmistakably devised in response to economic wealth measures such as GDP or GNI, is enshrined in the recent Bhutanese constitution of 2008 and has been serving as a guideline for all government action since the 1970s. It is based on four pillars, which are sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good governance. Among other gradual implementations of GNH measures, happiness surveys are conducted by the government to measure welfare and progress in the country. The results of this longstanding policy have been remarkable. Bhutan has experienced a development of democratization initiated by the king, resulting in the implementation of a constitution that turned the nation from an absolute monarchy into a parliamentary monarchy with free elections and functioning institutions. Evidence thereof, for instance, is the fact that the National Assembly even possesses the right to initiate an impeachment process to have the king involuntarily abdicate. Other features of this happiness-based policy include a high degree of economic freedom, peace, low corruption, and the enshrinement of human rights in the constitution, which are deemed essential for the attainment of GNH.

Traffic Policeman in Thimphu

A rather peculiar consequence of the government’s cultural preservation efforts is the slow adoption of foreign habits and technology. For example, traffic lights were implemented for a mere day in Thimphu, the capital, only to be removed in an instant due to the feeling of inappropriateness and difficulties concerning habituation. Smoking is prohibited and a ban on television was only lifted in 1999. The country is also showing convincing efforts regarding environmental conservation. More than 40% of the territory remains under national protection, and environmental standards can be found in the constitution, too. Electric cars already constitute a substantial share of all vehicles, powered by the country’s green energy generation.

Nonetheless, Bhutan has not been free of human rights concerns. Ethnically and linguistically diverse, the country has been accused of human rights abuses against the Lhotshampa people in the 1990s, of whom many still reside as refugees in Nepal. In addition to that, the presence of religious freedom is frequently questioned as the dominant role of Buddhism seems to undermine the rights of religious minorities. Likewise, women’s and LGBT rights continue to fall short of standards in the Western world. This, among others, raises the question of whether the adoption of GNH as the principal measure of national progress seems appropriate, especially when contrasting it with conventional measures of the fiscal type.

One conspicuous problem of the Bhutanese approach is the task of quantifying happiness. The goal of increasing the happiness of the people seems reasonable, since happiness can be considered a favorable goal of government policy. The discipline of economics, especially in its classical approach, has thus far laid its emphasis on the generation of material wealth assuming that to be the obvious source of contentment, while overlooking other potential foundations of happiness and hence putting aside the question of what really does make us happy apart from monetary affluence. And, although utilitarianism does play a role in the microfoundations of economic theory, it has been largely neglected for the account of national wellbeing. The difficulties, however, already start with both defining and subsequently measuring happiness, which ultimately makes it a philosophical question rather than an economic one. The emerging discipline of happiness economics tries to get hold of it. Yet, even if happiness could be measured properly, long-known economic questions regarding the distribution of “wealth” and Pareto efficiency can not be done away with. There have been various attempts at gauging happiness across different countries, and the results regarding Bhutan in particular have been very ambiguous, which is mainly due to differences in methodology. The Satisfaction with Life Index ranks Bhutan among the happiest in the world, supporting GNH as a goal setting, whereas the World Happiness Report implies that overall happiness in Bhutan lies far behind those of the world’s developed nations. Thus, it is perhaps not appropriate to assess GNH by some arbitrary measure of happiness, but rather to evaluate the effect of its policies on less abstract factors that can be measured more easily, such as human development and environmental scores. In this regard, Bhutan is arguably doing well. Although the country will most likely not be able to depart from its LDC status very soon, progress in the country in terms of sustainable growth and political stability is steady and may be evaluated very positively in comparison to its neighbors in the region. It remains unclear if this is because of the government’s GNH policies or rather due to historical, geographical, and demographic circumstances that happen to be conducive to the country’s development, considering the small size of Bhutan’s population, its location in the Himalayas and its history free of colonial rule, which distinguishes it from India, for example. But perhaps GNH provides an ideology favorable to the development of the country as it fosters the implementation of good institutions and sustainability. Regardless of the size of this effect, the Bhutanese approach proves useful for evaluating government policy and can therefore, perhaps, teach us a thing or two for our own pursuit of happiness.


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