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Can We Increase Gross National Happiness?

PRINCETON – The small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is known internationally for two things: high visa fees, which reduce the influx of tourists, and its policy of promoting “gross national happiness” instead of economic growth. The two are related: more tourists might boost the economy, but they would damage Bhutan’s environment and culture, and so reduce happiness in the long run.

When I first heard of Bhutan’s goal of maximizing its people’s happiness, I wondered if it really meant anything in practice, or was just another political slogan. Last month, when I was in the capital, Thimphu, to speak at a conference on “Economic Development and Happiness,” organized by Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley and co-hosted by Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University and Special Adviser to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, I learned that it is much more than a slogan.

Never before have I been at a conference that was taken so seriously by a national government. I had expected Thinley to open the conference with a formal welcome, and then return to his office. Instead, his address was a thoughtful review of the key issues involved in promoting happiness as a national policy. He then stayed at the conference for the entire two and a half days, and made pertinent contributions to our discussions. At most sessions, several cabinet ministers were also present.

Since ancient times, happiness has been universally seen as a good. Problems arise when we try to agree on a definition of happiness, and to measure it.