What is it about Gross National Happiness that has made it so attractive internationally, in some ways even more than in Bhutan itself? What is it that has drawn the attention of the world to this remote kingdom in the Himalayas? What makes the GNH approach to development so interesting, attractive, and unique?
There are a few key aspects of GNH that separate it from other approaches and measures of development. GNH certainly focuses more on equity in development, and its attention to sustainability is far more comprehensive than any other approach. But what really makes GNH unique and indeed transformative is two-fold. Although one might note that these two aspects of GNH are like two sides of the same coin, at least in a country like Bhutan that still retains much of its traditional culture. These aspects are culture and community participation, and the religious/spiritual dimension that GNH posits as essential not just to development but to happiness. It is here that other definitions of development have, thus far, fallen short. It is this that makes GNH a truly unique development paradigm.
Many would argue against the need to consider the cultural and spiritual dimensions of development. In the world of modernity, with its Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment values, culture and religion have often been seen more as hindrances than aids to development. Now, while this antiquated mind-set has in many ways been disproven, it still affects many of the assumptions upon which the international development agenda is based. But as Bhutan seeks to guide the creation of a ‘New Development Paradigm,’ it seems to me that if these dimensions are not included, we will not truly be able to alter the current development trajectory.
As long as we continue to define development solely in material terms and continue to define ourselves solely in relation to our physical bodies and environment, we can only continue to seek happiness and well-being in the material world. But as long as we do so, we are destined to go deeper and deeper into materialism and environmental crisis. As long as we continue to ask from the world around us questions about what life is for, we will only get answers that lead to further material expectations, further greed, and further devastation. Until we acknowledge that there is more to human being than what we can see and touch, we are doomed to continue the mistakes that have led to the global challenges we currently face.
GNH is likely the only existing development paradigm that is comprehensive and holistic enough to truly address these issues, and brave enough to define human beings as more than just physical bodies. It is only the brave solutions that will get us out of the crises we face, and that can truly lead to a new paradigm that is not based solely on empirics, measurement, and materialistic definitions.
I believe that this is the reason that GNH is so popular and attractive to so many. Whether or not Westerners would frame it in this way, there is something within GNH that people are drawn to, something attractive at a level beyond the material, something that points to a higher purpose, and a higher source of happiness, than the current materialistic paradigm. I pray that this is not forgotten as GNH is translated into a New Development Paradigm.
What can the GNH approach to development contribute internationally then? Already it is being translated into a universally applicable ‘New Development Paradigm,’ and this is a positive step. But in the effort to translate it out of the Bhutanese context there is a risk of religious and cultural dimension being lost. While the Buddhist context of GNH certainly needs to be universalized to make it accessible internationally, this does not mean removing the religious dimension in favour of something scientific and empirical, viz. the concept ‘psychological wellbeing’ that seems to be replacing the idea of Happiness. I would hasten to point out that these are hardly the same thing; that it is a reductionist attempt to replace a spiritual concept with a materialistic one.
The main difference between these two approaches is that psychological wellbeing, while it may have a role to play, in itself can only address the symptoms of a problem, while the religio-spiritual paradigm that Happiness represents seeks to get at its root. No one goes to a psychologist to address concerns that they will have in the future. This is the role that only a healthy and holistic religious or spiritual paradigm can play. And no true and meaningful solutions can be found as long as we continue to only address the symptom. As long as we insist on doing so, we will never really achieve a new paradigm.
What can be done then? How can GNH be translated into something applicable on a universal scale? My response to these questions is two-fold. Already I’ve touched on the need to recognize the non-material dimensions of humanity. To do so, those dimensions of the GNH index that attempt to recognize and quantify these dimensions of human being should not be lost in the translation of GNH into a global New Development Paradigm. Universal equivalents of ancient and proven concepts like karma and meditation, and virtue and prayer, need to be acknowledged and considered as real and meaningful measures of human development. Otherwise the New Development Paradigm risks not being new in any meaningful way.
The second, and equally important response is that the sufficiency dimension of the GNH index be kept and promoted. It must be remembered that MORE does not equal BETTER. The world, particularly the Western world, needs to be reminded that endless quantification will not make us happier: indeed, today the opposite may be true. It is precisely this multiplication and quantification that is destroying the very environment in which we live, and upon which all happiness is dependent. Only an approach to development that considers the qualitative dimension of human being can truly provide a new paradigm for understanding who we are and what development is really about.
To me, these are the great lessons of GNH for the world as well as a great gift from the ‘developing’ world to the ‘developed’ world. I pray that they are not lost in the attempt to create an NDP that is accessible to all.