The Star Phonix: I had an opportunity to chat with David Suzuki last fall, and after we had commiserated awhile about how bad everything is, he told me the thing that gives him the most hope. It was Bhutan’s efforts to develop using Gross Domestic Happiness as its measure of well-being.
Most countries, including Canada, use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to measure progress. Essentially, GDP adds up everything the economy produces. The bigger the sum, the better off we supposedly are.
Critics say GDP is a false measure of progress be-cause it shows all kinds of negatives as positives. When, for example, we dig up non-renewable resources, GDP measures the economic gain from the sale of the resource and fails to account for the fact that the stock no longer exists or that it has polluted the environment.
If everybody in Canada had a heart attack, the increase in medical spending and heart medications would show up as a gain in GDP. And if a terrible storm killed a thousand people, GDP would show the increased sale of caskets as an economic benefit.
Bhutan, a mountainous kingdom that opened its borders to the world less than 40 years ago, has rejected GDP as the only way to measure progress and replaced it with an alternative measure called Gross National Happiness (GNH).
GNH was first proposed informally by the fourth King of Bhutan in the 1970s. The concept implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach toward progress and give more importance to non-economic aspects of well-being.
The concept of GNH has often been explained by its four pillars: Good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation.
More recently, the four pillars have been further classified into nine domains in order to create a broader understanding of GNH and to reflect the holistic range of GNH values. The nine domains are: Psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.
The domains represent each of the components of well-being of the Bhutanese people, and the term ‘wellbeing’ here refers to fulfilling conditions of a ‘good life’ according to the values and principles laid down by the concept of GNH.
Two Canadians, Michael and Martha Pennock, developed a survey – which takes seven hours to complete – that was administered to thousands of Bhutanese citizens to provide a baseline sense of how happy citizens were, according to various GNH criteria. The baseline is useful in determining the country’s progress as it attempts to achieve higher levels of happiness.
Bhutan’s approach has long been considered an oddity, but times have changed. The UN adopted Bhutan’s call for a holistic approach to development last year and has set up a panel to look at ways the GNH model might be adopted in other countries.
Meanwhile, GNH has helped Bhutan become a leader in environmental protection, which is now a tenet in its constitution.
It has pledged to keep 60 per cent of the country in forest and banned the export of logs; adopted a monthly pedestrian day where private vehicles are banned; and decided to remain carbon neutral in its energy regime.
Interestingly, despite emphasizing happiness over materialism, over the past two decades life expectancy has doubled in the country and universal education has become the norm.
The educational approach is, however, influenced by the GNH philosophy. In addition to math and science, children are taught how to produce food sustainably, how to protect the environment and how to meditate. The idea is to prepare children to be good people, not just economic players.
Bhutan is still a very poor country and facing a precarious future as a result of climate change, which has already begun to affect things like snow and rainfall patterns and the incidence of flooding. The country cannot go it alone; its future may depend on the rest of us adopting its philosophy of happiness over material gain.
In addition to GNH, we have several indices of wellbeing to choose from, including the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (see uwaterloo.ca/ canadian-index-well-being.)
Author: Paul Hanley, Special to The StarPheonix
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