'Happy' economic policy gains traction

Bhutan's measure of well-being attracts other nations
Don Duncan

THIMPHU, Bhutan In the thick of a global financial crisis, some economists have come to this Himalayan kingdom to study its unique economic policy based on Buddhist principles, Gross National Happiness.

"Happiness is very serious business. The dogma of limitless productivity and growth in a finite world is unsustainable and unfair for future generations," Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigme Thinley told foreign economists, educators and public policy consultants at a recent conference here.

Jon Hall, a project leader at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said he was receptive to the concept.

"We've been chasing gross domestic product for decades and now, societies are starting to say we need to look beyond GDP and start measuring well-being," Mr. Hall said.

Gross National Happiness, or GNH, was developed in isolation in Bhutan over centuries but was formalized an economic alternative in 1972 by then-King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in an attempt to address stagnation for one of the world's smallest economies, which is based mainly on agriculture and forestry.

At the time, the king shifted the focus of development from productivity to human well-being in four areas: sustainable economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the environment and good governance.

Since then, government policy in Bhutan was guided by these principles in a succession of five-year plans, Mr. Thinley said.

But the term "happiness" often causes Western economists and development experts to not take Bhutan's economic approach seriously, observers say. And if they do, they tend to mask it with terms such as "human development" or "pluralistic growth."

"People are shy to use the word 'happiness,' " said Dasho Karma Ura, president of the Center for Bhutan Studies in the capital Thimphu, which launched the informational Web site www.grossnationalhappiness.com last month.

"Defining happiness is not what is important. What is important is providing the conditions through which people can achieve happiness as they understand it," he said.


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