How to beat the financial blues, Bhutan style
Disillusioned by plunging stock markets and failing banks, or caught out by the unforgiving boom-bust capitalist cycle?
Then for repentant free-marketeers the world over, the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan can suggest an alternative: focus not on the bottom line, but the size of your smile.
“Gross National Happiness”, or GNH, is Buddhist Bhutan’s unique approach to national development, and a pursuit that many in the remote country say has been vindicated by the ongoing economic meltdown in the outside world.
“It’s the materialism, who can make the bigger buck, overnight fast money that caused the problems,” said Phurb Dorji, a doctor who works in a Thimphu hospital and is a big fan of the official national philosophy.
“The whole world is going towards materialism, and the more they get the more they want. But they’re still not happy. They don’t need to copy us, but they should take a look at other ways.”
Bhutan has been pursuing GNH for the past few decades: it was conceived by the country’s last king, and the new monarch—28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who was crowned on Thursday—says it will remain a policy centrepiece.
“What is important to me and my family is education, healthcare, spiritual well-being.
Anything materialistic should be sustainable. There should be respect for others, respect for the environment,” said Dorji, explaining the main tenets of the concept.
“If everything was about material things, then we’d run out of money. It would not be sustainable.”
Officials here say pursuing GNH does not mean ignoring GDP—in fact on that score, the country is doing rather well, clocking an average of about 8% growth a year for the past few years.
Rather, they say, it is the type of growth that is important—hence policies of providing free education and health care, a clean mountain environment and making sure the country’s religious and cultural traditions are preserved.
“We as human beings need more than material goods,” said the country’s Prime Minister, Jigmi Thinley.
“We see ourselves as a member of a globalised society,” he said, but added that the aim in Bhutan was “to continue to develop economically and spiritually”.
And as a result, he said, the country of steep valleys and snow-capped peaks “is becoming happier and happier. We are happy people”.
According to a pilot survey conducted earlier this year by Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission—previously the national planning commission—68% of Bhutanese could be classed as being happy.
The challenge is maintaining that content isolation, with the country of about 600 000 people having survived the arrival of roads and currency in the 1960s, television in 1999 and its first democratic elections this year.
Many Bhutanese say they have full faith in the GNH philosophy—even if satellite television channels have exposed the country to the shop-till-you-drop message.
“As long as you have enough money for clothes, food and a place to sleep, that’s honestly all you need,” insisted Sonam Phunbho, a 54-year-old Thimphu shopkeeper.
“There’s no point in being greedy because when you die you can’t take a big television or a big car with you,” she said.
Tashi Tobgay, a 16-year-old student who was walking with friends in the centre of capital Thimphu, said he failed to see the point of capitalism.
“What is the use of the development of a country without the happiness of the people?” he asked.
So as the outside world is busy trying to figure out how to save a collapsing economy, Bhutan’s new king has been setting out quite different priorities.
“My duty is not only to ensure your happiness today but to create fertile ground from which you may gain the fruits of spiritual pursuit and attain good karma,” he said in his coronation speech.
“Even as more dramatic changes transform the world and our nation, as long as we continue to pursue the simple and timeless goal of being good human beings ... we can ensure that our future generations will live in happiness.” - AFP