Bhutan and the pursuit of happiness

The Star, 22 October, 2011

Bhutan, sandwiched between India and China, is proof that happiness does not necessarily come with high income.

Timphu, Bhutan -- BHUTAN is still buzzing in elation over a royal wedding. Its hugely popular, Oxford-educated King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, 31, has just presented them with his new queen, the beautiful commoner Jetsun Pema, 21.

The Oct 13 ceremony was colourful and steeped in tradition and Buddhist religion at a monastery in the ancient capital of Punakha.

Noticeably, there were no foreign princes, no visiting heads of state at the ceremony. Just the royal family, thousands of nearby villagers and the rest of the country's 700,000 people watching the live telecast of the ceremonies on their television sets.

For the Bhutanese, the wedding was very personal. They love their young king and the kings before him and totally believe their kings love them back. Their faces flush with pride and joy when they talk of them and they directly attribute their happiness to the "humble, kind and wise" kings who have always placed their people's welfare and well-being at the top of their agenda.

The Bhutanese have much to be proud about.

Their Druk Yul (Land of the Thunder Dragon) has mountains that are still thick with trees. Their glacier-fed rivers are teeming with fish. The air is clean and, in many places, naturally pine-scented. Breathtaking mountain scenery is common.

They still grow their food in traditional ways. While we call it organic and pay a premium, it's everyday fare for the mostly vegetarian Bhutanese. The nation is an environmentalist dream.

Visitors are unlikely to see beggars or homeless people. The Bhutanese sense of family takes care of that.

Crime is rare even though many people live in poverty and have to trek hours on foot to get from one place to another.

Sexual norms are considered fairly liberal but Bhutanese are raised to observe decorum in dress and behaviour in public.

A couple come together as man and wife once they get their parents' blessings. No fuss. A man can have more than one wife. And in this fair-minded land, a woman can have more than one husband, even though this is less common.

And the surprises continue. Children streaming out of schools in traditional dress give visitors friendly grins and are quite happy to chat - in English. Yes, English is the medium of instruction.

For tourists, shopping and sightseeing is easy. There's no need to struggle in the local Dzongkha as guides and shopkeepers speak English, albeit with a heavy Indian accent as many teachers are from India.

Education and health care is free.

The Bhutanese know they have something special and they plan to keep it.

Clearly, it's a country with a unique view of life and living. Pure economic growth is not the end but just one of the means to achieve a more important objective - happiness.

This philosophy, clearly enunciated by former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, an absolute monarch who voluntarily abdicated after drawing up a roadmap to democracy, underpins Bhutan's push forward into modernisation.

Bhutan's government has taken this beyond a philosophy and beyond the usual conventional markers for GDP.

The Centre for Bhutan Studies, the government's think tank, did an exhaustive sample survey and determined that a happy society involves the four pillars of economy, culture, environment and good governance measured by 72 indicators clustered under nine domains.

A Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) has been formed and this commission reports directly to the prime minister and bears a heavy and two-fold responsibility.

It conducts surveys once every two years based on the indicators, crunches the results to establish where the nation's well-being is at that point and then screens all policy initiatives to ensure they enhance GNH. The first survey was conducted in 2008 and the next one in 2010.

"Every policy in the government, irrespective of where it originates, goes through the GNHC," said Karma Tshiteem, the commission's secretary in an interview while he was on a visit to Malaysia.

He said the nine domains included four - health, education, living standards, and to some extent, environment - found in conventional policy-making frameworks.

But the survey found five more domains that people care deeply about - psychological well-being, time use, community vitality, culture and good governance - often overlooked by governments but included in the unique Bhutanese approach to development.

Each of these was then broken down into indicators that total 72. Psychological well-being, for instance, includes general psychological distress indicators, emotional balance indicators, and spirituality indicators.

The community vitality, for instance, consists of family vitality, safety, reciprocity, trust, social support, socialisation and kinship density.

The first survey offered up interesting revelations, said Tshiteem.

Among others, the survey in this deeply Buddhist land discovered that 90% of Bhutanese don't meditate at all. Meditation is an indicator under psychological well-being.

Tshiteem said: "So what did we do with that knowledge? We introduced a whole set of activities which we call education for GNH in schools. One of these activities is meditation.

"It's not that our children have to sit in the lotus posture like some accomplished practitioner. The idea is to get them to experience stillness every day in their lives because that stillness is very powerful to stop all the distractions that life is made up of.

"It's been proven that this activity builds calmness.

"Like many habits that children carry into their adult lives, we hope that it will become part of their lifestyle. We feel that, irrespective of religious background, meditation has proven to be a very healthy activity for psychological or mental well-being - particularly with dealing in problems related to stress that people face in this modern work environment.

"In this case, it was just a policy response that we needed and we have introduced this throughout all schools."

However, some matters needed responses that required resource allocation, creative ideas and lengthy discussions with relevant sectors, he said.

"From the survey we saw that the indicator of trust among neighbours is poor in urban areas. We have to get creative and come up with ideas on what we need to do to build trust.

"So we look at what we used to do in our villages, which was what Bhutan really was until we started modernisation.

"In a village setting, the soul of the village is the temple. It is not only a place for worship, but the most important social space where people meet.

"So we could apply similar strategies in the urban areas. But this will require money - one of our responsibilities is identifying priorities and allocating resources - so we allocate resources to good ideas that we think about and leads to this. And of course, a lot of that will be learning whether we achieved what we want," he said.

Sometimes, the challenge is not just a direct response, strategy or resource allocation.

It's about "creating incentives for the types of choices we think are desirable," said Tshiteem who then used time use as an example.

"We have 24 hours in a day. We want to keep as a policy the use of these 24 hours equal among the three aggregates - work, leisure and rest.

"And we believe that for a truly sustainable and happy life, you cannot compromise these three for an extended time. You can go without sleep for one night, maybe, but after the second night I think it will have a tremendous impact on your well-being if you continue.

"Similarly, if you work too hard, however meaningful your work is, it will have a detrimental impact. GNH is about balance - leading a very balanced life.

"The policies involved in these new domains require time and not money. And you know, time is the only thing even money can't buy.

"If you look at the five new domains, you can see that you have to take the work-life balance very seriously.

"If you do not have enough time, then you cannot work on these areas because these areas, like the relationship between friends, will only flourish if you invest the time. There is no substitute for that," he said.

"We have created a GNH policy screening tool. It's almost like wearing spectacles. We put on this glass and look at the policy in question and we make sure all these other domains that are normally not considered in policy are given due weight.

"So, for instance, if the policy we're debating is joining WTO, we'll say 'what is the likely impact of joining WTO on stress levels in society? Is it likely to increase it, decrease it, be neutral, or do we not know what its effects might be?

"The tool is very simple but what it does is it fosters debate. Because it fosters this debate, I believe that, hopefully, the choices we make will be better and more sustainable ones. But it's still very early," he said.

Tshiteem is "absolutely" sure that Bhutan is on the right path as determined by the former king's logic of why happiness should be the object of development policy.

"Just look at every country. They are pursuing a model of development where they want double-digit growth. Everybody wants to become rich. Can you imagine what will happen if every country achieves this? I think there will be no planet left.

"It is just not sustainable. There is something badly wrong with the model of development that we have been taught, which is basically about endless and high growth, but in a world with very definite and finite resources. And yet we all continue to take this path.

"What we hope with GNH is, because you look at things in its entirety, you make different choices. And our hope is that as small as we may be, maybe we can influence development and hopefully change the agenda and the way people look at development.

"As our fourth King always said, 'You cannot divorce development from what people want from life. They are one and the same thing'.

"But somehow, we are pretending that what people want from life can be very different from development.

"Eventually, development must be about a happy life, a life where people evolve. I guess that would be a genuine measure of progress. The wealth of experiences, family, relationships and not money are the true measure of progress," he said.

However, Tshiteem was frank about the challenges ahead, pointing out that Bhutan remained dependent on development assistance from abroad.

For decades, India has been its primary donor in terms of money and the source of skilled workforce needed in many sectors, including construction, road building and hydroelectricity projects. The Indian rupee is used side-by-side with the local Ngultrum in Bhutan.

In return, Bhutan sells its hydro-electricity to India. Ironically, electricity revenue provided no less than 60% of the government's entire revenue in 2009, dramatically boosting its GDP, but only 66% of Bhutanese households and 39% of its villages are electrified.

Other donors are the Scandinavian countries, Japan and institutions such as the World Bank, United Nations and the Asian Development Bank.

Good repayment

According to the Royal Monetary Authority's annual report 2009, Bhutan's external debt was at US$779.9mil, 61% of GDP, mostly tied to hydropower projects, which have good repayment capacity.

"We still have high levels of poverty in Bhutan which is why, even as we talk about GNH, you can be sure our focus is very much on reducing poverty. Poverty reduction is the number one objective and our target is to reduce it from its current 23% to 15% or less in five years.

"And towards this end, we have a number of interventions such as building roads, irrigation, the usual conventional investment activities like drinking water, electricity, mobile activity," he said.

In addition, the young constitutional king, who retains the authority to grant land to people, had already gone "literally door-to-door" through many of the 20 provinces in the country giving out land to those who need it, Tshiteem said.

"Fortunately, land is something we have in plenty. So with all this, we have confidence that we will be able to address poverty reduction quickly," he said.

Each Bhutanese is entitled to own at least five acres but cannot own more than 25 acres.

Tiny Bhutan's GNH has already received much international interest and appears to have inspired the 34-member Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development's (OECD) happiness index, more tentatively called YourBetterLife Index, which was launched in May as the OECD celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.

The index covers 11 areas - housing, incomes, employment, social relationships, education, the environment, the administration of institutions, health, general satisfaction, security and the balance between work and family - and is the first concrete result of a report by former Nobel economics prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz.

The Paris-based OECD hopes to make the index applicable to other countries soon, beginning with emerging economies such as Brazil, according to OECD officials quoted by news reports.

In July, the United Nations General Assembly passed, without dissent, a Bhutanese-initiated resolution recognising the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental human goal and noting that this goal is not reflected in GDP.

Modernisation means change. But change is what the GNHC has to manage by continuing to tweak its GNH model to keep track of what the Bhutanese people care about and make sure the fledgling democratic government continues to deliver well-being to its people.

As Tshiteem puts it, "we are in the early stages of this very exciting journey".