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In Bhutan, Gross National Happiness Trumps Gross National Product

THIMPHU, Bhutan—This secluded Buddhist kingdom uses a unique barometer to measure economic progress. And the message of the 2015 Gross National Happiness Index is a troubling one: Money isn’t buying enough contentment.

Never mind that tourism and hydropower have more recently lifted incomes and fueled development. Or that Bhutan’s economy is growing at a healthy annual rate of nearly 7%. Officials here worry that modern life tends to throw things off-balance.

So Bhutan’s happiness surveyors think it’s worth asking a few questions. Among them:

“How much do you trust your neighbors?”

“Is lying justifiable?”

“Do you feel like a stranger in your family?” 

The index also surveys knowledge of artisan skills such as embroidery, carpentry and papermaking.

 

Buddhist monasteries, like the one pictured above, play an important role in Bhutan, where happiness is a quantifiable goal. PHOTO:PRAKASH MATHEMA/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

If “we are increasing in richness but we’re not doing so well overall in well-being, and people are not as content, then something definitely is wrong,” Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said in this serene capital, 7,700 feet above sea level.

Bhutan, population 750,000, still feels like a place out of time. Traditional architecture and dress prevail: Men wear knee-length robes, tied at the waist, with over-the-calf socks. An early-morning prayer session is among the state-run television network’s most popular programs.

“Life is very slow here,” said Tshewang Norbu, the Asian Development Bank’s resident representative in Bhutan.

The fourth monarch’s pronouncements about national happiness were only pronouncements until 2010, when Bhutan computed its first happiness index. By then, he had abdicated the Golden Throne and his son and successor, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, presided over the country’s transition to a parliamentary democracy.

In the meantime, his philosophy inspired others around the globe. In 2008, France’s then-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, commissioned an influential study of alternative gauges of economic welfare. The U.K. started a “Measuring National Well-Being” program in 2010, and U.S. cities like Santa Monica, Calif., have followed suit. The U.N. just released its third World Happiness Report, created in response to a 2011 proposal by Bhutan.

Yet none of those efforts to measure national morale are quite like Bhutan’s.

Dasho Karma Ura, the index’s main architect, proudly notes a main difference with Western happiness surveys: Bhutan’s doesn’t hesitate to probe into its citizens’ spiritual and social lives. It asks, for instance: “During the past four weeks, how often have you felt calmness?”

For the 2015 Gross National Happiness Index, surveyors from the Centre for Bhutan Studies polled 7,135 citizens on 33 subjects ranging from health and wealth to community vitality and emotional balance.

A respondent who crosses prespecified thresholds in two-thirds of these domains is classified as “extensively happy” for the index’s purposes. Above 77% pushes them into the “deeply happy” category.

The upshot: someone can be a sourpuss in some areas but still be deemed happy overall.

Respondents in Bhutan’s latest survey said they donated less money and devoted less time to volunteer work than in 2010, the last time the happiness index was calculated. Fewer planned to vote or attend community meetings. They also reported greater anger, fear and jealousy. And fewer considered important the national code of etiquette—which governs, for instance, how to bow before officials.

Still, progress elsewhere meant 43.4% of Bhutanese were classified as extensively or deeply happy this year, up from 40.9% in 2010. More households reported income above a threshold of around $350 per person a year. Fewer people complained of deer, boars and elephants damaging crops. More said they got enough sleep.

The biggest decline this year: satisfaction with government performance. That plummeted to 34% from 78% five years ago, even though many more Bhutanese said they had better access to public services like health care and electricity.

Why the disconnect? Mr. Ura blames another unwelcome symptom of modernity: political polarization. Bhutan held its first democratic elections only seven years ago.

Politics “allows you, on the basis of party affiliation, to say untruthful things,” Mr. Ura said.

Bhutanese officials say the happiness index is about finding balance—between modernity and tradition, between prosperity and ecological conservation, between material advancement and its discontents. Some wish the country could stop releasing conventional economic indicators altogether.

“Personally, I would not want GDP data from Bhutan,” said Norbu Wangchuk, the economy minister, wearing the customary sword of Bhutanese officialdom. But “we need to seem to be belonging to the world community,” he said, laughing. “We cannot isolate ourselves from the world.”

In response to declining spirituality, Prime Minister Tobgay said he is looking to strengthen Buddhist education in schools.

He wants to reinvigorate the rural economy and stem the exodus of young people into towns and cities, where youth unemployment is around 25%.

Novelist Kunzang Choden, however, worries that economic progress has made simple living a harder sell.

“We’ve gone this far,” said Ms. Choden. “How do you tell the people, ‘No, we’ve made a mistake. Let’s go back and start over again?’”