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The Happy Factor
If Bhutan’s experiment succeeds or fails, many will credit or blame the country’s very Buddhist (or very eccentric, depending on whom you ask) notion of “gross national happiness.” In the late 1980s, Bhutan’s University of Oxford-educated king famously asserted that gross national happiness (GNH) was more important than gross national product (GNP). Among the core principles of GNH, he said, are good governance and sustainable economic development, cultural and religious preservation, eradication of poverty, and environmental protection. More recently, health care and education have been added to the concept.

Even those who like the idea of GNH would admit that it is half-baked. The Centre for Bhutan Studies, the agency in the capital city of Thimphu responsible for the promotion of GNH nationwide, concedes that GNH can’t be measured yet – but promises it will be someday. The center is already trying to create a baseline. In May, Bhutan’s first nationwide census set about trying to find out whether people are happier than they were 10 years ago. Conclusions will be published next year.

It’s easy to find GNH quaint. Nevertheless, when I was in Bhutan earlier this year, everyone I spoke to – from intellectuals to entrepreneurs to young students in the countryside – said GNH was a good way of keeping government honest.

In his modest office in Thimphu, over a cup of ginger tea with milk, Prime Minister Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba told me, “Bhutan’s most valuable assets are its culture, religion, language, environment, and people. In a sense, we’re like any small company with a niche. We must modernize to survive. But we must do it in a way that ensures that we are not destroying, in the process, what makes us unique. GNH was the king’s effort to make sure that we don’t lose ourselves in modernization.”

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