Frances Experiences “Happiness” in Bhutan

February 14, 2013

By Frances Moore Lappé

A “life-changing experience” sounds clichéd, I’ll admit— but it’s what just happened to me in Bhutan. Over four days in beautiful Thimphu, Bhutan, our International Expert Working Group for the New Development Paradigm deliberated (and had fun!) with the immodest objective of shaping a draft document on a more life-serving way for societies to define goals and measure progress than is captured in the obviously failing GNP-driven model. I am honored to serve with many of my all-time heroes including Hunter Lovins, David Suzuki, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.

Our Working Group hiked for hours to reach this extraordinary monastery. Worth the effort!
Our Working Group hiked for hours to reach this extraordinary monastery. Worth the effort!

And why Bhutan?

In 1972 His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan coined the term Gross National Happiness, but the movement of which our group is now part builds on ideas introduced there in the 18th century — the era of our own Declaration of Independence identifying “pursuit of happiness” as an inalienable right.

Then, in 2005, after the Fourth King relinquished the throne to his son and instituted a British-style parliamentary democracy, steps began in earnest to build a Gross National Happiness Index — a comprehensive approach to the measurement of well-being that includes not only psychological well-being (life satisfaction, emotions, and spirituality) but also subjective assessments of eight other “domains” that include health, education, good governance, and ecological diversity and resilience. A 2010 Bhutan survey shows that almost 41 percent of its people have attained happiness as defined in the Index’s multi-dimensional, holistic measures.

Bhutan TV video interview with participants. See Frances at 24:09

Then in July, 2011, Bhutan took leadership on the world stage as well, sponsoring UN resolution 65/309 — “Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development” — which, with 68 co-sponsors and the UN General Assembly adopted by consensus. The resolution states flatly that GDP doesn't reflect the goal of “happiness” and declares that “a fundamental human goal and universal aspiration” and a “more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach is needed…”

It invites “Member States that have taken initiatives to develop new development indicators." It also welcomes Bhutan to convene, during the 2012 General Assembly, a panel discussion on the theme of happiness and well-being.

So it did. Last year in New York, Bhutan hosted a UN High Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm. With 800 enthusiastic attendees, the gathering exceeded all expectations. It was followed in July by a royal edict by His Majesty the King of Bhutan to establish a Steering Committee and the International Expert Working Group, on which I now humbly serve — with more than sixty others from many countries — to draft a proposed “new development paradigm.”

The 2011 UN resolution also invites the Secretary-General to seek the views of Member States on the pursuit of happiness and well-being and “to communicate such views to the General Assembly” in 2013. It’s this process to which our group’s work is contributing.

Already, a number of countries, including Canada, France and Britain “have added measures of citizen happiness to their official national statistics.”

One thing of which I’m sure is that my own journey in Bhutan increased my own happiness — buoyed by the gracious hospitality of our hosts and the majestic beauty of a country that has pledged to maintain forests in perpetuity on at least 60 percent of its land.

I describe my Bhutan trip as life-changing for the simple reason that I was surrounded by people — the courageous Bhutanese leading and my fellow, and fun, working group members — who are actively working to shift the very lens through which humanity shapes our common future. And they believe we can do it, reinforcing my core motto that “it’s not possible to know what’s possible."

So let’s spread the news and contribute in any way we can to this hopeful, powerful movement — one beginning to take shape in the US as well.

In the words of the Honorable Prime Minister of Bhutan Lyonchen Jigme Yoser Thinley, in his powerful opening address to the Working Group on January 30: "[T]he time has never been more ripe and ready for genuine change from our current materialist obsession to a much broader and deeper view of human happiness and the well-being of all life on earth; from our current alienation from nature and from each other to a return to our essential one-ness with all life; from an economic structure founded on greed, competition and profit to one based on sufficiency, cooperation, and fairness."

See UNDP story, with photos