Gross National Happiness :: Global Happiness Dialogue

As-salaam ‘alaykum

How happy were you in 2016? Let’s face it, 2016 was a difficult year. The world saw increased terrorism and war; desperate refugees and migrants; Brexit caused anxiety, and so did growing nationalism; several countries saw impeachments and resignations; and many others were affected by the Panama Papers and economic turmoil.

And just in case all this didn’t depress you enough, scientists announced that 2016 was the hottest year on record.

So if you feel that climate change is real; if you feel that there’s too much social disruption and political instability; if you feel that governments are failing you – you are not alone. The simple fact is that governments have not taken the happiness of their people seriously.

This is strange, as for thousands of years people have studied happiness, taught happiness and pursued happiness. From the Buddha and Confucius in the East, to Aristotle and Socrates in the West, and many in between including the Prophet Mohammed and Al-Ghazali, great philosophers and religious leaders have devoted their lives to teaching people how to be happy.

Happiness is important. So why don’t governments take happiness seriously? And why don’t governments make happiness a public good, rather than relegating it as an individual pursuit?

That’s why this conference is important. And it is timely. After a difficult 2016, it’s a good idea to kick off 2017 by talking about happiness in general, and the role of government in creating happiness in particular.

The United Arab Emirates is well qualified to host this important discourse. After all, His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Prime Minister and ruler of Dubai, has declared in no uncertain terms that, “The job of government is to achieve happiness for people”. I congratulate His Highness for his leadership in advancing human happiness in the UAE and abroad, and for organizing this important conference.

I’m happy to report that happiness is taken seriously in my country too. In fact, almost 400 years ago, Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, our founding father, decreed that, “If the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist”.

Now Bhutan is a small country, tucked away in the Himalayas, sandwiched between India and China. We have one of the smallest economies in the world, and one of the smallest populations. So we have our constraints. But, we’ve been blessed with extraordinary leaders. Our enlightened kings have consistently made the happiness of the people their overarching priority.

This was most clearly demonstrated when, way back in the 1970s, our Fourth King famously pronounced that  “For Bhutan, Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product!”

Gross National Happiness, or GNH, is a holistic approach to development that aims to enhance the happiness and wellbeing of our people. Put simply, GNH steers the government away from chasing unrestrained material growth, towards sustainable economic development that is balanced with social progress, cultural protection, environmental preservation and good governance.

GNH drives all development in Bhutan. And to make sure that development is truly holistic, GNH is built on four inter-related pillars.

The first pillar of GNH is equitable socio-economic development. This pillar ensures that economic growth is clean, green and equitable, and that all citizens are provided free healthcare, and free education.

The second pillar, protection of culture, ensures that in this age of globalization, we do not lose our culture and traditions. This is important, not just because we are a small country, but also because, as the last surviving Mahayana Buddhist country, we are the world’s custodians of a unique spiritual and cultural heritage.

The third pillar of GNH is the preservation of the environment. That’s why 72% of our country is under forest cover. That’s why more than half our country is protected as national parks, nature reserves and wildlife sanctuaries. That’s why we are a biological hotspot. That’s why our Constitution requires us to ensure that, “… a minimum of sixty percent of Bhutan’s total land shall be maintained under forest cover for all time.”

And that’s why we are carbon neutral country. In fact, Bhutan is a carbon negative country: our forests sequester three times more greenhouse gasses than what the entire country emits.

The fourth pillar of GNH is good governance. Our kings first focused on making the government transparent, accountable and decentralized. And then they introduced democracy. Actually, they imposed democracy! You see, our people didn’t want democracy. So it was imposed by our King, against the will of the people! What this means is that we’re probably the only country in the world that didn’t have to fight for democracy.

Today, we are a Democratic Constitutional Monarchy. And it is the responsibility of the elected government to stay faithful to the ideals of Gross National Happiness. The elected government must create happiness for the people. But we, politicians, can’t be trusted! We can get easily distracted. That’s why the Constitution dictates that, “The State shall strive to promote those conditions, that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness”.

But what are the “conditions” that enable the pursuit of GNH?

The Centre for Bhutan Studies, who are the main authority on GNH, have identified nine domains as the conditions that influence the happiness and wellbeing of people.

The first three domains are straightforward. Living standard, health and education. The importance of these have been widely accepted by all governments for quite some time now.

The next two domains have also started gaining currency among governments. They are environment and governance.

The final four domains, however, are at the cutting edge of government development policy. These are psychological wellbeing, time use, cultural resilience and community vitality.

So there you have it. Living standard, health, education, environment, governance, psychological wellbeing, cultural resilience, community vitality and time use are the domains – the conditions – for the pursuit of GNH.

“But how are they implemented?”, you may ask. How are they translated to public policy?

This is where the Gross National Happiness Commission comes in. The Commission is composed of ministers, government secretaries and heads of autonomous agencies, and is chaired by the prime minister. The main job of the Commission is straightforward: it is to ensure that all government policies are GNH-friendly.

Incidentally, this also must be what occupies Her Excellency Ohood Al Roumi, the UAE’s minister of happiness! Her Excellency is a true ambassador of happiness, and it was a pleasure to receive her in Bhutan recently.

In our case, the GNH Commission runs all policies through a GNH policy screening tool. The tool screens each and every policy against 22 indicators that influence the happiness of the population. Material wellbeing is obviously one of the indicators. But so is equity. And then there’s transparency and anticorruption. Gender is an important indicator. Pollution, public health, values and stress are some of the other indicators.

The influences of proposed policies on each and every indicator are carefully studied, debated and analyzed. And only if they pass the GNH screening tool, are they approved for implementation. Many policies don’t pass: so they are sent back for further review, revision and improvement, till they are deemed to be GNH-friendly.

Some policies face outright rejection.

Recently, the government’s Mineral Development Policy was rejected by the GNH Commission. It was considered too polluting and unsustainable.

Similarly, the Commission has decided that the government should not join the WTO, for the time being. Some members felt that increased global trade may harm the environment and erode our traditional values.

The tourism industry is subjected to a high-value, low-volume policy. And tourist numbers are strictly monitored. But don’t let that prevent you from visiting Bhutan. You should visit us, soon, especially in the summer, when my country is cool, moist and lush.

So let’s recapitulate: GNH drives all development in Bhutan. The four pillars of GNH are: equitable socio-economic development, protection of culture, preservation of environment and good governance.

To ensure that politicians and elected governments remain faithful to GNH, the Constitution requires the State to “… promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness”.

The nine domains of GNH define those “conditions” that enable happiness. They are living standards, health, and education; environment and good governance; and psychological wellbeing, cultural resilience, community vitality and time use.

The GNH Commission subjects all government policies to a GNH screening tool, to ensure that policies contribute to the overall happiness and wellbeing of the people.

This brings us to the important business of measuring GNH. We know that what we count matters. What we count gets done. What we count ultimately influences policy agendas and the decisions of governments.

The Center for Bhutan Studies has the important job of measuring GNH. The Center has conducted two national surveys so far: one in 2010, and the other in 2015. Unlike most other happiness surveys, GNH index is not just a subjective indicator of happiness.

First, on subjective happiness, people were asked, “taking all things together, how happy would you say that you are”. Overall, our people recorded higher levels of subjective happiness in 2015, as compared to 2010.

But what’s more interesting and useful, is shifting the measurement from the economy alone, or from subjective happiness alone, to include other critical domains of people’s lives, that lead to enhanced wellbeing.

That shift in measurement is achieved by studying the 33 indicators that together make up the 9 GNH domains. These include standard indicators like income, housing and schooling. But also mental health, number of healthy days, emotions and spirituality. Family, safety and the environment, are also considered. So is sleep sufficiency. And government performance.

Measuring GNH is a massive exercise. The 2015 survey had 149 questions, and each questionnaire took about an hour and a half to conduct. The 2010 survey was in fact even bigger: it had 249 questions and each questionnaire took 4 hours to conduct!

So measuring GNH is difficult. But it is important, and the results are revealing:

The GNH index increased from 0.743 in 2010, to 0.756 in 2015. So a slight improvement in the overall happiness of our people.

Overall 91.2% of the people were measured to be happy. Here the desired result “happy” simply means that 91.2% of our people enjoy sufficiency in at least half of the GNH domains.

43.4% of the people were recorded to be deeply, or extensively happy, meaning that they achieved sufficiency in two-thirds of the domains.

Compared to 2010, the happiness of women increased more than men, indicating reduced gender inequality, (which is good) but, they still lagged behind the happiness experienced by men (which is not so good!)

Similarly, happiness of rural people increased, but those living in urban areas were still considerably happier.

Farmers are less happier, than other occupational groups, which is a cause for concern as most of our people are farmers.

Single and married people, are happier than divorced or separated people, indicating that it may be a good idea to stay happily married!

More educated people, are more happier than those that are less educated.

Now here’s an important finding: compared to 2010, our people are getting more sleep. Specifically, people reported enjoying an average of 14 minutes more sleep.

And here’s another important finding: people’s perception is that government performance has room for improvement. In other words, I need to work harder! But what is surprising is that while people reported higher levels of satisfaction on government services, their overall perception on government services actually fell. So something to think about!

You get the point. The GNH index provides an abundance of interesting data.

Ultimately, the GNH index gives us a glimpse of the wellbeing of our people; a snapshot of our quality of life and how it is changing, for better or worse. But it also provides a wealth of important information. This information is used to revise or define public policy, with the aim of enhancing happiness. Let me give you two quick examples of how we used the results.

The State of the Nation I delivered last year, was based completely on the 2015 GNH survey. This compelled the government to go through the results carefully, understand them, and announce policy measures to address areas that need improvement. For example, the government decided to step up programs to improve rural livelihood. And we decided to increase maternity leave threefold, from 2 months to 6 months.

The second way we are using the GNH survey results, is by incorporating them in our five year planning cycle. We have already decided that the broad objectives, and priorities of the next planning cycle will correlate precisely with the 9 GNH domains. We have also decided that the 2015 GNH indicators will be used as a baseline for the Plan.

So this is it. A summary of what GNH means to us in Bhutan, how it is used to define government policy, and, more importantly, how happiness of the people is prioritized as a public good.

Are we there yet? No, we are not! We still have a long way to go.

Are we the happiest people in the world? Certainly not! We take happiness seriously, but we are a long way from realizing the ideals of a truly GNH society. Plus we have our challenges: poverty, unemployment, inequity and climate change are just a few of them.

But we have one big asset: our King. His Majesty the King has reminded us that, “GNH simply means Development with Values”, and that “GNH is the bridge between the fundamental values of kindness, equality and humanity and the necessary pursuit of economic growth.”

In this sense, His Majesty acts as our National Conscience, guiding us towards making wise decisions, for all Bhutanese, for a better future.

I believe that the world has also begun to take wise decisions, for a better future.

For instance, the UN has declared 20th March as International Happiness Day. This gives governments the opportunity to reflect … and to think about … if their priorities and policies, are contributing to the long-term happiness and wellbeing of their people.

More importantly, the international development community has adopted the Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious “to-do” list aimed at transforming our world. I would like to acknowledge UNDP Administrator Helen Clark’s role in spearheading the Sustainable Development Goals.

Slowly but surely, governments are accepting that the solution to happiness and wellbeing clearly lies in changing the very purpose and goal of development. If the basic purpose of development were changed, from the pursuit of profit to the pursuit of higher wellbeing in all its dimensions, the true level of happiness in the planet would certainly go up.

This is what the Stiglitz Sen Fitoussi Commission has stated. This is what the Beyond GDP initiative in Europe has recognized.

This is what the Sustainable Development Goals has endorsed. This is what the international conferences on GNH have concluded. And this, is what the array of new wellbeing initiatives to measure happiness have testified.

Here, in the UAE, you have a minister for happiness, a minister for future, and a minister for tolerance. This is groundbreaking! You are clearly ahead of the pack in defining your ultimate goal, as the happiness and wellbeing of the Emirati people. I look forward to learning from your experiences.

2016 may have been a difficult year. And 2017 may also be off to a rough start. But given the growing interest in happiness and wellbeing, and in Gross National Happiness, the years ahead are filled with promise and hope.

Bhutan’s National Anthem ends with a solemn prayer: “May the sun of peace and happiness shine over all people”.

I would like to conclude with this prayer: “May the sun of peace and happiness, shine over all people, all over the world, for all time”

Thank you. And tashi delek!

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