Bhutan Strives to Develop 'Gross National Happiness'

In landlocked Bhutan, wedged in the Himalayas between India and China, development is measured in terms of Gross National Happiness. It is a part of the kingdom's effort to improve the welfare of Bhutanese while not sacrificing traditional Buddhist values. VOA's Steve Herman traveled to Bhutan to find out more.

For the 600,000 subjects of the "Land of the Thunder Dragon," happiness is roads without traffic signals. In fact, drivers will find not a single red light in Bhutan.

Happiness is spending days competing in one of the numerous tournaments of the national sport: archery. For many boys from the age of six, a happy childhood is spent as a monk in Buddhist monasteries mastering Sanskrit.

When the kingdom emerged from isolation in the 1960s, it found its neighbors measuring development in terms of Gross National Product. But Bhutan was not comfortable with that benchmark as explains the managing director of the national Kuensel newspaper, Kinley Dorji.

"And when we looked around and saw what happened we thought that was a problem, that something very important had been forgotten and that was happiness," Dorji said. "So Gross National Happiness was introduced really to give development a higher goal."

Those familiar with ways to measure development do not necessarily see a conflict between GNP and GNH. Gepke Hingst is the country director in Bhutan for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund.

"Fundamental in the Gross National Happiness is the fact of this equitable social development," said Hingst. "If you look at certain countries in the region where you see an enormous growth it might not necessarily be so equitable. And I think disparities in any society are not the way to go."

On the U.N. Human Development Index, Bhutan is climbing steadily. It now ranks one spot behind Pakistan and just ahead of Bangladesh and Nepal. While precise statistics are hard to come by, adult literacy is believed to have doubled since the early 1980s and is likely now above 50 percent. Gross Domestic Product, mostly derived from hydropower sales to India, has been growing an impressive 10 percent on average in recent years.

But for many Bhutanese, development goals remain less concrete. Equal treatment and non-violence to humans and animals alike are among the key tenants of Buddhism.

Thus Gross National Happiness means stray dogs roam freely and will not be captured and killed. Many people, to gain merit, save chickens from slaughter and set them free inside monasteries.

For one of Bhutan's senior monks, the Shingkar Lama, Ngidup, this is Gross National Happiness realized.

"I'm very proud to say that we as a Buddhist country here in Bhutan actually sort of put the teachings, the very primary philosophy of Buddhism into practice and made it a national goal," he said.

Newspaper publisher Kinley Dorji acknowledges that despite the deep connection to Buddhism, Bhutanese are not immune from desiring modern day commodities and luxurious goods, such as German automobiles or a Korean widescreen plasma TV sets.

"That's exactly why we need Gross National Happiness because you have the reminder that material achievement, material success will not bring you happiness," Dorji said.

The gauge for gross national happiness is abstract. And the head monk of the Shingkar advises not to get hung up on the numbers in the quest for happiness.

"So whether you want to enjoy it in the forms of numbers or you can say like 'I'm having like 10 happiness' a day or something, I don't know. But as long as you're feeling peaceful that's how we want the measurement of feeling happy or peaceful or whatever," he said.

Bhutan holds its first nationwide election in December, as it - under royal guidance - moves from absolute monarchy to a parliamentary government. Bhutan will soon find out whether democracy can also contribute to increasing Gross National Happiness.