What do you think about a metric, where prosperity is measured not on the basis GDP, PPP or your salary but on how happy you are! And choosing Gross National Happiness(GNH) over Gross Domestic Product(GDP), Bhutan became the first country to switch over to a metric that measures prosperity by individual happiness and not just economical factors. Psychological factors like time spent with loved ones, time spent on creative activities, and meditation even. The following are excerpts from an interview of secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission, the novel name of Bhutan’s Planning Commission, with Down to Earth, an environmental magazine.

Given the complexities of a larger country, would a tool like this work in, say India?

I am often asked this question. Yes it will, but the content will vary. The idea is to reflect the aspirations of people. In these tools we are trying to bring aspects of development which people consider important but are missing from the policy making framework. So the effort in the various countries is to do what people care about. For us, culture and tradition are very important, because we see this as an important part of one’s well being. Culture and tradition is the foundation. This is a connection that is well established scientifically. Somehow, culture and tradition have been overlooked by policy makers to great detriment, with the result you see a culture of mass media heavily influencing people, marketing, going with brands. In a sense, they’ve lost what they had, which would allow them to say I’m Bhutanese, or I’m Indian. That’s important not to lose. So some other country can take our framework, but will need to add those criteria that they feel are important to their people. But in terms of the approach, I don’t see why not. In Western or other countries, we’re working on democratic ideals, the government is therefore for the people, by the people, of the people. Therefore in their policy making, we would expect they would consider whatever people really care about, and yet to think that important aspects like time-use balance, culture, community, psychological well being are just being ignored. We thrive on social relationships and when they break, there are grave consequences. Yet addressing such problems is not on the radar of governments. Look at cities growing with populations of millions and millions, yet people are getting lonelier. Policies can address such problems.

It seems you’re looking for a democratic, compassionate capitalism. Would it be accurate to describe what you are attempting as a more compassionate way of looking at development and the market?

This is an alternative approach. Perhaps it’s the influence of our Buddhist heritage, where we always look for balance, and this idea extends throughout. A balance between public and private. Examples of the worldwide financial crisis show what happens when you trust the market too much. It just doesn’t work. Too much of government does not work; too little of it is also a problem. The principle of balance which underlies GNH is critical. We pursue growth, but that growth is underpinned by some policy parameters that we have taken. For instance, carbon neutral growth, keeping 60 per cent of Bhutan’s land under forest cover in perpetuity, or 50 per cent of country being protected areas – these are non-negotiable. Within this, clean technology, sustainable practices, within this we achieve that growth rate and also reduce unemployment, spread benefits to the rural countryside. That’s what we are looking for. We do want growth, because we still have high levels of poverty. But we must go about doing this in a caring, compassionate way. We firstly recognise interdependence, for example no hierarchy between man and nature (growing interdependence). Alternative approach. We hope the approach we have taken, but we have gone through 50 years of so-called planned, modern development, but we still have a strong flourishing culture, clean environment. The model may be very small, but it is a model that is working.

GNH seems better suited to a country with either a very decentralized or a very centralized form of governance.

I agree. GNH is certainly more difficult in a bigger, more diverse, less homogenous country. But if I were to tell you that GNH is basically about four pillars, (in our more recent reworking of the concept, we have a more precise matrix, where we have nine domains,), and the nine domains go beyond what differentiates people; they are more about what unify people in terms of shared interests. One in five are conventional: health, education, living standards, environmental sustainability and good governance, but the four areas are psychological well being, community vitality, cultural diversity, time use. Now take psychological well being, where we’re just recognizing that mental well being is so important, and even in public health you see talk of moving from primary health to primordial health, and looking at lifestyle as the way to deal with health problems. The rest is about fixing problems after you let them happen. Psychological well being is a stark recognition that irrespective of whether you’re Bhutanese, Indian or Japanese, there’s a physical side to you, and there’s a spiritual side. Our physical side needs nourishment, and all that nations do with economic growth and the GDP is food for such nourishment. But our spiritual side too needs nourishment. Of course, it can come from religious practice, from meditation as a non-religious activity for equanimity. Spending quality time with your loved ones nourishes you spiritually. So when we really talk about that, I think it transcends boundaries, because there’s nothing uniquely Bhutanese there, except for one or two because of our cultural influence, we have for instance, “consideration of suicide” and “spirituality” which we consider important. Otherwise really I can’t imagine why mental well being will not be important. A lot of development is taking us away from this natural order of things, and I think the further we move away from the natural order we are going to see more of such incidents. And community vitality indicator in GNH just recognizes that. Within this, an important pillar is the family. If you focus on family for policy making, you can have more optimal outcomes in society. Parents should look after children, and children should look after parents, and not put them in nursing homes. You may increase life expectancy from 60 to 90, but for 30 years they crave company. What’s the point? Like Japan, we too want a life expectancy of 90 at birth, but when we do that we don’t want our old to live in nursing homes and grow old, they’ll still be part of a vibrant community. Such a wonderful way to lead a life.

Read the full interview here

Copyright Down to Earth 2011

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