How to achieve 'Gross National Happiness'
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How to achieve 'Gross National Happiness'

How can you measure happiness? In ways that are personal, collective, economic or social? These questions arose during a recent United Nations conference entitled Happiness as a Development Factor.

Guess who organised it. The country of Bhutan. Why this focus on happiness, Bhutan?

Because this is one nation that has created global waves by promoting happiness as the mantra for a country's progress. This developing country does not think of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the ultimate indicator of economic growth, but GNH _ Gross National Happiness.

The small Kingdom of Bhutan which, remained isolated until 1974, has given the world something big to work on. And it has become so big, that it has been adopted as a UN "resolution", which is why the UN decided to have a conference on happiness at its New York headquarters recently.

Meanwhile, Bhutan held its first-ever international travel conference earlier this year, and it was fascinating to hear how GNH governs every aspect of the people's lives.

"If you want to be happy, you must make others happy. That's what GNH is about," was the simple explanation given by the country's Minister of Economic Affairs.

It's a perfect philosophy for tourism, which is why the industry is booming in Bhutan _ even though the country is trying to limit the numbers of visitors because of their "high value, low impact" tourism ideal that prioritises the environment.

Thanks to their happiness philosophy, the guides at the conference work for free and are happy when we are happy. The drivers don't lose their smile when they drive us around the countryside from morning to night. When the heater is not working in my room, it's not just me who is unhappy, but the entire staff. They do not stop until they fix it, bringing the smile back to everyone's faces.

Bhutan is a land of smiles, but they work hard at it. We visit Vast, a unique arts centre, where the artists range from ages five to 17. In order to instil a sense of culture and community in the youngsters, art camps are held on weekends.

The kids are often taken to rural towns so that they can connect with the local communities. And the latter are brought to the city so they can connect with the town folk. The small country thus fosters a sense of national unity, balance and collective happiness, which is what GNH is all about.

GNH means keeping everything in balance, including happiness, so that everyone gets a share.

It's fascinating to hear the secretary of the Gross National Commission listing the various GNH indexes and indicators. There are at least 33 of them and they are applied to every sphere of life _ home duties, educational systems, business proposals, social projects and government programmes.

"In school, the students are asked simple questions as to how much time they spent with their parents and grandparents," he states as an example.

Many big hotel chains are keen to enter Bhutan, but they have to follow the GNH strictures such as local design, low-rise constructions and minimal carbon footprints. That's why old traditions are still maintained in the country _ everyone still wears the traditional robes and government offices still have monasteries attached to them.

That's why our sightseeing programme includes a prayer and meditation session. That's why shopkeepers don't harass tourists and hoteliers don't manipulate prices. That's why the King of Bhutan, when he makes a surprise visit to the conference hotel, has only three words to describe tourism _ "Gross National Happiness".

If GNH became the DNA of the world, we would not moan about a "paradise lost" any more.

It would probably be "paradise regained", like Bhutan, which was described as "the new jewel in the world's tourism crown" at the travel conference.

Lekha Shankar is a Bangkok-based Indian columnist and film programmer, who writes on the arts and culture.

Lekha Shankar


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