In Pursuit of Gross National Happiness

Whenever I teach my undergraduates the meaning of measuring the economic development of nations, I always mention the one country that does it differently.  This is the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan.  I know that you all think I’m biased here, because I am a Buddhist in the tradition of the Himalayan region.  (My Guru is a Tserpa Lama from Nepal and my lineage’s monastery is from a mountain vally of Mt. Everest.)  However, I’m always pleased when Bhutan lives up to and beyond my expectations. Both Nepal and Bhutan are among the world’s newest democracies.  Nepal has had many struggles (some violent) to achieve its new form of government.  I’m pleased to say my Lama’s wife, Ang Dawa is now sitting in its newly formed parliament.  I’m even more pleased to hear the words of Bhutan’s first elected prime minister.  Among these is that he is still measuring the country’s progress by not only the Gross National Product, but by its Gross National Happiness.  This was something the  last monarch held in esteem.   My Lama is always trying to convince me to come to Nepal to live and teach; something I will most certainly do in the future when the last daughter is firmly planted in her life.  However, if I could choose a country to work with, it would be Bhutan.

thinleyJigmi Y. Thinley is now Bhutan’s first democratically elected prime minister.  He sees his first job is to prove to his constituents that democracy is worthwhile.  He was elected in a very uneventful campaign between two highly similar parties.  He was recently interviewed by the WSJ (see above link) in New York City.  I found this quote inspiring.

Mr. Thinley outlines his idea of good governance: “We have to ensure that in the first five years of our governance we act completely within the confines of the constitution . . . that the rule of law prevails under any circumstance. . . . We will respect and ensure the absolute separation of the three branches of government, that’s the judiciary, executive and the legislature.”

He describes the process of drafting the constitution — there was a committee that referred to the constitutions of the world. Mr. Thinley says the U.S. constitution “defined the conceptual framework within which all other constitutions have been drafted. And so the United States Constitution was certainly a major document that inspired and that was referred to by the constitution committee.”

It is refreshing to hear that new democracies realize what our recently ‘elected’ leaders have forgotten.  It is all about the rule of law.  It is about the Constitution above all.  When you consider that Bhutan has provided refuge to many Tibetans fleeing religious and economic persecution by the Han Chinese,  it is wonderful to hear an elected official that gets it.

Democracy, according to Mr. Thinley, boils down to “the empowerment of the people, the freedom of the voter. . . . giving the capacity to the individual citizen to determine his or her own destiny,” he says. “Now if these are what democracy provides, then I would say that regardless of what culture you belong to, democracy is essential.”

Prime Minister Thinley is not giving up on the idea of promoting Gross National Happiness–something that it seems only a benign monarch could grant to his beloved peoples.  This is probably most telling about a leader who believes he was elected to serve the people; not have the people serve his ego.

Mr. Thinley will continue to implement the government policy of GNH. Happiness is not hedonistic, “it is not the kind of fleeting pleasures that we seek.” It has to do with “being able to balance material needs of the body and the spiritual needs of the mind.”

He says the conditions for the pursuit of happiness have four pillars: Equitable and sustainable socioeconomic growth; conservation of the fragile Himalayan economy and environment; cultural preservation and promotion — and good governance.

Mr. Thinley admits that there’s a limit to what the government can deliver. It can try to create the right conditions, but “the individual himself and herself must pursue happiness.”

I wish Mr. Thinley and the people of Bhutan nothing but continued growth in both GNP and GNH.