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Gross National Happiness

What can we learn from the “world’s happiest country”?

How much do you know about Bhutan? If you’re like me, until relatively recently, your answer is “not a lot”. If you’re not like me, your answer is also probably “not a lot”. Most folks don’t know about Bhutan. It’s a small, landlocked country in the Himalayas nestled softly between the ultracolossal nations of China and India. It’s by Nepal, but the two don’t border each other – there’s a little strip of India in the way.

On the world stage, Bhutan’s a pretty minor player – you’d be forgiven for not knowing much about it. In terms of population, we’re looking at somewhere between North Dakota and South Dakota. If I hadn’t grown up in one of the Dakotas (I forget which), I wouldn’t know much about them either. I still don’t know anything about North Dakota, and I refuse to learn.

It’s a small country, but I wouldn’t say it’s uninteresting. Officially, Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy, which means it has a King, but he serves alongside a democratically-elected government, and he has to ask real nicely before he does anything. Bhutan’s not alone there; there are a ton of fake kings and queens, mercilessly silently lording over territories, super reliant on the grandfather clauses of history for keeping them in business. The difference here? He’s not just the king, he’s the Dragon King.

Bhutan’s big on dragons. There’s one on their flag. It’s a pretty cool flag. A little tough to draw from memory, a tiny bit coloring book-esque, and, hell, it’s no white guy looking at a native american, but it gets a thumbs up from me.

Bhutan’s current Dragon King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck (yes, of those Wangchucks), is famously hot as hell. On a trip to Thailand in 2006, he earned the moniker Prince Charming for his status as a royal beefcake.

But even with the Dragon King, the Dragon Kingdom falls behind in international recognition. The country’s per capita GDP is low, meaning economic output is less than most other countries, and measures of equality and human development are middling at best.

But Bhutan asks us a question: are these common statistics all that matter? In our modern, capital-hungry world snuggled comfortably under the arm of a globalized economy, it’s not uncommon to see Gross Domestic Product bandied about as a sort of definitive classification of a country’s development and status. If states were K-Pop stars, rankings of GDP are comparable to BangtanGirl2004’s TOP 50 IDOLS on Youtube; the definitive, no exceptions.

I’m not here to tear GDP apart. And, to their credit, Bhutan isn’t either. It’s a pretty sound measure of economic output, if one that ignores a pretty hefty portion of the background economy (education, childcare, ASMR tutorials) But GDP also doesn’t account for concepts like physical health, mental health, and general wellbeing. Again, to be fair, it’s not supposed to. But if we’re going to judge how a country is doing by a number on a screen, should it really be economic output? Wouldn’t we be better off looking at something like… happiness?

Enter Prince Charming’s dad, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who, during his reign, declared that “gross national happiness is more important than gross national product.”. Depending on your position, his proclamation either reads as a righteous takedown of the west’s obsession with capital or the diplomatic equivalent of a snarky jab in tune with quotes like  “looks don’t matter” and “money isn’t everything”.

Before Jigme Singye Wangchuck, happiness wasn’t Bhutan’s look. Nothing was Bhutan’s look. It’s behind the biggest mountains in the world, so it’s invisible. But after the elder Wangchuck’s speech, the country took it upon itself to rebrand. In 1998, Bhutan’s prime minister introduced the realized measurement of Gross National Happiness to the United Nations. Folks loved it. Then the 2008 world financial crisis hit, and they really loved it. In a world racked by the overindulgences of western capitalism, maybe this happiness thing was finally worth a look.

Bhutan’s definition of Gross National Happiness is… thorough. Every five years, Bhutan’s government publishes a GNH report, laying out the development of the metric and offering a picture of the country’s current standing. Kept short, GNH is calculated through surveys conducted and broken down into nine constituent domains: living standards, health, education, “good governance”, ecological diversity and resilience, time use, psychological wellbeing, cultural diversity and resilience, and community vitality.

Originally, the GNH survey took nine hours to complete. Today, through some degree of bureaucratic miracle work, it’s down to three. Participants are randomly selected and paid a full day’s wages for their time.

Questions included in the happiness survey range from quantifying the hours spent working and sleeping to inquiring about frequency of family conflict and neighborhood trust.

The study’s conclusions are outlined and made available online for free access by anyone, but, again, it’s a lot of data. The most important piece may be that Bhutan claims that over 90% of its people are happy. They break it down further, though. According to the survey, 8.4% of Bhutanese adults consider themselves “deeply happy”, and 35% are “extensively happy”. The remainder of the country’s happy folks (47.9%) are merely “narrowly happy”. They’re better off than the 8.8% who call themselves unhappy, but by how much?

Bhutan’s government has acted to bolster its gross national happiness through adoption of policies like free healthcare for all. According to NPR, most people get their electricity for no cost as well.

But the Bhutanese government isn’t the only organization ranking countries in terms of happiness. The United Nations releases its own World Happiness Report every year. If you know anything about geopolitics (nerd), you already know who wins this one. It’s the Nordics. Always.

In 2019, the top four were Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland. The Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, and Austria rounded off the top ten. The United States came in at number 19. Bhutan came in at 97, just under China and Vietnam, and just above Cameroon.

As a country, Bhutan has a high level of unemployment, low GDP, and it holds a place on the UN’s list of the least developed countries. For a country apparently focused on mental wellbeing, it plays host to only a few psychiatrists, according to NPR. Happiness is Bhutan’s brand, but peeling back the label offers a different story.

And then there’s the Lhotshampa.

The Lhotshampa are ethnic Nepali people living within the borders of modern Bhutan. They’re the country’s largest minority group, with the US State department estimating that ethnic Nepalese made up 35% of Bhutan’s population in 2008. In the 1980s and 1990s, though, Bhutan’s government decided it wanted them gone.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Lhotshampa have been victims of a campaign of forced expulsion since the early 1990s. On one end, the campaign is merely coercive, with one ethnic Nepali quoted by Human Rights Watch as claiming “they don’t ask me to leave, but they make me so miserable, I will be forced to leave. I have no identification, so I cannot do anything, go anywhere, get a job.”

On the other, it’s deliberate. Another refugee told Human Rights Watch “as we left Bhutan, we were forced to sign the document. They snapped our photos. The man told me to smile, to show my teeth. He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave.” Gross national happiness.

The Lhotshampa were initially resettled in refugee camps and communities in Nepal or India. More recently, they’ve been recognized as a displaced community and qualified for placement elsewhere. There’s been a limited resettlement of Lhotshampa people in the United States. In Bhutan, discourse over the Lhotshampa expulsion is kept quiet. They’d rather talk about happiness.

All of this isn’t to say that the Bhutanese people can’t be happy, as grim a conclusion as that may be. Instead, maybe we should recognize Gross National Happiness for what it is, an attempt by a government to set the score card by which it is judged. Bhutan wants its Gross National Happiness system to be how we rank countries, because Bhutan ranks highly in it. They’re not alone. The United States prefers GDP and military strength to measures of economic equality and equitable distribution of health care because the United States soars above everyone else in production and manpower and lags behind in, y’know, equality.

Individually, we’re prone to doing the same. In school, we’re ranked, openly or behind-the-scenes, in terms of intellectual ability. Those of us who fall behind may turn to the attractive idea of “street smarts” to bolster our position (what the fuck are street smarts?). Similarly, as adults in this financial dystopia proper capitalist society, anyone not raking in a billion dollars a minute may be liable to feeling like the low man on the totem pole and turn elsewhere. We choose the metrics by which we rank ourselves in the interest of strengthening our own self-image. Sometimes it’s not all about competition, though. As individuals, we can choose to rank ourselves not by the standards of others, but against ourselves, or the images that we aspire to.

Countries, controversially, are not people. Theirs is not a question of self esteem or psychological wellbeing, but strength as a state. Allowing Bhutan to paint itself as a happy wonderland in the face of some pretty significant internal failings feels like injustice. Similarly, allowing the United States to don the mask and cape of the wealthiest nation on Earth while repeatedly failing to improve the lives of its poorest people at a rate comparable to the regular improvement of its richest seems criminal. While we’re at it, we might as well let North Korea rank itself in hours worked per capita or me rank people by quarantine hours spent playing video games. All injustices in their own right. It’s important to judge a machine by all of its parts, good and bad. Anything else is artful lying.

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