Special Lecture by Royal Highness Ashi Kezang Choden Wangchuck


14th February 2012 at Ryukyu University, Kyoto, Japan.

On Gross National Happiness: Bhutan's Development Philosophy

It is with honor and pleasure that I bring to you the warm greetings of His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, the King of Bhutan. It is also my privilege to be the bearer of the message of good wishes from my father, His Majesty the former King, for the happiness of the Japanese people. My family and the people of Bhutan have always admired your great country for its achievement of the highest level of economic prosperity through innovation, industry and extraordinary harmony.

And as a unique cultural entity and peace-loving nation, you are an inspiration to all other nations. I am therefore truly pleased to be visiting Japan for the first time and to have this opportunity to share with you the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) which was conceived by my father to put the Kingdom of Bhutan on a course of meaningful transformation. Bhutan is encouraged by your interest and sees it as a further sign of the growing belief of the international community in the relevance of our development experience to the larger world.

Having ascended the throne when he was barely 17, my father felt the full weight and enormity of his responsibility as the head of state and government of an absolute monarchy. Yet, vested with the complete faith of the people in his capabilities, he did not have the benefit of a Council of Regency even in the early years of his reign. In assessing the challenges that lay ahead, he realized that his country was changing as a consequence of more than a decade of planned development and modernization. While some of the changes gave him reasons to be proud, he was troubled by certain trends that did not bode well. He wondered whether development as it was being undertaken would actually improve the true well-being of his countrymen. His enquiry into the deepest yearnings of his people led him to travel through the length and breadth of his kingdom, and his intimacy with the people convinced him that happiness is the single most important desire of every citizen. Nothing else mattered more. Having then understood that the purpose of national development must be the promotion of happiness at the individual, community and national levels, he searched for the most suitable means for its attainment.  

He discovered that despite their claims to being different, all development models are essentially the same. None of them aspires for or even acknowledges happiness as a goal. None of them offers a paradigm for development in a way that is holistic, sustainable and meaningful. Guided by the notion that development is a continuous pursuit of higher economic growth, all of them aim to enhance material standards of living by raising gross domestic product (GDP). Fortunately, in recent years, this universal indicator is being supplemented by other yardsticks, which include unemployment, social services, infrastructure, and rule of law, among others. While all these are extremely important and essential to physical wellbeing, security and intellectual growth of citizens, they ignore the social and ecological costs at which growth is promoted. Likewise, no serious attention is given to how the benefits of economic growth are to be shared among the citizens. That, even as some prosper, gross inequities might eventually diminish society's collective wellbeing and long term sustainability, is beyond the concern of the development models.

One of the biggest defects of the conventional development models is their failure to recognize that human beings have equal needs for growth and development of the mind and the body. The GDP-led models do not address spiritual, emotional and psychological needs that form the primary basis for altering individual and collective happiness. His Majesty was especially concerned that culture and traditions, which are the products of human civilization and expressions of human values, usually find no place in development schemes. While these are critical to an individual's sense of identity and self-esteem, their role in promoting and sustaining social cohesion and furthering true human development is largely unappreciated. Instead, by unleashing the baser instincts of greed, survival and competition, development with its commercial ethos is morphing human beings into economic animals with a voracious capacity to consume and waste. It is this dehumanization that now fuels the market, which has become the life force of modern, industrialized societies. 

The race to acquire, accumulate and consume more has already diminished the capacity of our planet to sustain life. The demand for more, faster, and better "goods" is met through the miracles of technological innovation for efficient mass production systems that rely on gargantuan machines to extract with enormous speed the diminishing resources of the planet. Waste and pollution of the increasingly hazardous kind are the direct results. Water sources are drying up. The Himalayas and even the Polar Regions are shedding their snow and ice to cause rise in the sea levels. It seems only natural that as Mother Nature is abused and destabilized, she should react with what has become a global phenomenon of natural calamities of increasing frequency and devastation. In recent years, the very severe flaws in the development models that emphasize economic development have caused the collapse of economies resulting in a series of financial crises at the regional and global levels. After the more recent and severe jolts, in which millions lost their jobs, homes, hard-earned savings, and the near collapse of some of the most venerable financial institutions, we are desperately looking for signs that the worst is truly over.

The world has never before suffered so many inexplicable economic crises in such a short time. Likewise, nature has never struck mankind with such fury in so many ways and with such rapidity. Never has it destroyed so many lives costing society incalculable damage including setting back nations from gains in the advancement of basic human conditions in some of the poorest countries. As if these were not enough, we must now brace ourselves for the greatest and most painful form of disaster that is already in the making. And I am referring to the social catastrophe that will strike as a consequence of the cumulative effect of economic and ecological devastations.

Of the many signs we see today of the impending social disaster is the paradox of rising wealth amid multi-dimensional societal impoverishment. More people are trapped in abject poverty as the world experiences unprecedented prosperity and affluence. As all nations become militarily stronger, their citizens live in the shadows of insecurity and fear. Freedom and equity remain mere aspirations even as more democracies are born from sacrifices and struggles for hope. As the world becomes smaller and urbanized and as people are crammed together into ever shrinking spaces, isolation, separation and loneliness are everyday realities for an increasing number of people. It is no wonder that today the biggest illness that plagues mankind is depression arising, among others, from failure or absence of meaningful relationships. In fact, it is during times of the year when families and communities ought to celebrate their cherished bonds that loneliness drives the largest number of people to suicide. These are indeed signs of our civilization having become materially richer at the cost of psychological, emotional and relational integrity. The rivalry for greater wealth and the importance of self over all else are destroying family, community and social systems.

A growing number of thinkers, scientists, political and corporate leaders as well as ordinary people agree that human society is doomed to face more and worse situations and that its very survival is at stake. We need to mend our ways. We need to get away from our obsession with GDP. We desperately need to control our greed, aspire for things that will raise our true wellbeing and pursue them in ways that are holistic and sustainable. These were the very thoughts that inspired my father into conceiving the philosophy of GNH. It therefore seems perfectly logical that the world, under compelling circumstances, is now beginning to see the virtues of GNH as an alternative development architecture. 

The development philosophy of Gross National Happiness is my father's response to the innermost yearning of his people and his dissatisfaction with the reckless manner in which our planet is being plundered for the material convenience and prosperity of a few generations. It is a reflection of his courage to challenge conventional wisdom having pondered the meaning and purpose of life itself. He declared collective happiness the goal of our country and facilitating its pursuit the highest priority for his rule. GNH is based belief that there can be no higher purpose for development than the creation of enabling conditions for the pursuit of happiness. It is further founded on the understanding of happiness as a state of being that can only be realized by balancing gains in material comfort with growth of the mind and spirit in a peaceful, just and sustainable environment. GNH is about finding durable happiness, of the kind that does not come at the cost of the well-being of others. It is about making human life more fulfilling. It is about finding ways to build harmonious societies on mutually supportive human relationships as opposed to competition being the basis for all success. It is about having to be mindful of the truth that happiness, not merely material comfort, is the purpose of life and that it is a worthy and achievable end. It is certainly not about asceticism and denial. Here I quote His Majesty the King who said,

I believe GNH today is a bridge between fundamental values of kindness, equality, and humanity and the necessary pursuit of economic growth. The pursuit of happiness in Bhutan has been, at the broadest level, a concomitant effort to achieve four goals known popularly as the four pillars. All socio-economic programmes including political development of our young democracy must subscribe to the strengthening of these pillars, which are:

  1. Sustainable and equitable socio-economic development,
  2. Environmental conservation,
  3. Promotion of culture, and
  4. Enhancement of good governance

While these are the purposes that form the core of our development philosophy since the late 1970s, the growing interest in GNH worldwide, and the quantitative world we live in have persuaded us to develop a GNH index so that it can find wider acceptance and application against the powerful ethics of consumerism and individualism. These include the need to enthuse academics into conducting deeper research and promoting GNH values to guide societal change; to convince economists to define, promote and measure these values as real wealth to aspire for; to create an enlightened society that will want to pursue these values; and to cause policy makers to realize that there are no greater goods and services for the people than those that facilitate their enjoyment of happiness.

Real wealth and prosperity must refine human life within a resilient environment; render the future more predictable and secure; and strengthen relationships within community and family. The generation of GNH wealth must promote cooperation, social capital and contentment. They must not be of the illusory or ephemeral kind promoted by Wall Street. In developing a GNH index, the four pillars have been elaborated into a total of nine domains, which represent all the dimensions of one's life. All are considered crucial to the holistic development of the individual and society. However, it must be underlined that the cultural pillar has the maximum number of four domains, making clear its position as the principle driver of happiness for Bhutan. These nine domains and the pillars to which they belong are:

  1. Living standard, health and education that form the first pillar,
  2. Ecological integrity that constitutes the second pillar
  3. Cultural vitality, psychological well-being, time use and community vitality that comprise the third pillar, and
  4. Good governance (democracy, equity and justice) which is the substance of the fourth pillar.

Each of these nine domains is made up of a total of 72 variables or indicators. Bhutan has already begun using this comprehensive index. Surveys are carried out once every two years, with two having been completed thus far. The findings, which are made public, are used to refine public policies and programmes and to resource allocation. The first survey carried out in 2008 showed that meditation, which enhances mental well-being, reduces and nourishes spiritual vitality, is practiced regularly by only 3% of Bhutanese. As a policy response, we have now introduced meditation in all our schools. Furthermore, procedures have been established to "screen" new policies so as to ensure that they subscribe to values before they are implemented.

Bhutan's pursuit of GNH has, thus far, been rewarding. During the 33-year reign of my father, often referred to as the golden period, Bhutan witnessed unprecedented progress in all areas of development. This is best reflected in the UN Human Development Index where Bhutan moved from a Low Human Development status to the Middle Human Development level. In terms of income, Bhutan also rose from being among the poorest countries in the world to a medium income country. What is remarkable is not so much the progress against these yardsticks of which there are far better examples of success. It is the near absence of cultural, social, political and ecological costs at which our achievements have been made. In fact, Bhutan may be among the few countries where gains have actually been made in these spheres that are critical to enabling the pursuit of happiness.

Bhutan today can boast of a largely pristine environment thanks to our commitment to environmental conservation long before it became a serious global concern. With the constitutional commitment to maintaining a minimum forest cover of 60% in perpetuity, Bhutan today has an expanding green cover beyond 72%. This is complemented by an extremely rich bio-diversity that far exceeds what might ordinarily exist within any similar geographic space. Our culture and tradition—foundations for the Bhutanese way of life—are flourishing even upon having become a part of the globalized village. Our principled participation in the international fora has won us many friends and well-wishers. What will, however, stand out among the many great achievements of my father will be the transformation of the kingdom of Bhutan into the youngest democracy in 2008. Having thus achieved his life's ambitions, my father retired from his royal duties as the King at the age of 53 years. Incidentally, it was by sheer coincidence that a population and housing census which preceded his abdication revealed that 97% of the people in the kingdom were happy. These have made Bhutan a subject of interest in the context of an alternative development model. 

2008 was a historical year for Bhutan, during which we celebrated 100 years of the Wangchuck era, the enthronement of His Majesty the Fifth King and the enactment of the Constitution. The sacred document ensures that Bhutan will forever remain devoted to the pursuit of GNH. It states that, "The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness." His Majesty the King who is deeply committed to GNH has often stated that, to him, Gross National Happiness is simply development with values. This was further reflected in his Coronation address. 

Our most important goal is the peace and happiness of our people. As citizens of a spiritual land, you treasure the qualities of a good human being—honesty, kindness, charity, integrity, unity, respect for our culture and traditions, (and) love for our country. ... As long as we continue to pursue the simple and timeless goal of being good human beings, and as long as we strive to build a nation that stands for everything that is good, we can ensure that our future generations for hundreds of years will live in happiness and peace.

His Majesty firmly believes that as King, he must support and complement good governance in our democracy by ensuring that people do not despair at any time. To this end, His Majesty has established a network that monitors and supports vulnerable groups throughout the country. Members of the Royal Family, including myself, are part of this effort. Faced with the realities of a dying earth, failing economies and an impending social disaster, GNH as a holistic development paradigm is being seen as an attractive proposition. Five international conferences on GNH have been held. The OECD comprising the developed countries, has held a series of regional and global conferences in its search for a non-economic measure for true human progress. The Australians, Canadians, Chinese, Dutch and the Thais are taking the pursuit of happiness or human well-being seriously in their public policies. Britain has recently taken a decision to begin quarterly surveys starting in spring to measure General Well Being (GWB) under the Conservative government. President Sarkozy dares to be a champion against the dominance of GDP. In Brazil, there is a strong GNH following, with children in the lead and the senate having resolved to include happiness as a fundamental right. Notable economists, including noble laureates, also see the benefits of pursuing happiness as a focal point for public policy making.

Last year, Bhutan proposed the inclusion of Happiness as the Ninth Millennium Development Goal at the UN MDG Summit in New York. This is based on our conviction that as a goal, its relevance goes beyond the poor and developing member states to bind all of humanity, rich and poor, to a timeless common vision. It will be in the conscious pursuit of happiness that the very best in the nature of the human race will flourish. Through the pursuit of such a goal, we will find the reason and genius to moderate and harmonize our, otherwise, largely material wants with the other equally important human needs and nature's limitations. It is what will make life on earth sustainable. We are convinced that the way in which a nation pursues this goal will be the truest measure of its devotion to the promotion of its people's true well-being.

In closing, I would like to leave you with a thought. As with many countries, I believe that Japan, having reached the pinnacle of economic success, is now confronted with a future of slow economic growth and an aging population. Such times pose difficult challenges and call for ingenuity and daring. But, as in other countries, the temptation will be to remain on familiar grounds and to apply the same conventional solutions even though, at best, their effects will be temporary and, in the long run, even more hazardous. What I do know is that Japan will change as indeed the whole world must, and that it will do so on its own terms. In so doing, it is with deep humility that I suggest the GNH paradigm might offer useful ideas for the envisioning of a new and reinvigorated Japan, one that is truly prosperous and happy. I know that Japan has the courage and genius to lead the world into a happier and sustainable way of life.

I thank you for your kind attention.


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