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Bhutan's Secret for Happiness

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Progressive economists who believe that measuring wealth solely in monetary terms skews government policy to favor greed have started looking to Bhutan for an alternative model.

Bhutan, a mountainous country about twice the size of Vermont, sits between India and China. In 1972, its British- and Bhutan-educated and Buddhist-influenced king adopted Gross National Happiness (GNH) as his country's priority. Each year, Bhutan's prime minister reports to the National Assembly on “the four pillars of GNH: promotion of equitable and sustainable socioeconomic development; preservation and promotion of cultural values; conservation of the natural environment; and establishment of good governance.”

As a result, Bhutan has implemented policies such as: establishing public schools with rotation of teachers between rural and urban regions; providing both Western and traditional medicine; maintaining at least 60 percent of Bhutan's land as forest; and issuing, in March 2005, a draft constitution to establish a two-party democracy.

Although Bhutan's per capita household income remains among the lowest in the world, and despite unresolved tribal conflicts that have exiled Bhutanese of Nepalese descent to refugee camps, several indicators show a brighter picture. Althought 93 percent of Bhutan's labor force remains agricultural, life expectancy rose from 47 years to 66 years and infant mortality dropped from 103 per 1,000 live births to 60 per 1,000 between 1984 and 2001. The fraction of the population with access to safe drinking water rose from 45 percent to 75 percent in the same time period and adult literacy increased from 23 percent to 54 percent.

Other countries are beginning to consider adopting a GNH index. Canadian political scientist Dr. Ronald Colman organized a 2004 conference on Bhutan in Nova Scotia. Canada is currently developing a national well-being index to assess community vitality. In June 2005, Britain issued a summary of sustainable development indicators as a first attempt at creating a quality of life index.

While its success is neither definitive nor, perhaps, fully exportable, Bhutan's experience with Gross National Happiness has attracted worldwide attention.

Pamela Chang is a contributing editor of YES! Magazine

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