News

The U.N. Happiness Project

March 28, 2012
By Timothy W. Ryback
New York Times

Next Monday, the United Nations will implement Resolution 65/309, adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in July 2011, placing “happiness” on the global agenda.

“Conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal” and “recognizing that the gross domestic product [...] does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people,” Resolution 65/309 empowers the Kingdom of Bhutan to convene a high-level meeting on happiness as part of next week’s 66th session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

An impressive array of luminaries will be speaking for this remote Himalayan kingdom. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales will open the meeting via a prerecorded video missive. The Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz will speak on “happiness indicators,” as will the economist Jeffrey Sachs. The Bhutanese prime minister will represent King Jigme Khesar Namgyel, the reigning Dragon King of the Bhutanese House of Wangchuck. (The kingdom became a constitutional monarchy in 2007.)

For the 32-year-old Dragon King — Bhutan means “land of dragons” in the local Dzongkha language — U.N. Resolution 65/309 represents a global public relations triumph and the realization of a hereditary ambition, initiated by his grandfather 40 years ago, to establish Gross National Happiness (G.N.H.) as an alternate model to Gross National Product (G.N.P.) as a measure of national progress.

“A family should have a good house, have sufficient land if one is a farmer, and have a modest level of labor-saving devices to save precious time used up by excessive physical work,” explains Karma Ura, a leading public intellectual and artist who serves both as adviser to the king at home and as a G.N.H. ambassador abroad.

He has designed the country’s bank notes, denominated in the local currency known as ngultrum or nu, which is tied to the Indian rupee. He has promoted Gross National Happiness at the European Commission in Brussels and will do so again on Monday at the United Nations in New York.

For his services, Karma Ura received a knighthood from the king, which includes the ancient honorific title, dasho, and a sword that Ura bears as proudly as his G.N.H. patriotism. The “true forms of wealth,” he says, are being blessed with a “ravishing environment,” “vibrant health,” “strong communal relationships” and “meaning in life and freedom to free time.”

As a nation, Bhutan makes good on the Dasho Karma Ura formula. Landlocked in the Himalayan highlands between the dual economic juggernauts India and China, the kingdom is among the poorest and least developed countries in the world.

With a population under 800,000, the average income is about $110 per month. Most Bhutanese do not earn enough money to pay taxes, which are only levied on annual incomes in excess of 100,000 ngultrum, or about $2,000. Despite these limitations, Business Week has ranked Bhutan the “happiest” nation in Asia and the eighth happiest in the world.

“The Bhutanese have combined Buddhist spirituality and barefoot economics into a unique model that a lot of other nations can learn from,” observes Jean Timsit, a Paris-based lawyer and artist who provided the funding to publish a handbook on “operationalization of Gross National Happiness,” based on a conference held in Bhutan in 2004. The 750-page tome helped define G.N.H. and leverage it onto the global agenda.

To date, there have also been G.N.H. conferences in Thailand, Canada, the Netherlands and Brazil. According to Timsit, these activities provided the impetus for President Nicolas Sarkozy of France to commission Stiglitz, along with the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and the French economist Jean-Paul Fitoussi, to conduct a study of the “of economic performance and social progress” that included diverse G.N.H. indicators, ranging from walking to reading to the frequency of love making.

“The kind of civilization we build depends on the way we do our accounts quite simply because it changes the value we put on things,” Sarkozy notes in his preface to the report. “And I am not just speaking about market value.”

On Monday, the Bhutanese model for G.N.H. will be showcased on the United Nations agenda in accordance with Resolution 65/309. “The 2nd April High Level Meeting is intended as a landmark step towards adoption of a new global sustainability-based economic paradigm for human happiness and well-being of all life forms to replace the current dysfunctional system that is based on the unsustainable premise of limitless growth on a finite planet,” the Bhutan government Web site asserts.

With the current international crises over Syria and Iran, not to mention ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Darfur and the Democratic Republic of Congo, to name but a few, the Bhutanese agenda may not attract as much attention as it may deserve.

“I believe that while Gross National Happiness is inherently Bhutanese, its ideas may have a positive relevance to any nation, peoples or communities — wherever they may be,” King Jigme Khesar Namgyel observed in the preface to the G.N.H. handbook back in 2004, while he was still crown prince.

While Americans may well stake their own nationalist claim to having pioneered the notion of “happiness” as a “self-evident truth” and “inalienable right,” dating back to Thomas Jefferson’s 1776 Declaration of Independence, the Dragon King puts a distinctly Bhutanese point on the matter.

“There cannot be enduring peace, prosperity, equality and brotherhood in this world if our aims are so separate and divergent,” he says, “if we do not accept that in the end we are people, all alike, sharing the earth among ourselves and also with other sentient beings, all of whom have an equal role and stake in the state of this planet and its players.” The Dragon King has spoken. Perhaps it is time for the world to listen.

Timothy W. Ryback is deputy secretary general of the Académie Diplomatique Internationale in Paris.

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/29/opinion/the-un-happiness-project.html