Sunday, 8 April 2012

Bhutan - The challenge of happiness

By Woon Tai Ho, The Straits Times, 7 Apr 2012

LAST May, I visited Bhutan for the first time to help the Tsao Foundation build a sanctuary for elderly monks in Punakha. The proportion of older people has been increasing and there is a need for suitable housing for them, especially the elderly monks. Monasteries, especially those with steep stairs and unsafe toilets, can be hazardous for the frail monks and those with disabilities because of age.

My role was small; I listened and learnt, and later wrote about The Bhutan Sangha Sanctuary. I was focused on the living environment and how retirement-aged monks could continue their day-to-day study and practice of the Dharma. The project's scale humbled me. The optimistic elderly monks also left a lasting impression.

That was my closest link to what everyone else is obsessed with Bhutan today - happiness.

I left the kingdom charmed by how a country managed to isolate itself from the modern world - everyone went about in traditional garb, the men in gho and the women in kera. The towering mountains and sacred temples left the impression that perhaps Bhutan was our last Shangri-La. This tiny nation of just 700,000 people in the eastern Himalayan foothills evoked a nostalgia for times past.

I was back in Bhutan last month, this time for the Bhutanese Media Institute to train editors and senior journalists on disaster reporting (Bhutan is highly susceptible to earthquakes and forest fires). I invited Mr Alex Soh of Nanyang Polytechnic to help me. My second trip to Bhutan wrinkled its tranquil image, but in a way that has made me feel better about the kingdom. Far from being a remote hilltop nation, Bhutan has become a world leader in one very precise manner: in making happiness a truly national and growing global pursuit.

Happiness as an emotion is difficult enough to describe let alone measure. But Bhutan has fearlessly taken an alternative approach to development by placing happiness as an index for growth.

The story is by now well-known. In the mid-1970s, a young fourth king of Bhutan (grandfather of the current King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck) was asked about Bhutanese progress in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). He decided that gross national happiness (GNH) of his people would be a far more meaningful measure of progress than its material wealth.

It is revolutionary on several counts. First, happiness is an emotion and emotions are notoriously fleeting. Second, emotions are said to be impossible to quantify. Third, happiness is subjective: what makes one person happy may vex another.

There is the sheer audacity and provocation of constructing an index of national happiness. Which country dares to use happiness to measure its progress? For any head of state, isn't happiness the riskiest indicator to stay in power and lead a country?

To me, the genius lies in its dare. By putting happiness prominently as an index, it forces Bhutanese to embrace and work towards attaining it.

Ms Pushpa Chhetri, the Bhutan Media Institute head, said the GNH index has become misunderstood, loaded with fatigue, even suspicion.

'At it core, GNH is about each individual looking inwards. We cannot be truly happy when others around us are unhappy. It depends on our ability to help others' suffering.' She is fond of the word 'sustained'. 'Happiness and peace of mind cannot be sustained through endless accumulation of wealth and momentary pleasures.'

Her institute seems to underline her stance. Renting the second floor of an old building overlooking a farm, she has enough room for a lobby, her office and a toilet. The training is done in a small room where the projector does not always behave and talk to the computer. And getting videos online is a challenge.

When the GNH was raised in class, senior journalist Sonam Pelden clarified: 'It doesn't mean we do not care about our GDP, but unlike other countries, GNH is on par with our GDP.' Other students chipped in: One cannot live on happiness alone, but sacrificing happiness for material wealth is also not what the fourth king envisioned as the compass of growth.

The Centre of Bhutan Studies has been working on ways to measure happiness. It looks at the conditions and satisfaction of the Bhutanese people in nine specific aspects of life. In the capital Thimphu, sustainability adviser Isabel Sebastian said the nine areas included psychological well-being, physical health, community vitality, work-life balance, living standards, civil engagement in governance, education, cultural diversity and ecological integrity.

The Bhutanese government is consciously getting its people to make GNH a part of their daily lives. GNH is a goal that Bhutan is working hard towards.

I can understand how happiness is a personal goal, but a national goal? Yet both Mr Soh and I were impressed by the effortlessly sincere Bhutanese. They do not gush, but something about their behaviour, even the smallest ones, says the GNH has had an impact.

Bhutan is two hours behind Singapore, and waking up exactly at seven in the morning was tough. On the second morning, the wake-up call came at 7.05. It wasn't a recorded voice. The gentleman said: 'Sir, this is your wake-up call. And I am sorry for being late. I have had to attend to an urgent matter.' What got me thinking wasn't his apology for being late, but a certain earnestness and confidence about the way he said it. And I heard it in the students too. Perhaps the GNH is not about laugh-out-loud happiness; it is about being genuine. And that comes from a centredness and sureness instilled by embracing the positive.

Measuring the GNH index led to a national survey of more than 7,000 respondents in 2010. The survey asked some 250 questions and included more than 700 variables and 72 indicators conducted throughout Bhutan. The survey cut across all demographics.

The results (available from the Centre of Bhutan Studies website): Men are happier than women. In urban areas, 50 per cent are happy compared to rural areas where only 37 per cent of people say they are happy. Urban areas also do better in health, living standards and education compared to rural areas, which report better scores in community vitality, cultural resilience and governance. Overall, the 2010 Bhutan Index on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being the highest level of happiness across all indicators) scores a 7.43.

There are of course sceptics of such surveys. The single most outstanding observation for me is a nation unafraid to measure its own happiness. It has bravely pioneered a survey on its own happiness and not compared itself to other countries. International agencies such as the World Database of Happiness, using different measurement tools, do periodic surveys, but they invariably include gross national product (GNP). Of course if we look at per capita income, Bhutan is among the world's poorest.

The United Nations General Assembly hosted a special session on happiness in Thimphu, 'Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm', raising the GNH to new heights. In July last year, the UN adopted happiness as a standalone 9th Millennium Development Goal. That is, the UN has charged all its member nations to come up with their own definitions, indicators, measures and initiatives for national happiness. And it believes Bhutan's use of GNH is both a bold and inventive approach that is holistic and promotes 'sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and well-being of peoples'.

This is the culmination of recent rethinking about traditional measures of national progress that don't actually tell us much about the well-being of citizens. American researchers are finding little correlation between national income and contentment.

Policymakers and development experts are all trying to uncover the 'secrets' of enlightened GNH in this age of globalisation. Leading researchers include Nobel laureates like Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz.

The ongoing GNH fascination looks set to continue. Converts and sceptics will continue to present their cases. Bhutan has decided to conduct the GNH survey every three years, ensuring that its policies address the unhappy districts, people and conditions.

More importantly, the Bhutanese have infused GNH values into its society, life and religion. In 2009, Bhutan invited educators from 16 countries to help it saturate the education system with GNH. Teachers across Bhutan are now trained in transformative curricula and environments that will teach maths, science, languages and even sports that reflect GNH values and behaviours.

As the nation cannot wait for an entire generation to pass through a GNH school system, the Prime Minister promised to take GNH into the broader community. Since 2010, a GNH Centre for Bhutanese from all walks of life and international visitors has been taking shape.

'The experiential learning programmes at this centre cannot be boxed into any particular discipline or demographic group,' said Ms Sebastian. 'The centre aims to bring GNH into living practice, embodying human interaction and practising simple and sustainable living in harmony with nature and other beings.' The centre will open early next year for both Bhutanese and foreign companies and visitors.

There are no miracles even in Shangri-La, but they believe the GNH approach is the enlightened path. Whether Bhutan can remain uncontaminated by the globalised world remains to be seen.

On our way back to Singapore, Mr Soh quoted Tolstoy's War And Peace. 'These are the best of times, these are the worst of times,' he said with a tinge of sadness leaving the 'happy' country. 'Bhutan is opening up to the world at a most propitious time, a make-or-break time, and depending on what kind of guidance and archetype it will follow, the rest of the world waits to see with bated breath.'

A little dramatic perhaps, but then he also lectures on film production.

No comments:

Post a Comment