Last year, Oct. 4 to be precise, an interesting article appeared in the New York Times titled “A New Measure of Well-Being From a Happy Little Kingdom.” It described how they measure the good life in the kingdom of Bhutan, a largely Buddhist Himalayan country moving towards constitutional democracy.
According to the article, rather than focus on gross domestic product (GDP) as a measure of progress and welfare, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck decided in 1972 “to make his nation’s priority not its G.D.P. but its G.N.H. or gross national happiness.”
“Bhutan, the king said, needed to ensure that prosperity was shared across society and that it was balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government.”
Leave it to the Buddhists to put the “enlightened” back in enlightened monarchy. “Right livelihood” has been a feature of Buddhist teaching since the wheel of dharma first turned 2500 years ago. This is usually interpreted to mean that one’s way of making a living should be consistent with one's spiritual practice, as in nonviolence, not taking what is not given, not deceiving others, etc.—can you imagine a world economy based on that?
Probably the best known semi-Buddhist approach to economics was E. F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, published in 1973. In general, more and more Buddhists around the world are committed to “engaged Buddhism” which focuses on peace and social justice.
Meanwhile, back in Bhutan, household income is low, but life expectancies jumped by 19 percent to 66 years between 1984 and 1998. Some characteristics: tourism is limited, 60 percent of the land must remain forested, and hydropower is exported to India. This being samsara, the Buddhist realm of suffering, birth and death, there are still problems even there.
Whatever the quality of life may or may not be in Bhutan, they are on to something in dethroning GDP as the sole measure of well being. GDP measures goods and services produced, not whether the goods are good or the services serviceable. Lots of things don’t show up on GDP, such as the unpaid labor of women who raise children and keep families going.
Lots of things that do show up on GDP can be pretty negative. For example, Hurricane Katrina probably contributed by GDP due to all the resources spent on the inadequate cleanup and rebuilding. If your roof falls in and you have to pay to get it fixed, you contribute to GDP although you’d probably rather it never happened to start with. If a loved one dies, funeral expenses contribute to GDP. You get the idea.
Other countries are starting to look for different ways of measuring well being, an idea first attempted in Europe during the Other Enlightenment in the 1700s. These measures might include health, living standards, free time, family, volunteerism, etc.
A bigger problem than measuring happiness, however, is making it more widely available and reducing needless misery.
(Next time: summing up and what does social science say about money and happiness?)
GOAT ROPE ADVISORY LEVEL: HIMALAYAN