Smile Census: Bhutan Counts Its Blessings with New Happiness Index To Measure Well-Being Amid Election Push
I think every school should have a Happiness Index in place.
By Peter Wonacott
THIMPHU, Bhutan -- If you're happy and you know it, and you happen to be Bhutanese, Karma Tshiteem might like a word with you.
Mr. Tshiteem is the new head of the Gross National Happiness Commission for the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. It's his job to figure out how to boost morale as this long-isolated country hurtles toward modernization.
Developed in the 1980s by Bhutan's fourth king, Gross National Happiness, or GNH, is a Bhutanese twist on Gross Domestic Product. Up till now, it has not represented an actual dollar figure, but rather, a fuzzy set of principles on the environment and culture. It has produced unique policies, such as a smoking ban, strict limits on deforestation and a dress code.
Now, GNH is about to face a series of big tests. On Monday, Bhutan will hold its first democratic election. That will install a parliament, pass a new constitution and dilute the powers of a popular monarch. Later this year, Bhutan plans to join the World Trade Organization, even though its industry comprises little more than high-end tourism and hydroelectric power.
As Bhutan enters these uncharted political and economic waters, its leaders want to prove that they can achieve economic growth while maintaining good governance, protecting the environment and preserving an ancient culture. To do that, they've decided to start calculating GNH. It means coming up with an actual happiness index that can be tracked over time.
"We are in the midst of great changes," Mr. Tshiteem says in an interview. The Happiness commissioner wears a red checkered Bhutanese robe, called a gho, and munches on betel nut as he looks ahead to his country's collision with the modern world. "If we are going to manage this change, we have to be able to measure it," he says.
WSJ's Peter Wonacott discusses Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist kingdom nestled between China and India, and its quest for modernization -- and happiness.
The elections have already introduced a new era of fractious debate, which has mostly entailed dueling allegations of vote buying. The two new political parties were formed after the fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, 52 years old, decreed two years ago that his country should have democracy to give people a greater role in government. He then stepped aside for his son to become the fifth Druk Gyalpo, or Dragon King, and to preside over what is to be called a "Democratic Constitutional Monarchy."
Dress Code: Robes
The government has contracted a local think tank to conduct a nationwide survey to determine what makes people happy and what makes them sad or stressed out. Mr. Tshiteem will use these data to create economic growth policies that won't disrupt -- too much -- Bhutan's traditional way of life.
Happiness as defined by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who is credited with creating GNH and whose philosophy still guides the commission, can be found in a life that incorporates cultural traditions and respects the natural world. Traditional Bhutanese robes are required dress for all nationals in government buildings, for instance. It is national policy for 60% of the country to be covered in forests (the actual figure is slightly above 70%). Public smoking is also banned, although widely skirted at the many new pubs and karaoke bars in the capital, Thimphu. (Please see related article.)
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Mr. Tshiteem, 43 years old, grew up like everybody else here -- closed off from the world. In the 1970s, his father worked as a wireless operator, often hauling the heavy equipment around the country on his back, so people could send messages in the absence of telephones. The family, like others, had no television.
Mr. Tshiteem recalls coming home from school one day to inform his mother that someone had walked on the moon, about a decade after the first lunar landing in 1969. "She thought I was pulling her leg," he says. Although his generation was among the first to head overseas for education -- he earned an MBA in Australia -- he could until recently look out his office window and see only a few cars. Mr. Tshiteem quickly rose through the government ranks, mostly in finance and planning positions.
In August, he was appointed to be the secretary of Bhutan's planning commission, which early this year was renamed the Gross National Happiness Commission. The change was the king's way of prodding government planners to apply the principles of GNH to Bhutan's economic challenges, Mr. Tshiteem says.
By traditional economic measures, Bhutan is doing pretty well, averaging about 7% growth annually over the past decade. That's on par with its neighbor India, but slower than China to the north. About one quarter of the country lives below the poverty line, and an expanding population of young people are in search of jobs, says Mr. Tshitseem. "We must keep up with the aspirations of our children," he says. But he says fast growth should also not usher in a consumerist invasion that affects the national mood.
The Center for Bhutan Studies, a local think tank, has been devising a way to quantify that mood. It is developing a GNH index based on extensive public surveys. Researchers have fanned out across the country, interviewing more than 1,000 households, according to Karma Ura, head of the center. The sample size is considered large in a country with only 750,000 people and not a single traffic light.
Outside the government high school in Thimphu, 29-year-old researcher Karma Wangdi recently interviewed Bhanaan Humagai, a 16-year-old high school student.
Question: On a scale of 10, how happy are you?
Question: How stressed are you?
Answer: Somewhat stressed. I am studying for exams.
Question: Have you ever thought of suicide?
Answer: No! (laughs).
The nearly 300 questions take several hours to complete. Afterward the Center for Bhutan Studies tabulates the data and pinpoints sources of unhappiness or tension among the people. Mr. Wangdi, the researcher, says people seem generally unsatisfied with the nation's courts and also tend to distrust one another, but the center is still trying to figure out why.
Some questions have elicited unexpected responses. Concerns about safety were high in Bhutan's rural areas, for example, not because of crime, but because of fears of wood spirits and wild animals. It also found that attendance at Bhutan's once-popular cultural festivals had dropped sharply.
"Everybody must have meaning in his life," says the center's director, Mr. Ura. He wears a red sash over his gho and carries a sword -- signs of his elevated status as a Dasho, a title conferred by the king. "A long life isn't necessarily a happy life."
At the end of last year, the center shared results of its initial survey of similar size with Mr. Tshitseem and other officials at the Happiness Commission. The results of the second survey should be completed in the coming weeks, offering the first comparison measure of GNH growth, says Mr. Ura.
Some critics have said the idea of GNH obscures the fact that Bhutan remains a poor country with unimpressive infrastructure. The country has also come under criticism for policies that led to the forced deportation of many ethnic Nepalese, who were accused of coming and settling illegally. "It's not gross national happiness, it's gross national sorrow," says Balaram Poudyal, president of Bhutan People's Party, a group of Nepalese exiles.
Mr. Tshiteem counters that the concept of GNH has forced him to think more broadly about what adds and subtracts from a person's well-being -- and how that affects the national mood. GNH isn't a tool to tell policy makers where to build roads, he says.
Mr. Tshiteem's commission also recently released a blueprint for the nation's future called "Bhutan 2020: A Vision for Peace, Prosperity and Happiness."
It contains some novel proposals. Rather than increase the population, Bhutan wants to reduce the birth rate by almost two-thirds over the next 15 years -- mainly by spreading the use of contraceptives and trying to ensure girls stay in school longer. And rather than urbanize Bhutan, which is the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined, the government wants to stay largely agrarian to protect the environment.
Being right next to India, Mr. Tshiteem has developed negative views toward industries that could help soak up Bhutan's young, unskilled workers and fuel growth. On outsourcing, he says: "Stay up all night, sleep all day, I wouldn't want to see my kids in a job like that."
And on fast food and McDonald's, he wonders whether possible health problems and the impact on Bhutan's culture would outweigh the benefits of job creation and potentially higher prices for farmers. "Maybe," ventures the Happiness commissioner, "Bhutan can be a small island, free from the golden arches."
-- Krishna Pokharel contributed to this article.
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