Friday, February 25, 2011

Happiness and Bhutan

King Jigme Singye Wangchuck: The Happiest Bhutanese?
It's not for everybody, but still...

The concept of gross national happiness (GNH) was developed in an attempt to define an indicator that measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms than gross domestic product (GDP).

It is not clear just when Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth King of Bhutan, came up with the idea of substituting a Gross National Happiness Index instead of the more common gross domestic product to measure social, economic and political changes in his isolated Himalayan Shangri-la.

But substitute he did. The index was inaugurated and launched by the country by the Prime Minister on Nov. 24, 2008 when he passed his crown – and a newly-fledged democratic nation – to his Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, in 2008. The elder Wangchuck had been working on the concept for decades.

And, while it might sound like something that sprang from the hippies of San Francisco during the Summer of Love, Bhutan takes it very seriously. And perhaps so should Gen. Than Shwe and the Burmese government, for instance, or perhaps Kim Jong-un, the incoming Young General who will take over North Korea from his despotic dad.
And, of course, there is the small matter of the 100,000-odd ethnic Nepalese that the King Jigme Singye kicked out of Bhutan and who lived for several decades in seven UN refugee camps in southeastern Nepal until the United States offered to take 60,000 of them and five other nations each took 10,000 for resettlement. They appear to be looking Gross National Happiness in nations far from Bhutan.
Nonetheless, in 2008 the kingdom established an entire new institutional structure, with GNH committees at the ministerial, district and block levels to help shape the nature of Bhutan's political economy, legal foundation, health and education systems.

Happiness, the government says, "is a subjectively felt public good. Happiness is a public good, as all human beings value it. Hence, the government of Bhutan takes the view that it cannot be left exclusively to private individual devices and strivings. If a government's policy framework, and thus a nation's macro-conditions, is adverse to happiness, happiness will fail as a collective goal. Any government concerned with happiness must create conducive conditions for happiness in which individual strivings can succeed."

Coming up with an actual barometer to gauge national happiness isn't easy. The Centre for Bhutan Studies, headed by Karma Ura and headquartered in the kingdom's capital of Thimpu, has published a 6,600 word treatise on how it was developed to reflect GNH values, set benchmarks and track policies and performance.

Despite the fact that happiness is extremely subjective, the center has come up with an extremely detailed metric system to guide practical policies and programs. Screening tools are used for selection of policies and programmes, which are aligned with GNH. To develop these tools, the government chose at random 350 respondents in nine Bhutanese districts and spent an average of seven to eight hours to interview each one.

Ultimately that was cut down to a half day each and the survey was expanded to 950 respondents, who were each asked a total of 188 questions concerning psychological wellbeing, health, time use, education, cultural, good governance, ecology, community vitality and living standards in a mixture of objective, subjective, and open-ended questions.

"The subjective voice that has been relatively neglected in social sciences as a whole and in indicators in particular has been restored in GNH indicators to produce a balanced representation of information between the objective and the subjective," the center said.

"The distinction between subjective and objective is but an abstraction from reality, given that from a Buddhist view, they do not exist. What exists in a fundamental way is relationality (as opposed to subject and object) at all levels, which can only be assessed by a broad range of social, economic, cultural, and environmental indicators.

"Seen in this way, happiness and well-being are ultimately a way of being that is affected by and affects relational quality, which changes in meaning over time with deepening sensitivities to the world around us and with our understanding of what is important or valuable for us and for all sentient beings."

People, the center says, "can make wrong choices that lead them away from happiness. Right policy frameworks can address and reduce such problems from recurring on a large scale."

In some branches of the behavioral sciences, the report says, the mind is conceived of as an input-output device responding to external stimuli, with happy and pleasurable feelings seen as dependent solely upon external stimuli. Happiness is perceived as a direct consequence of sensory pleasures. With such an overemphasis on external stimuli as the source for happiness, it isn't surprising that individuals are led to believe that being materialistic will increase their happiness.

But there is a contrary tradition to the external stimuli based happiness that point to a different source of happiness, showing that pleasurable feelings will be generated by shutting down sensory inputs and the related mental chatter.

"This involves secular meditation whereby the individual experiences the subject itself, as opposed to the subject perceiving external stimuli. There is much less external input to happiness through contemplative method. Long enough meditation may lead the brain structure (neural pathways) to be changed such that calmness and contentment will be a personality trait. In other words, the mental faculties can be trained towards happiness. From a contemplative perspective, extreme reliance on externally derived pleasure distracts the individual from inner sources of happiness, elevating the latter."

A measure of Gross National Happiness might be presumed to comprise a single psychological question on happiness such as 'Taking all things together, would you say you are: Very happy, Rather happy, Not very happy, or Not at all happy.'

But not in Bhutan. The GNH indicators have been designed to include "nine core dimensions regarded as components of happiness and well-being." They were "selected on normative grounds, and are equally weighted, because each dimension is considered to be relatively equal in terms of equal intrinsic importance as a component of gross national happiness."

The nine indicators include psychological wellbeing, time use, community vitality, culture, health, education, environmental Diversity, living standards and governance. Each of these is then broken down. Psychological wellbeing, for instance, include general psychological distress indicators, emotional balance indicators, and spirituality indicators. The community vitality indicators consist of a family vitality indicator, a safety indicator, a reciprocity indicator, a trust indicator, social support indicator, socialization indicator and kinship density indicator.

The index itself is constructed in two steps, one of which "pertains to identification and one to aggregation." From that point onward, the methods of measuring gross national happiness become too complicated to describe. Best to look up the Index itself from the Centre for Bhutan Studies. By John Berthelsen

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