Former Prime Minister of Bhutan: “We are economic animals, surviving in a marketplace.”
BRUSSELS — In 1972, the fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, thought that conventional development indicators such as gross domestic product focused too much on materialistic needs. He wanted a more holistic approach for development and progress, taking into account non-economic aspects of well-being as well. And so, he coined the term “gross national happiness index.”
The GNH was originally based on four pillars: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation, which were later further classified into nine domains: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. Since 1974, GNH has been guiding Bhutan’s development process, a unique experiment in the world.
Jigmi Thinley has been Bhutan’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. office in Geneva, foreign affairs minister, and the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, 2008-2013. During his years in office, he has relentlessly sought to promote GNH abroad and more particularly at the U.N. MintPress had an exclusive interview with him.
Jigmi Thinley (JT): Well it was the young king – he was 16 and a half years old then and had begun his rule as an absolute monarch – who, with a sense of inquiry into the purpose and the function of development, looked for the best model for Bhutan to follow, but he did not find a good model. Instead, he discovered that they were all basically the same, pursuing endless economic growth in a world of limited resources, a world where countries, through pursuit of this model, were becoming more divided and where the gap between the rich and the poor was continuously widening. In other words, it was all about material development whereas he realized that we, as human beings, have dual needs, needs of the mind as well as of the body but conventional development models only promoted the material needs.
MPN: We live in a globalized, interconnected world: if you have a different index to that of other countries in the world, how can you compare your degree of development?
JT: We have had no difficulties at all. We know our development partner countries in particular are interested in Bhutan’s growth process as measured through the yardstick of GDP; and we have not rejected GDP. GNH does not exclude GDP, but confines it to the role that it is supposed to play as originally conceived by Simon Kuznets, the person who established the measure after the Great Depression. Kuznets said that it was nothing but a measure of the goods and services produced by a particular place, at a particular time and exchanged in the market. He made it very clear to congress that it was not a measure of development, not a measure of societal well-being. And in fact, he was very sad to see that his GDP was being misused, because, as you know, many countries now associate GDP with well being. And this is where the mistake is.
So Bhutan uses GDP as well, but only to indicate our material or economic progress; we give equal importance to other things like environmental conservation, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and good governance; these are further separated into nine dimensions that enable true societal well-being.
MPN: These dimensions seem to concentrate on the environment and sustainable development; what about the mind, or the spiritual?
JT: That is taken care of under cultural values. Spiritual values, emotional values, the psychological wellbeing, the community vitality … All these are taken care of under culture. As I said there are nine dimensions. Together they make GNH a holistic, sustainable and inclusive development paradigm.
MPN: How do you apply these dimensions in practice? And more especially, the spiritual dimension?
JT: We do so mindfully (smile). And seriously (laugh). On the cultural side, we have always been giving importance to ethics and morality, the human values. You talk about the spiritual: we are largely a Buddhist country – though we also have a large Hindu population – and what we have tried to do, especially in the last five years, is to create the conditions for the people to practice and experience the benefits of the spiritual values their own religion may provide. In the end, what are religions? Religions, I believe, are nothing but a framework for moral and ethical values; so that you have a basis to determine what is good, what is bad, what makes you happy, what makes you unhappy, what is wrong and so on. When you do not have these frameworks – religious or otherwise maybe – this is when, I think, society goes wrong. And among other things, what has gone wrong, as a result of blind pursuit of economic growth, is that we have forgotten that we are human beings, who have needs of spiritual, emotional and psychological satisfaction and well-being.
MPN: How do you define happiness? And how can you measure it?
JT: Happiness is a state of being that one achieves when one is able to balance the needs of the body with the needs of the mind, when the material and the emotional, psychological needs are being met, within a stable, peaceful and secure environment.
The further development and elaboration of the GNH is taking place continuously through broad-based consultation across the world, but we have basically agreed that happiness can be measured in two ways: the first is the affective and emotional well-being : how are you feeling today? But then, you have the evaluative aspect of happiness, where I ask: how do you feel in terms of your life satisfaction? Are you satisfied about your life in general? And then you realize, oh, ok, it is not just about how I feel now, but it is also about my career, my income, my relationship in my family, my health. And when you take these two on a scale of one to 10, for instance, you are able to come up with a quantitative figure in terms of your level of happiness… which is all subjective.
MPN: You have been very active on an international level – and more especially at the U.N. – to promote GNH; how are these discussions going?
JT: It is going as well as it can be. From where we were, just a few years ago, when we looked at happiness as something trivial, Utopian and impractical, we have now reached a stage where the whole world takes happiness seriously together with well-being. It is now a subject of discourse, not only at the national and sub-national levels but internationally as well. The U.N. passed a resolution on happiness and it required the secretary-general to make an annual report on happiness and well-being. And the International Expert Working Group, of which I am the coordinator, submitted its first report in December 2013 with the objective of contributing to the ongoing discourse. And this includes countries like France, Japan, Italy, Germany, the U.K., and so on. So more and more people, thinkers, scientists, academics, corporate leaders are looking at happiness as a goal that we need to take seriously.
MPN: How does that translate concretely? You have been pushing for a different paradigm for many years now and–
JT: Ok, let me be very sincere here. We have not pushed. We have been pushed … to push. Bhutan never said: “We have this idea, this model.” And we did not want to talk about it. In fact, we were persuaded by the U.N. to talk about GNH for the first time in 1998, at the turn of the century; and since then the pressure on Bhutan to share our experience and to talk about it has been continuous. And so, as a moral obligation, as a member of the international community that is looking for a new vision and a more reasonable and sustainable way of life, we have been sharing our idea with the world. On a more practical level, you know the MDGs goal come to an end in 2015; we should, by then, agree on a new set of more sustainable development goals and I am quite certain that happiness and well-being will be an important element, that it will be one of the goals; and this, in turn, will hopefully contribute to a consensus on a new development paradigm.
MPN: Do you think the state has a responsibility in the happiness of its citizens?
JT: Only if a state feels that that is the universal value and the aspiration of its citizens. If a state believes that people do not want to be happy, then I don’t believe it is responsible.
MPN: Is it possible that people don’t want to be happy?
JT: I cannot see that happening, unless human beings have ceased to be human beings and lost their humanity. I think this is where the danger lies. We no longer are human beings, we are more and more economic animals, surviving in a market place. And our values are not in terms of us as human beings pursuing human values, in terms of our relationship with others, supporting each other; no, our values are nothing more than those as consumers. And our countries are increasingly defined, shamelessly defined, as consumer markets. But we are not consumer markets, my country is not a consumer market. My country is home of humanity, home to Buddhist people with emotional, psychological needs and with values far higher than just wanting to be able to buy more, consume more, waste more, pollute more.
MPN: Isn’t the state, the system, which made the humans like economic —
JT: It is GDP.
MPN: And GDP originated from the system, the state?
JT: Yes, pursuing the wrong end because we forgot we need happiness.
MPN: Doesn’t that mean that the state should be doing something about it, change the paradigm, like you did in Bhutan, in a top-down approach?
JT: No. First, the level of development differs considerably between countries. You have the mature democracies, the industrialized countries, the more educated, the less educated societies, and so on. And so the role of the state may differ. In Bhutan, the truth is, the concept of GNH came about as a result of the king realizing that the other models were not suitable. And then engaging, I think over a period of three years, in intensive discussions with the people and trying to assess what it is they really want in life, and coming to the conclusion that while the needs may differ in various ways, there is one need they all want, and that is to be happy. So rather than dictate a state of values, he articulated the desire of the people. He just spoke the mind of the people as he discovered it and as was his responsibility to do. It was not a kind of top-down sort of imposition or guiding; and then again, this paradigm is about enabling the people to choose. And if they choose to be happy, only then, create the conditions that will hopefully give them a chance to succeed, this is all.
If a Buddhist does not want to pursue happiness, then nobody can force him; you cannot impose it.