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Can Bhutan Teach The World To Be Happy?

Bhutan, total population around 700,000, measures its GNH or Gross National Happiness, and uses the data from the index to help decide how to share out government spending.
KiltedArab via Getty Images

In the bushes by the side of a sleepy road on the outskirts of the Bhutanese capital, Thimpu, a group of men in traditional dress are playing Khuru. They wear long socks and knee length Ghos - the national costume - in bright colours, and hurl large darts at a small wooden target twenty metres away. Mostly, the darts miss, sometimes landing dangerously close to spectators who must leap laughing to safety. When one of the darts hits the target, the achievement is celebrated by donning a wreath made of leaves from nearby trees, and dancing in a circle arm in arm with fellow team members. Khuru is an exceptionally popular sport in the small mountain kingdom, and undoubtedly contributes significantly to the happiness of its players. This is important because Bhutan, total population around 700,000, measures its GNH or Gross National Happiness, and uses the data from the index to help decide how to share out government spending.

The idea began in the 1970s when the previous King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced that the small predominantly Buddhist kingdom would henceforth focus its efforts on the increasing the happiness of its citizens, rather than predominantly their incomes. Some years later, Bhutan began to measure this happiness, and to attempt to identify what was driving it, as a guide for policy making. The Government website promoting this concept points out that if the forests of Bhutan were logged for profit, GDP would increase, but the Kingdom would not be better off. It goes on to quote Robert Kennedy speaking in 1968, who said of the USA that 'Our Gross National Product ...counts air pollution and cigarette advertising ... It counts the destruction of our redwoods... It measures everything, in short...except that which makes life worthwhile' (pull quote). The current Bhutanese King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, has expanded on this theme to define GNH as 'our National Conscience guiding us towards making wise decisions for a better future'.

In recent years many other nations have looked to Bhutan as an example, and have begun to measure the happiness of their own citizens. However, it is not a simple as one might imagine. While the Bhutanese do measure the happiness of their citizens - in 2015 43.4 per cent were extensively or deeply happy, a rise of 2.5 per in five years - the Government makes some fairly firm assumptions as to what might be driving that happiness. They identify nine 'domains' in which they measure progress; living standards, education, health, environment, community vitality, time-use, psychological well being, good governance, and cultural resilience. These results range from the practical - most Bhutanese have access to surprisingly good free education - to the more dictatorial - anyone working for the Government and in many other jobs must wear the national dress, whether they like it or not, whatever the weather.

Western nations, less confident of the ability of their governments to make wise decisions on behalf of their citizens, have struggled to find ways to define happiness. For several years, a group of economists and thinkers led by Professor Jeffrey Sachs have published a World Happiness Report, which explores some of these issues. Broadly, there are two ways of measuring happiness. First, simply asking people if they are happy, or satisfied, or some similar word. But this can produce odd results; a Eurobarometer survey found that 64 per cent of Danes were 'very satisfied', compared to only 16 per cent of French people. This may be amusing, but it's clearly not comparable.

Second, by using what is known as the 'Day Reconstruction Method', developing in part by the Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman, which asks people to recall what their mood was over a period of days. These two systems often produce very different results. A survey that compared Frenchwomen with women in Ohio found that the Americans were twice as likely to say they were satisfied with their lives, but the inhabitants of France spent much more of their day in a good mood. Professor Kahneman argues that 'there's a real need to distinguish between life satisfaction and mood or experienced happiness. They are quite distinct and have different causes or consequences'.

Both methods however generate interesting information for policy makers. The 2016 World Happiness Report found that factors that were driving life satisfaction were: GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support, trust (an absence of corruption in government and business), freedom to make life decisions and generosity (measured by recent donations). However, these drivers are much less helpful in explaining our moods, which seem to be more dependent on what we are doing at any one time - broadly commuting and working make us feel unhappy, whereas sex and eating produce largely positive emotions.

This is useful information for policy makers, but much more complex than the Bhutanese experience would suggest. Perhaps that's why, although many countries including France and Britain now produce various official measures of happiness, economic numbers are still far more significant in guiding politicians. One could of course take this further; Professor Richard Layard, a British economist working at the LSE, and the author of one of the chapters of the World Happiness Report, argues that against a global decline of religious ethics, we should consider 'the principle of the greatest happiness' as an underlying ethical system for humanity (pull quote). Professor Layard has also written a book entitled Happiness, which points out that as societies become richer, they do not become happier.

This paradox is the subject of significant public debate in Bhutan. Tourism is the source of much of the Kingdom's foreign exchange, but it is limited by the government, which sets very high daily taxes on anyone entering the kingdom ($65 a day per person). This has the effect of discouraging all but the wealthiest foreigners from visiting the kingdom, a deliberate policy intended to limit the cultural impact on Bhutan of contact with outsiders. According to the Kingdom's definition of happiness, this is a good thing, because it helps protect traditional Bhutanese culture, but the country loses financially by not maximising tourist revenue. There is a lively debate about whether this is the right choice, ordinary Bhutanese do not dispute GNH as the right goal for their country, but they do disagree about the best way to maximise it. Their Prime Minister, speaking last year, admitted that there is much they don't yet understand, including whether their own happiness statistics are growing fast enough. 'Is this fast or slow? he asked, 'We do not yet know, we are still learning what is a good growth rate'.

One of the most revered teachers in Bhutan was Drupka Kunley, known as the Divine Madman, who lived 600 years ago, but who is still extensively worshipped in parts of the Kingdom. He was known for some eccentric views, and also for his songs. One of his more famous sayings was: 'If you think I have revealed any secrets, I apologise; If you think this a medley of nonsense, just enjoy it!'. Good advice, perhaps, for anyone currently trying to run a government right now on the basis of measuring the happiness of its citizens.

Ed Amory is a partner at freuds

This blog was originally published in the Journal