Why the Kings of Bhutan Ride Bicycles
Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley on Gross National Happiness, his country's traditions, and the importance of democracy.
Bhutan has pioneered the use of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a measure of progress, instead of the more commonly used GNP. GNH measures not only economic activity, but also cultural, ecological, and spiritual well-being.
YES! Magazine Contributing Editor Madhu Suri Prakash attended a meeting of educators from around the world, convened by the government of Bhutan in December 2009, to encourage them to make the happiness of all people the central organizing principle of their philosophy of education. In September 2010, Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley visited the United States to promote GNH education and economic theory. Madhu was granted an interview with the prime minister at the Pennsylvania State University, hours after he received the university’s highest honor as a distinguished alumnus.
Madhu Suri Prakash: Ten months ago, you welcomed educators from different continents with moving words about promoting the happiness of your people and spreading the idea of Gross National Happiness to other nations. What help does Bhutan need to achieve its aspirations?
Prime Minister Thinley: I don’t think, by way of material support, Bhutan is really in need of much, especially in respect to the pursuit of GNH. But outside perception, positive perception and expression of moral support—making the people of Bhutan feel that they are doing the right thing—is a great source of inspiration and help. I am encouraged by the growing interest in this philosophy of development, or alternative development paradigm, as more and more people see it.
Prakash: What difference has it made to have GNH as your yardstick rather than gross domestic product?
Thinley: From the government’s point of view, Bhutan has undertaken this pursuit through four broad strategies, or indicators.
First, we are promoting sustainable and equitable socioeconomic development which can be measured to a larger extent through conventional metrics.
Second is the conservation of a fragile ecology, [using] indicators of achievement, [such] as the way the green [vegetation] cover in my country has expanded over the last 25 years from below 60 to over 72 percent. … The very conscious efforts and the very deliberate program interventions ensure that in no way will Bhutan have loss of biodiversity. We of course continue to be very directly involved in raising consciousness and concern and trying to promote policy reorientation especially … with respect to battling climate change. And it is to that end that Bhutan will be hosting, sometime early next year, a mountain countries summit on climate change.
The third strategy is promotion of culture, which includes preservation of the various aspects of our culture that continue to be relevant and supportive of Bhutan’s purpose as a human civilization. Among the various things that we do is ensure that, as small as we are and as vulnerable as we may appear to be, no Bhutanese should suffer a sense of insecurity arising from loss of their cultural identity, language, and so on, under the onslaught of modernization.
Monks at a monastery outside Punakha in Bhutan. Photo by Christopher Weigold.
Today, Bhutanese have an appreciable sense of pride and dignity about themselves, which I think, again, is key to happiness. Family values and community vitality are things that we are promoting in a very conscious way. It is our hope that, unlike many of the developed, industrialized, and urbanized societies, Bhutan will always have the benefit of the social safety net in the form of the extended family network. There are various ways in which we can do this. Not least among these are, for instance, religious festivals, traditional festivals, and social festivals, which serve to bond community and family. It heartens me to see the multi-generational participation of families in these social bonding activities, giving very clear evidence of the vitality of the extended family network—as opposed to the state-supported artificial and unsustainable welfare systems that we try to prop up.
Then there is the fourth strategy—good governance—on which the other three strategies or indicators depend. We know that democracy is the best form of governance. Democracy is what enables and empowers each individual not only to express his or her point of view, but gives the power to determine what kind of people should lead and how these people should be held accountable. From the moment that my government was elected we have devoted and continue to devote much of our time to trying to promote a democratic culture.
Prakash : In your welcome address to us last December you noted a loss of conviviality in Thimphu. People were walking and talking less and driving more due to foreign influences. How is Bhutan reducing harmful outside influences, without walling off the world?
Thinley : Well, it would have been easier in the past but in a democracy as we are now, it is more difficult. To control these things through law and rules and regulatory processes is near impossible. So what we are trying to do is to advocate. This has to be done not only through speech but through action. I’m very happy to tell you that our two kings—the fourth king who is now in retirement, and the present king who sits on the throne—have very recently started bicycling. I have spoken on this subject and I’m trying to raise ways and means to make it easy to buy bicycles. … And one business that is doing very well, especially in the last four or five months is bicycle vendors. The idea is to make Bhutan a bicycle culture, supported by a public transportation system. We are in the process of making it more expensive to drive private vehicles.
Prakash : What do you suggest for promoting GNH in the United States?
Thinley: This is a free society and the freedom of opinion is greatly cherished and facilitated here. It just strikes me that people refuse to talk about the pursuit of what matters most to them as individuals, as communities, and as a society, and that is happiness. Somebody has to start it and I’m happy that there are a few people who are doing it. I hope that more will listen, hear, think and speak out what they have in their mind, rather than be afraid because it is unconventional to talk about happiness.
Prakash : Was GNH readily accepted in Bhutan, including in the business community?
Thinley: I would not use the term “acceptance” because GNH has always been a way of life in Bhutan. It continues to be. It was at a more sub-conscious, more intuitive level, but now we are promoting it at the conscious level, especially given the onslaught of modernization and development. This we are doing, through people like you, whereby we have now started embedding GNH values in our curricula, through public discussion.
- Countries around the world are beginning to apply the science of well-being to the decisions they make. News from the 5th International Conference on Gross National Happiness.
- We can learn a lot from older traditions that focused on being good rather than feeling good and measured happiness in lifetimes, not moments.
- There’s more to life than GDP.