Thursday, November 27, 2008

Kingdom of Happiness

The global financial crisis has so far had little impact on Bhutan's foremost indicator of national wealth, the Gross National Happiness (GNH). The Kingdom of Bhutan is a tiny Himalayan nation with an apparent abundance of happiness. In 1972, Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuk elevated the GNH above the GDP. Efforts to increase the GNH have focused on honoring cultural traditions and conserving Bhutan's natural resources and beauty. Of note, Bhutan is the only country to ban tobacco - on the grounds that it did not contribute to national happiness. Despite what would seem nontrivial impediments (low household income, limited public education, relatively low life expectancy), Bhutan is often ranked among the world's happiest countries (for the record, Scandinavia is obscenely happy). Of course, any evaluation of national happiness depends on a subjective measure of what happiness is. And while I don't doubt that the link between happiness and income is illusory, I will conjecture that national happiness campaigns are likely to skew results. In any case, it's an interesting experiment. And in recent years Bhutan's happiness quest has taken an intriguing turn.

In 2005, the King stepped down and announced the beginning of democracy and a plan for his son to assume the throne. Bhutan has since adopted a constitution and is now a parliamentary monarchy and the world's youngest democracy. They've held national elections in 2007 and 2008. The new King, 28-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk, crowned November 6th, has promised to continue his father's happiness campaign including democratization. He also appears to enjoy celebrity status in Bhutan. The Economist quotes a citizen who plays basketball with the new King, "He is awesome.... His favorite shot is two feet from the three-point line. And you know what: he sinks them." As a lover of basketball, I can attest that there is no surer path to happiness than knocking down deep 3's.

(image credit: the Bhutanese flag; Haa Valley in Bhutan,