01 December 2008

Everybody Wangchuck tonight

A few weeks ago whilst travelling to Longford by train, enjoying the finest 3G connectivity that 3Ireland has to offer, I read about the coronation of the 28 year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck as King of Bhutan. One of the last absolute monarchs in the world, Namgyel looks set to continue his father's transition of Bhutan to a multi-party democratic state with a purely constitutional monarchy. However in stark contrast to other developing nations on the route to modernisation, the mountain kingdom of Bhutan has decided to take things slowly and focus on quality of life rather than pure economic success as a measure of progress.

I have had an interest in Bhutan for some time, mainly due to the work of Namgyel's father, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who, unhappy with formulae such as GDP being used as the exclusive measurement of a country's progress, introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness in 1972 as a way of combining traditional Buddhist values with a program of modernisation, and ensuring that the well-being of the population was protected against the ravages of rampant capitalism. The index seeks to measure progress in four main areas, known as the 'Four Pillars': cultural promotion and preservation, equitable and sustainable economic development, good governance and environmental conservation.

GDP traditionally measures the value of all goods produced in a country in a given year, often rated on a theoretical per person basis. This does little to measure the quality of life for a person in that country, and depending on local factors can give a figure that is at high variance with real wealth levels. For example here in Ireland many multinational companies have a local presence that exists mainly for the purpose of cycling international revenue through their Irish operation to avail of our more favourable tax regime. The activities that create this revenue are not located here, nor does this revenue benefit the Irish economy through jobs or other ancillary wealth creation, it is purely a book-keeping exercise. However this revenue does significantly raise our official GDP without having a noticeable effect on the lives of the average citizen. A country can therefore see an increasing GDP even as more and more people slide below the poverty line, as has been the case in the US for many years.

King Jigme Singye realised this and sought to protect the well-being of the Bhutanese people as he pursued a program of democratisation and economic development. Given the impact of the introduction of IMF and World Bank economic programs that accompanied democratisation in Russia and South Africa in the late 90's on the majority of citizens in those countries, King Wangchuck, while far from perfect, can still be seen as something of a visionary. However as GNH is intentionally based on somewhat esoteric concepts that are difficult to measure, other groups in recent years have looked to provide other measurements that are more quantifiable, and yet serve the same aim of representing quality of life beyond purely economic terms.

The New Economics Foundation, a UK based 'think-and-do-tank', has begun to publish what it calls HPI, 'The Happy Planet Index', measuring individuals' resource consumption and carbon footprint, physical and mental health levels (including stress levels) and feelings of empowerment and hope. Their main thesis is that high levels of per-capita GDP do not equate to high levels of happiness, as measured by their HPI. Your country can be quite wealthy, and you can still be miserable. Of course there is a significant correlation between those nations with the lowest GDP and the highest levels of unhappiness, but above a certain level more money does not equate to more happiness.

The current issue of 'Yes!' magazine talks about the modern subversion of the Jeffersonian ideal of "Life, liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness", and contrasts sharply the difference between the current US GDP ($45.7K) and its HPI levels, 28.8 on the HPI scale, finding itself 150th out of 178 countries, sandwiched between Lithuania (GDP $11.5K) and Cote d'Ivoire (GDP $1K). The current World Happiness Index is based on 2006 data, so even when 'the fundamentals of the economy were strong', before anyone had heard of the sub-prime crises, Americans were as happy as folks from an African country with a GDP of less than 1/40th of their own. Unfortunately even the launch of the iPhone in June would have done little to halt any decrease in levels in 2007, and this year's data would no doubt be even worse, despite the widespread outbreak of Hope in early November. The simple fact is that the 4.6% of the world's population that live in the US are really not very happy, despite accounting for 33% of global consumption.

In a similar vein I decided to take some time this morning and put together a chart of European happiness vs GDP, based on 2007 data:

Obviously if we were to ask your average Iclander how happy they were today, we'd get a very different answer, but in general you can see that across Europe, GDP does not equate to happiness, with your average Pole happier than a typical citizen of the UK, even though Polish GDP is less than half that of the UK. Interestingly enough warm, dry weather and plenty of sunshine do not seem to contribute significantly to happiness, much to the surprise of this cold and wet Irishman, as Nordic countries top the list. Maybe herring is the true ambrosia of the gods?

Although neither Bhutan's Gross National Happiness or the Happy Planet Index are perfect, each is a serious attempt to redirect the priorities of governments away from artificial economic indicators towards the protection and enhancement of a holistic quality of life. If the events of the last 6 months have taught us anything it should be that the unfettered pursuit of wealth is as morally bankrupt as the economies of those that encouraged such pursuit.

Wealth is not happiness. Though separated by 200 years King Jigme Singye Wangchuck and Thomas Jefferson understood this. Think how better the world would be if a few more people did as well.

Links

Gross National Happiness at the Centre for Bhutan Studies
Video on Bhutan's 'Gross National Happiness'
Gross International Happiness Project
The Happy Planet Index visual guide
Download the full Happy Planet Index from the New Economics Foundation

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