“We do not believe in Gross National Product. Gross National Happiness is more important.”
— H.M. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, 4th King of Bhutan
This famed quote by the 4th King of Bhutan during an interview in 1979 was in response to criticism of his country’s slow modernization. The king’s thoughtful answer was deeply rooted in ancient Buddhist philosophy and it instantly captured the world’s imagination. It also sent a strong wake-up call to the West reminding everyone that there is much more to human civilization than just raw economic development.
Since then the term Gross National Happiness (GNH) has become a major United Nations goal and a global index measuring the happiness of our world (see World Happiness Report). Furthermore, Bhutan has fearlessly enshrined GNH in its constitution with four central pillars:
- Sustainable and Equitable Socio-Economic Development
- Conservation of the Environment
- Preservation and Promotion of Culture
- Good Governance
In Bhutan, GNH is distinguishable by valuing collective happiness as the goal of governance and by emphasizing harmony with nature and traditional values. Did you know that until 1961 Bhutan had no schools, no hospitals, no national currency, no postal service, no electricity, no telephones, no airports, no roads, no automobiles and no tourists?! Even today, modernization is highly scrutinized and intentionally slower, as Bhutan is acutely aware of the countless negatives Westernization could import.
Being here, in this last Shangri-La, I completely understand and support Bhutanese society’s resistance to rapid economic modernization and blind capitalist introduction. As backwards as Bhutan may sound, take a look at these astonishing facts:
- Smoking: The first and only country in the world to not only ban public smoking, but also ban the sale of tobacco.
- Plastic: Western-style advertising billboards and plastic bags have been banned in Bhutan since 1999.
- Deforestation: Under constitutional law at least 60% of the country must remain forested with a current rate of 72% forestation.
- Climate: At the 2015 Climate Summit in Paris, Bhutan did not pledge to be carbon neutral, but to remain carbon negative.
- Tourism: The high-value, low-volume tourism policy channels 100% of its revenue directly into public healthcare and public education.
- Colonization: Like China, Japan, Nepal and Thailand … Bhutan was never conquered or colonized by any European empire.
- Democracy: The 4th King of Bhutan abdicated peacefully and introduced democracy with first elections held in 2007.
- Spirituality: Happiness is favored over wealth and compassion is favored over capitalism.
Meanwhile Bhutanese are well educated, genuinely happy and vocally content with the careful and selective pace of Westernization their country is taking. Just take a look at the many pictures I took of Bhutan’s people in various different regions. Smiles are everywhere … despite the fact that the country has no traffic lights even today.