The public management of happiness, Part II

… an Atlas blog post

Leslie A. Pal, 30 April 2013

I’ve just returned from ten days in Bhutan. It was a first hand opportunity to observe a country that has become famous for the idea and the pursuit of “Gross National Happiness (GDH).” As I wrote in a previous blog, happiness and well-being have attracted more interest in recent years as the fundamental objectives of government policy, going beyond the simpler idea of maximizing GDP. Of course there are problems in measuring happiness, but they are not insurmountable. The Bhutanese government has taken the issue seriously. It administers periodic surveys that ask about personal and community happiness, tracks the results, and takes action if necessary (for example, if community well-being seems to be declining, developing measures to enhance community facilities).

The point of this blog is to see if there are any lessons to be learned about the Bhutanese approach to GDH. But first some background. Bhutan is a landlocked constitutional monarch bordered by India, China, and Nepal. Until the early 1960s it was in self-imposed exile from the rest of the world, and then (for reasons of realpolitik once China began to pressure Tibet) it opened up. Tourism only began in the 1970s, and even now is consciously restricted through a policy of making travel there relatively expensive in comparison with other vacation possibilities. The country was an absolute monarchy until 2008, when the king voluntarily decided to cede powers to a parliamentary democracy. The first election was held in 2008, and the second is being held this year. While Bhutan’s constitution recognizes freedom of religion, the country is almost entirely Buddhist, and Buddhism weaves itself tightly in everyday life as well as Bhutan’s history and culture. Indeed, the idea of pursuing happiness as both a personal and a public policy goal derive from Buddhist principles of alleviating suffering and striving for enlightenment. Because of these unique characteristics, one has to be cautious in drawing lessons from the Bhutanese experience.

However, I think that it is safe to draw three lessons. First, and perhaps most self-evident, the overarching goal of government must be more than economic growth. In the west, the broader purpose of government is usually defined as serving the “public interest,” which while not devoid of content (I wrote about this in a CPRN piece in 2004) I think is thinner than “happiness” or “well-being.” For the Bhutanese, a sustainable environment and preservation of culture are prime ingredients in their definition of happiness. Second, make the consideration of well-being a key criterion in any major government policy decisions. We have done this before, for example, in regulatory decision-making. I doubt that it would be determinative in the way that it is in Bhutan, but having it as an explicit criterion would at least force some thinking about the issue. Third, get Statistics Canada to devise survey and measurement instruments to track feelings of well-being and happiness in Canadian society. This might spark a national conversation about where we are headed as a society and a nation.

Image: Photograph by Leslie A. Pal, April 2013.