Landlocked within the awesome beauty of the Himalayas, the Kingdom of Bhutan has seen the title of the Last Great Kingdom bestowed upon it due to it’s natural beauty and long standing independence. Despite their ruler bearing the formal title of Druk Gyalpo, or the Dragon King, Bhutan’s primary noteworthy attribute is the pioneering of an alternative philosophy to GDP known as Gross National Happiness, or GNH, which was monarchically mentioned in the early 1970s and constitutionally enshrined in 2008. The initiative has since been symbolically adopted by both Thailand and Dubai through the creation of government departments focused upon spreading happiness throughout their respective nations.
The idea of measuring happiness as an alternative to economic growth has never truly gained mainstream clout in the developed world, having long preferred measures of economic prosperity and individual freedom to measurements of an emotional state. Chinese New Year celebrations regularly feature songs wishing happiness and prosperity and the “American Dream”, a state of financial stability in which one can support a family and own property, has been widely adopted by consumers for years as a method of garnering personal satisfaction. Ultimately, the happiness derived from financial success can be afforded to the increased number of opportunities presented to an individual once they have enough surplus capital to consider spending on non-essentials. Therein, a rich individual’s true wealth lies in greater freedom, perceived or otherwise, over their fellow citizens or peers.
But does freedom, both from financial worry and autocratic rule, truly result in individuals evaluating their lives as “better”? The question of personal satisfaction with wealth is perhaps better directed at a professional – but when comparing data between the UN Human Development Index and happiness levels within individual nations, trends emerge. But the simple act of collecting this information is fraught with misdirection, given the subjective nature of happiness as an emotional state. Variables include an individual’s capacity to adapt to conditions, the relative economic status of an individual’s particular peer group and the issue of experience vs memory – an individual’s feelings regarding the likelihood of being a victim of criminal activity are typically much higher than crime figures report is likely, thereby impacting a sense of personal safety and happiness therein.
A report released by the UNDP Human Development Office in 2015 sought to answer this exact question, while attempting to find empirical links between levels of development and life satisfaction. In short, it did – overall levels of development across the globe were generally found to go hand in hand with evaluations of quality of life (QOL). Individual links that were found to yield the strongest correlation between QOL and development included higher rates of job satisfaction, stable governance structures and lower levels of inequality.
A difficulty in interpreting the results of the report emerges in the subjective nature of belief versus results. Take the example of freedom of choice – the freedom to choose is of fundamental importance, being a primary measure of a democratic state and one of the strongest factors linking development levels of nations to the happiness of individuals. But a sense of freedom of choice, such as the Yes referendum on the executive powers of President Erdogan on the Turkish people in April of 2017, can often lead to a group objectively lessening their freedom while maintaining a subjective sense of empowerment. The capacity of an individual to convert their freedom into wellbeing can be subverted, thereby creating a situation where subjective wellbeing can come at the detriment of wellbeing for all – a conceptually difficult but incredibly perilous situation when occurring on the national or international stage.
Bhutan, the last great Himalayan Kingdom, leads South Asian nations in ease of doing business, economic freedom and peace while continuing to measure overall success by human happiness – but to the national government, the state of happiness has been dissected into a series of quantifiable metrics including overall health, quality of education and living standards, similar to measuring levels of development across the globe. While Bhutan remains regarded as a least developed country by the UN, it is certainly nice to know that they appear to be on the right track.
Hall, J. & Helliwell, J. F.. Happiness and human development. UNDP Human Development Report Office. Retrieved from: http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/happiness_and_hd.pdf