Bhutan: Gross National Happiness – but not a policy

Bhutan is known as “the last Shangri-La” — rich in natural beauty and Buddhist culture, where national happiness is prioritised over economic growth. But urban youngsters are quick to challenge its rosy reputation.

Drinking, especially home-brewed rice wine, has long been part of Bhutanese culture, but alcohol liver disease has become one of the top killers at Thimphu’s main hospital, a National Statistics Bureau report said last year.

Increasing drug abuse by young people, especially of pharmaceuticals, has also become a major concern as modernisation takes hold in what was one of the world’s most isolated countries for centuries.

The traditional social fabric is starting to show the strain.

“The crime rate is increasing over the years, with breaking into people’s houses and muggings that were virtually unknown 10 years ago,” said Damber K. Nirola, one of two psychiatrists in the country of fewer than 750,000 people.

“The biggest problem that we are now challenged with, and I think will increase over time, is unemployment, and along with that comes drugs and alcohol.”

Such problems may seem surprising in a nation whose trademark is “Gross National Happiness” — a term that began as an off-the-cuff remark by the former king in the 1970s and has since become a fully-fledged development model.

Unlike other countries’ focus on gross domestic product, Bhutan’s “GNH” is designed to protect the environment and culture, promote good governance and pursue sustainable socio-economic development.

This alternative vision of balancing spiritual and material wealth has won global attention and praise, drawing a stream of academics and well-being gurus to happiness conferences in Bhutan.

But some Thimphu residents are sceptical of how GNH has evolved, mentioning jokey alternatives such as “government needs help” and “gross national harassment”.

Happiness cannot be manufactured by government policies, even those that mandate happiness. This very closed country needs prayers that real happiness will be found in Jesus Christ.

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