Doug Bruns

Gross domestic what? (Part II)

In Happiness, The Examined Life, Travel on May 25, 2010 at 11:56 am

I traveled to Bhutan in 2007. The day I arrived was marked by a festival in honor of the King’s birthday, November 11. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth Dragon King (Druk Gyalpo) of Bhutan, was revered by his subjects, and this festival was clearly a celebration in his honor. No monomaniacal dictator behind the curtain here. (He has since abdicated his throne to his Oxford-educated son who continues to orchestrate the democratization of Bhutan.) At the festival I spotted a man holding a hand-made placard that read, in English, Bhutan – Gross Domestic Happiness. He was grinning from ear to ear.

Officially, it is called Gross National Happiness (GNH) and is an idea introduced in 2003 by the King–a monarch who is held dear by his subjects. “He cares for us,” I was told. At its core, the measure of GNH reflects the Buddhist concept that development, individual as well as the societal, is a blend of spiritual and sustained material¬† progress. By comparison, our measurement, Gross Domestic Product, is a reflection of economic growth, or lack thereof. The two–GNH and GDP– have little in common, at least in theory. There is, however, some confusion, I think, that the US measurement, GDP, might be reflective of personal happiness. Indeed, Nobel laureate, Simon Kuznets, the economist credited with assembling the indicators that led to the analysis called GDP, has expressed worry that the nation’s economic activity might be mistaken for individual well-being.

I think, truly, most of us don’t directly correlate GDP to happiness. Yet, the implication is that if GDP is increasing the economic environment is improving, and, ergo, the individuals living in that environment must be benefiting. If they are benefiting, they are likely happy(ier). There is no overt logic at play here, just some aberrant assumptions related to consumption, production and self-worth.

Guilty as charged. My personal journey of consumption and production has been long and varied. By most measures related to GDP, I have benefited a great deal. And, let the record state, I am largely happy. Really. Often blissfully happy. But here is what I find interesting as I analyze my blissful state. It would appear that I am happier directly proportional to my personal reduction in consumption, complimented by a different understanding of my production. Conversely, the years of my heaviest production and consumption, as GDP measures them, found me, on the main, at my least happy. In fact, I now employ the assumption that by further reducing my consumption and continuing to rejigger my notions of production, I can attain even greater and more consistent happiness.

Later in my trip, I had an opportunity to dine with a Bhutanese minster of the government, the Directory of Technology. I asked him about the government’s approach to GNH. “We are all subjects of the King,” he said. “But as a minister of government, it is my responsibility to ensure that the King’s subjects, myself included, are well fed, that the children of Bhutan are getting a good education, that housing is adequate and our culture and our environment are protected.” Those things, he said, are part and parcel to the happiness of the Kingdom’s subjects.


(to be continued…)

  1. […] on happiness and the gross domestic product in previous blog entries, which can be found here and here.) There is also a wonderful blog linked in the article which warrants consideration, a collection […]

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