Gross National Happiness and Buddhism



by Dasho Karma Ura


The concept and practice of Gross National Happiness originated from the former ruler, the fourth king of Bhutan, H.M. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the 1970s. The present king, H.M. Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, has proclaimed the fulfillment of GNH as one of the four main responsibilities in his reign. Thus, GNH is accorded extremely high priority in the nation. Official documents, such as the National Assembly proceedings and other planning documents, frequently refer to GNH or its Dzongkha equivalent, Gyelyong Gaki Pelzom. In April 1986 the exact term GNH appeared in an interview given by His Majesty to the Financial Times of London. The title of the article was "Gross National Happiness Is More Important Than Gross Domestic Product." In that interview, His Majesty questioned the assumption prevailing at that time that collective happiness can be attained by following exclusively the internationally accepted GDP-based development model. His Majesty chose to place strong emphasis on the fact that there is something beyond material goods that people aspire to and that economic growth alone may not achieve happiness. As part of the GNH-related strategy, His Majesty emphasized environmental preservation, decentralization of government decision making, cultural preservation, and other policies that were all quite ahead of the times. But it was not until a few decades later that opinions around the world began to take note of happiness as an interesting alternative path of economic and social development.


The Relevance of GNH for Any Nation

Happiness should be of interest to any nation in the world regardless of its religious creed or political ideology. There is no government or society that is not interested in the longevity of its citizens. In a GNH society, citizens will enjoy greater health and longevity. There are highly suggestive findings pointing to happiness as a significant contributor to improved immune function, which leads to resistance to diseases. By focusing on happiness and well-being, returns on a GNH-oriented policy will include improved health and longevity of the people, ultimately making the economy more efficient by greatly cutting health spending costs.

Another impact of GNH will be the benefit an economy receives from an increased level of creativity and the consequent increase in intangible capital. If the citizens are happy, then they will be more creative and innovative. As a result, the sector of an economy that is based upon technological innovation, organizational improvements, and those factors that drive the economy more than natural resources will be stimulated. In economies like that of the United States, one-third of the exports consists of intellectual property goods, such as cultural products, films, media, technology, software, etc. One of the main inputs to such sectors is creativity or innovation, for which citizens need the requisite autonomy and development of their mental potentials. A GNH society will enable its citizens to express their entrepreneurial qualities and thereby greatly augment the creative sector.

Yet another impact of GNH will be the ability of members of a society to bond together toward a common pursuit. Every nation is interested in maximizing its social capital by fostering the organization of its citizens through all kinds of associations that bring people together in pursuit of common goals. If citizens are happy, their citizenship qualities will be enhanced, as they will be more sociable and altruistic and thus will collaborate more actively within the organizations to which they belong.

The last relevance of GNH to any nation is that it will help ecological sustainability. By all accounts, the world is becoming more and more unsustainable and will become more so unless we change our ways. GNH is interesting globally because of its relationship to ecological sustainability.

The intensity of resource use is based on the proliferation of wants, which is further based on the proliferation of goods and products that are designed for a short use-life so that they must be replaced through continual consumption. Industries deliberately design such schemes in order to sell more goods within a shorter period of time. Consumers are equally vulnerable, as they are led to think that they can dismiss the vacuum they feel in their minds through increasing their purchasing, consumption, and possession. If people are happier, they are less driven to consume by what they perceive as a lack in their lives and more likely to be judicious in their consumption choices. As a result, the ecological impact will be significant due to conserved resources.


GNH as Public Good

If happiness is defined simply as that which makes the individual happy, that which fulfills the individual in terms of a self-conception of what happiness is, then that is an example of what we might call "private happiness." It is different from what we would term "collective happiness," or that which will make all individuals happy and create a society characterized by happiness. When happiness is conceived as "private happiness," the means of obtaining happiness differ according to the needs and tastes of individuals.

Any individual who thinks that he can achieve his own happiness at whatever cost to society neglects the external nature of happiness that is conceived individually and maximized as such. Such maximization of happiness leads to an irresponsible and egocentric "happiness."

The perception of happiness as a "private happiness" does not take into account the needs of others and is therefore irresponsible and egocentric. All negative effects are passed on to other members of society. In order to achieve collective happiness, the principle of interdependence should be considered. We all have two eyes to take care of our own self-interests, but as members of a society we also need a third eye, the eye of wisdom that recognizes interdependence. Thus, with the third eye we can elevate our vision beyond individual self-interest and truly address the happiness of all as a collective goal.

Individuals often resort to inappropriate and unhelpful behavior. In order to deal with problems caused by behavior and judgment that deviate from the pursuit of collective interests, we need to create governments that pursue the public good. Happiness is and must be "public happiness"; it cannot be left to private individual striving and competition. If a government's policy framework and thus the nation's macroconditions are adverse to happiness, it will fail to be attained as a collective goal.

Individuals often make mistakes regarding happiness that cannot be corrected without policy frameworks that address, resolve, and work to prevent such problems from arising again. Government policies must play a crucial role in educating the citizens about collective happiness. It is easy to choose the wrong alternative, such as the purchase of redundant goods that have no effect on our happiness. Citizens and consumers must be educated concerning their choices and the consequences that their choices have from the perspective of collective happiness.


The Means to GNH

As the goal of a GNH society is collective happiness, the means of achieving it must reflect progress toward that end. Our understanding of how the mind achieves happiness affects our very experience of happiness by influencing the means we choose in striving toward satisfaction in life. GNH bases its concept of happiness partly on the Buddhist understanding of reality. But before we explore this relationship, let us look, as a contrast, at the means to happiness as understood by the behavioral sciences.

The behavioral sciences present a model of the mind that reflects the means to happiness shared by most societies today. It portrays the brain as an input-output device developed in order to receive external stimuli that are translated into pleasures, which are also known as utilities in economic literature. In such a model, the brain's basic structure and function are more or less fixed, with any output dependent upon an input coming from some external stimulus. The consequence of this reductionist theory is that happiness and pleasurable feelings are seen as dependent upon external stimuli. In other words, happiness is in general perceived as a direct consequence only of sensory stimulation.

With such an overemphasis on external stimuli as the source of happiness, it is not so surprising that individuals assume that the consumption and accumulation of material goods will increase their happiness. Unfortunately, this has also been the basis for most economic planning. Even after fulfilling necessities and even after reaching a certain level of affluence, the dynamics of economic systems imply that people must continue purchasing and accumulating goods because they are perceived to directly correlate with increased happiness.

Buddhist thought provides views contrary to these assumptions. It understands the sources of happiness quite differently, claiming that pleasurable feelings will be generated by stabilizing human minds and reducing the mental chatter that is a consequence of the unending stream of external stimuli. People can find a good deal of happiness simply by calming the mind through meditation. The process of meditation is to direct the attention inward, where the subject experiences the subject itself, as opposed to the subject perceiving external stimuli.

The Dalai Lama has said that happiness and compassion are skills that can be learned. Using meditation for training, our turbulent emotions and moods can be managed. In other words, pleasant sensations in the brain can take place without any significant external input. If a practitioner trains himself to meditate well, through either religious or secular forms of meditation, he can be quite contented; and the more regular the practice, the more lasting the impact. New research suggests that through persevering for years in meditation, such as in retreats, the brain may even become structurally modified to the degree that the neural pathways in the brain have physically changed.

Relatedly, the Buddhist perspective states that externally derived pleasure only distracts the individual from inner sources of happiness. Consequently, rather than amassing material goods, detachment from the proliferation of wants can significantly contribute to happiness. Thus, the means to happiness as detailed by Buddhist thought differentiates between the quality of happiness achieved through external means and that achieved through internal means, highly elevating the latter. As a result, when the Buddhist view is applied, stationary, stable, sustainable economies can be con-sidered successful. An economy that is continually growing would be seen as a failure because of its inability to promote detachment from the proliferation of wants. People cannot be happy if caught in such a runaway process. One of the disadvantages of many current economies is that they structurally feed the individual's proliferation of wants, and that individual consumption feeds the industries. There is a structural malfeasance where such economies do not know where to stop and what the optimal size of the economy is. If the economy is stationary, it is considered stagnant, but actually it could be a signal that stability in wants has been achieved. As it is directly related to the control of individual wants and desires, such stability may also reflect some psychological stability among consumers.


GNH as a Buddhist Social Contract

H.M. King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck defined GNH as the creation of an enlightened society in which the happiness and well-being of all people is the ultimate purpose of governance. Strictly speaking, it is the well-being of all people plus all sentient beings, as in the Buddhist view, all sentient beings are incipient buddhas and must be treated as such. Humans are not that different from other sentient beings, their main difference resulting from their greater cognitive ability. Hence, under a GNH society, there is an extended view of citizenship encompassing all life forms, such as the humble earthworm that delivers no small ecological service. Those for whom the state works extend beyond the human population.

GNH should be considered as a Buddhist society's equivalent of the social contract, where citizens pursue collective happiness. To be a member of a GNH society requires one fundamental property: to see all things as interdependent with all other things. By being convinced and informed about interdependence, compassion should naturally arise as a person recognizes that his happiness is dependent on all other creatures' welfare. Without this basic understanding, the individual sinks into poor motivation and weaknesses.

Because of the discursive nature of karma, all are part of an intricate web. Karma is simultaneous and is constantly being revised in all of our interactions with one another. Such a view of interdependence sufficiently motivates us to forget our own narrow existence, changing us such that we begin to engage meaningfully with others and pursue collective happiness. By recognizing the true nature of interdependence, one can see that all karma is collective, that all enlightenment is collective, and therefore that happiness and the policies required to promote it must be oriented toward collective achievement.

May all beings attain happiness!

(I would like to thank Peter Hershock, Nick Marks, and Ron Colman for their helpful comments.)


Dasho Karma Ura is the director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies, an autonomous think tank located in Thimphu that encourages public discourse on Bhutanese society. He also serves on several national and international committees. He is the author of a number of books and articles on Bhutanese history, culture, and literature, including The Hero with a Thousand Eyes.


This article was originally published in the October-December 2007 issue of Dharma World.


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