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Bigthink.com: Waking to the sound of monks chanting prayers and drumming their gongs during countless traditional pujas, a ceremony of honour, worship and devotion; running up the steep Himalayan mountain slopes under colourful prayer flags hung between trees in the lush natural landscape; looking out at the expanse of forests and mountains that surrounded its capital city, Thimphu.
These are the memories that remain imprinted in my memory after two years living in Bhutan – the Himalayan Kingdom best known for its concept of “Gross National Happiness” (GNH). But, what is GNH and are the people of Bhutan really the happiest in the world?
GNH as a development philosophy in Bhutan dates back as far as 1972, when the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, announced that Bhutan would pursue “happiness” in its path towards development, rather than measuring progress merely through growth in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Revered in Bhutan for his many progressive actions as king, this forward-looking leader recognized that GDP did not take into account the ultimate goal of every human being: happiness.
What does the pursuit of happiness really mean?
John Lennon sums up the concept, and the tensions behind it, beautifully. He wrote: “When I was five years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.”
Naturally, “happiness” is a challenging goal to understand, let alone measure. Yet, since the 1970s, much has been done to move GNH from being a development philosophy to a core component of Bhutan’s development strategy – seeking to strike a balance between GNH’s four foundational pillars: sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; conservation of the environment; preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance. A few lessons on how Bhutan, as one of the smallest economies in the world, has demonstrated leadership.
Four leadership lessons from Bhutan
Bhutan’s GHN approach and concrete actions have certainly raised its profile on the international stage – touted as the “last Shangri-La”, and inspiring work at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) with their Better Life Index, and even leading dialogues at the UN General Assembly on how to create a holistic sustainable development paradigm through the pursuit of happiness. But, the most important question still remains – as a result of these measures, are the people of Bhutan the happiest in the world?
For me, this is a challenging question to answer – I met many enlightened and centred individuals in Bhutan, but I also met many who struggled to merely sustain their livelihoods. What stood out however as a unique attribute of the people I met in Bhutan is the importance they place on “time” – taking time to think, time with family, time to breathe; a recognition of time and experience past by previous generations, and the importance future generational equity. This appreciation for time, reflection and the ability to pause is something that many Western cultures have lost, yet I believe forms an important part of what makes Bhutan’s GNH philosophy work in practice.