A chance meeting at an airport in 1972 between a Financial Times journalist, with the King of the Kingdom of Bhutan, the teenager Jigme Singya Wangchuk, introduced the world to a nation that values happiness over money. And a kind of magic happened.
Jigme Singya Wangchuk declared the Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) is more important than the Gross Domestic product (GDP), the economic measure of whether a country is doing well.
This declaration by the King must have been imprinted into the DNA of the Kingdom’s Buddhist rulers, not least because Bhutan’s first legal code, written as long ago as 1729 contained the provision “if the Government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the Government”, and ‘since the founding of Bhutan, spirituality and compassion have been integrated with governance”.
It is often been said, the King’s declaration to the journalist was more of a sound bite than a concept grounded in reality. This declaration has germinated an idea, which arguably, has grown into a global phenomenon we now know as wellness.
Bhutan is a tiny, remote Kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between its powerful neighbours, India and China. It is the world’s last surviving Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom, just less than half the size of Scotland with a population of between 700,000 to 2 million people, depending upon which indicators you use. The Bhutanese name for the Kingdom is Druk Yul, meaning "Land of the Thunder Dragon" and it only began to open up to outsiders in the 1970s. Television did not come to Bhutan until 1999 and all tourists to the Kingdom, to this day, must travel on pre-planned, pre-paid guided package tours so that tourism and its impact to the environment is managed. It was only in 2008, through the efforts of the dragon King, the official title of the King, that the country moved from an absolute monarchy to a parliamentary monarchy.
Measuring happiness is always going to be difficult as happiness is a state of mind. It’s very much a subjective concept. Dictionary definition describes it as a state of feeling or showing pleasure. Ice cream may make you happy one day and may not, on another day.
But in 1998, this tiny Kingdom established The Centre for Bhutan Studies and Gross National Happiness, to look into measurable factors that promote happiness. This inquiry led them to create metrics around the four pillars of Gross National Happiness and an index of nine domains to measure happiness.
The four pillars and nine domains are conditions and criteria they say, nurture happiness. Rather like a plant requiring conditions such as good soil, light and water for healthy growth.
The four pillars are; good governance, sustainable development, preservation and promotion of culture and environmental conservation, and the nine domains:
- Psychological well being
- Time use
- Cultural diversity and resilience
- Good Governance
- Community vitality
- Ecological Diversity and resilience
- Living standards
On this basis (and 33 additional indicators on each domain), surveys are carried out. In 2015, the centre published a report on its survey, which was called, “A compass towards a just and harmonious society”. It started with the following words:
“We all know that our country belongs to a stream of civilization where the explicit purpose of Government is to create enabling conditions for our citizens to pursue happiness”
In 2011, the dragon King, introduced this idea to the United Nations. He invited national governments to “give more importance to happiness and well-being in determining how to achieve and measure social and economic development”.The United Nations unanimously adopted a general Assembly Resolution, called “holistic approach to development aimed at promoting sustainable happiness and wellbeing”. This Resolution was introduced to the UN by the Kingdom of Bhutan. This was followed, in April 2012, by a UN high level meeting on happiness and wellbeing. And on the 4 April 2012, the first world happiness report was prepared in support of that meeting.
The United Nations now publishes an annual World Happiness Report. The first seven reports were produced by the founding trio of co-editors assembled in Thimphu, which included the Prime Minister of Bhutan. The report now ranks 156 countries on how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be.
The World Happiness Report 2020, for the first time, ranked cities around the world by their subjective well-being. The top six scoring cities were: Helsinki – Finland, Aarhus – Denmark, Wellington New Zealand, Zurich – Switzerland and Copenhagen – Denmark.
Wellness is now mainstream and a part of the global psyche. Ironically, it is an industry said to be worth $4 trillion. The root of wellness is happiness and the growth of the wellness industry has mirrored the growth of a simple idea, shared by a tiny Kingdom, and now adopted by global institutions; that the measure of happiness for a Government should be more important than the measure of how much money you have.
The dragon King, Jigme Singya Wangchuk, abdicated in 2009 making way for his Oxford University educated son Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who sits as the present dragon King of the world’s last Himalayan Kingdom.
Gross National Happiness is described as development with values in the 2015, A compass towards a just and harmonious society report. Dragon King Jigme Singya Wangchuk is described as “gifting Gross National Happiness to His people”.
He is more than that, he and his Kingdom have gifted Gross National Happiness; development with values, to the world.