King Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan is an unusual person. He has voluntarily overseen the transition of his country from monarchy to democracy. This makes him stand in sharp contrast to our other South Asian neighbours. The monarchy in Nepal had to be booted out. Pakistan and Bangladesh are always in the cusp between democracy and military rule. The smooth transition to democracy in this tiny Himalayan country is welcome.
The Bhutanese King is also known for another innovation. He measures his country’s progress by an indicator called gross national happiness, rather than the more traditional gross domestic product. Progress is not about what you own, but about how you feel. This may seem like a throwback to the cultural values of the flower children in the 1960s, but there is a lot of research done by economists and psychologists on the happiness of nations in recent years.
The case for using happiness as an indicator of economic progress is a pretty easy one to understand. Your happiness does not double when your income doubles. Diminishing returns set in, but only after your basic needs are met.
Most research has shown that there is a tight correlation between consumption and happiness when countries are emerging out of poverty. They diverge after per capita incomes cross $15,000. Bhutan’s measure seems attractive—but it is premature for a country that has a per capita income of $1,400 and a life expectancy of only 64 years. That’s true of India as well.
Measuring national progress by happiness has a broader implication. Happiness is subjective. Only you can say how happy you are. In contrast, traditional measures of economic well-being, such as gross domestic product, are objective. Outside experts count it for you and then tell you how well off you are. Measures of happiness thus shift the burden of proof from experts to ordinary citizens.
That’s also what democracy does. It empowers the ordinary man and woman. There is an unseen link between Jigme Wangchuck’s politics and economics.
Is Bhutan’s attempt to measure gross national happiness worth emulating? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org