In 1998, Bhutan decided that “happiness,” rather than monetary prosperity, was the best possible indicator of social health.
The Kingdom of Bhutan, located deep in the Himalayas, is among the most isolated nations on Earth, and proudly so.
“As Bhutanese, we go to unusual lengths to preserve each element of our life,” the country’s official Web site declares. “From environment to dress to language to religion, we have managed to keep our centuries old culture and traditions alive. Besides learning as much as we can from our past, we also try, whenever possible, to embrace the future and envelope it in a Bhutanese way.”
Telecommunication was absent in Bhutan until the 1960s, and there were few roads. The government has since joined the modern world, but has insisted on doing so in its own unique way. In 1998, the kingdom abandoned Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the primary measure of national health, settling instead on the more utopian “Gross National Happiness” index, which prizes social and cultural well-being over material wealth. The government enacted policies to limit tourism into the country and restrict outside influences at the expense of some economic growth.
“The cost of maintaining culture and environment often makes development projects more expensive in the short run but pays in the long term,” Lyonpo Jigmi Y. Thinley of the Bhutanese government announced in 1998. “The rich character of the society in Bhutan would have become diminished, even impoverished, if we had allowed a flood of cultural influences and environmental degradation to set in. At the same time, the susceptibility of the people to a diminution of happiness would have increased if we had concentrated only on generation of wealth.”
So how did the experiment work? According to happiness expert and British economist Richard La-yard, the valiant attempt fell apart when, in 1999, the government of Bhutan made the mistake of allowing television into the country.
“Quite soon,” Layard observes, “everyone noticed a sharp increase in family break-up, crime, and drug taking. In schools, violence on the playground increased, so that one principal’s annual report had to include a section called ‘Controversies,’ which reported ‘marathon staff meetings’ to discuss these new problems. The ‘impact study’ by some local academics showed that a third of parents now preferred watching TV to talking to their children.”
Television may have been the very flood that Thin-ley warned against. The lesson? Securing a safe haven from outside influences in the twenty-first century may be more difficult than it sounds.
Originally published in THE FUTURIST, July-August 2007.