There are many things I have striven to do in my life but never managed. One is to write these columns in advance so that I can travel without my laptop. Another is to visit Bhutan, that beautiful, sensible little country snuggled into the north-eastern border of India. One of the main reasons I want to visit is that they are best known for being less concerned with GDP than with what they call GNH, or Gross National Happiness. The king of Bhutan became the first head of state to make happiness an official yardstick of his country’s well-being.
Economists, who run the world thanks to their expertise in keeping their heads mainly up their behinds, think this is laughable at best and disgraceful at worst. But their bluff is increasingly being called as the world asks itself if income, production and consumption are really the best way to measure the health of a society, and begins to consider the possibility of evaluating progress on the basis of a more holistic human experience instead. They call it happiness economics, and while it’s not likely to replace traditional economics entirely, it may well end up being seeing as a legitimate and necessary supplement to traditional measures of a country’s well-being.
We are finally asking, for instance, how much happiness we actually get out of money, and whether health care and education might have a role to play in addition to money. The answers (‘not incrementally much beyond a certain point’, and ‘what do you think, genius?’ respectively) are surprising only if you happen to be an economist. Even French President Sarkozy is introducing a Happiness Index for his country and eschewing what he calls the “cult of figures”.
The idea that happiness may be an important component of quality of life is slowly gaining traction among academics and social scientists, which means that we should soon have reams of dull literature on the subject. There is already a vast such body—a Happy Planet Index, for instance, and a Journal of Happiness Studies. We can finally sleep at night secure in the knowledge that professors at Harvard are diligently ruining happiness by studying the hell out of it.
According to a University of Leicester survey called the World Map of Happiness, Bhutan is the happiest country in Asia, and the eighth-happiest in the world, and frankly, that’s good enough for me. Wikipedia also says that in 2005 survey “45 percent of Bhutanese reported being very happy, 52 percent reported being happy and only three percent reported not being happy…the Happy Planet Index estimates that the average level of life satisfaction in Bhutan is within the top 10 percent of nations worldwide, and certainly higher than other nations with similar levels of GDP per capita.”
In his delightful book The Geography of Bliss, Eric Weiner finds himself beguiled by the Bhutanese mindset, though he can’t quite wrap his American head around it. “In a wealthy, industrialised society…we are discouraged from doing anything that isn’t productive—either monetarily or in terms of immediate pleasure,” he writes. “The Bhutanese, on the other hand, will gladly spend a day playing darts or just doing nothing.”
This is obviously the place for me. By the time you read this I will just have driven into Bhutan on a three- to four-week road trip. Weiner writes: “driving in Bhutan is not for the meek. Hairpin turns, precipitous drop-offs (no guardrails), and a driver who firmly believes in reincarnation makes for a nerve-wracking experience. There are no atheists on Bhutan’s roads.” But I don’t care; I expect to be suffused with an ineffable bliss from the moment I cross the border. I’ll let you know when it wears off; watch this space.