Gross national happiness

Here in the West we are famous for living large. Most symbols of our culture pay homage to the capitalist dream of increasing material wealth so we can purchase larger homes, nicer cars, designer clothes and the latest gadgets.

We are obsessed with watching the excess in the lives of celebrities and many of us dream of one day winning the lottery so that all our financial dreams can come true.

Even as a nation, we measure our success by how much we produce, buy and sell, and in the strength of our dollar against international standards. Standard of living is mainly calculated in dollars earned.

While we are extremely fortunate to live with the incredible wealth we have in comparison to the majority of the world, most of us know by now that money doesn’t equal happiness.

In a little country in the Himalayan Mountains, the government professes to be more concerned with Gross National Happiness than with Gross Domestic Product (GDP). I find this a refreshing concept and one from which we could all learn.

Bhutan boasts a small population of less than one million residents who are primarily subsistence farmers and an annual GDP of only about three billion dollars. However, the country’s national policy maintains economic growth is not necessarily linked to contentment.

The whole concept of Gross National Happiness was coined in 1972 by then newly crowned king Wangchuck who bases his theory on four pillars which include economic self-reliance, a pristine environment, the preservation and promotion of Bhutan’s culture, and good governance in the form of democracy.

Wangchuck’s vision for national satisfaction appears to be paying off. A 2005 survey found 45 percent of Bhutanese citizens reported being very happy and 52 percent reported being happy – only three percent claimed they were not happy.

A similar survey in the US found only 30 percent of people reported being very happy, 58 percent were pretty happy and 12 percent were not too happy – in spite of America’s vastly more bustling economy.

The Happy Planet Index estimates the average level of life satisfaction in Bhutan is within the top 10 percent of nations worldwide – higher than other nations with similar levels of GDP per capita.

Bhutan’s idea of public policy being tied to how people feel about their lives is catching on with growing interest among international policy makers.

Now some countries are starting to see the value in an economic index that measures wellbeing in more human terms such as satisfaction with personal relationships, employment, meaning and purpose in life and the extent to which new developments improve standards of living.

A London-based think tank is advocating the British government to implement national wellbeing measures that include life satisfaction and personal development as well as liabilities such as stress and depression. Other European countries including Germany, Italy and France are looking into similar measures.

I think Canada would do well to incorporate similar measures into our public policy planning and begin to pay more attention to quality of life issues rather than the current approach which is more economically driven.

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About the Author

Paul Latimer has over 25 years experience in clinical practice, research, and administration.

After obtaining his medical degree from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, he did psychiatric training at Queen's, Oxford and Temple Universities. After his residency he did a doctorate in medical science at McMaster University where he was also a Medical Research Council of Canada Scholar.

Since 1983 he has been practicing psychiatry in Kelowna, BC, where he has held many administrative positions and conducted numerous clinical trials.

He has published many scientific papers and one book on the psychophysiology of the functional bowel disorders.

He is an avid photographer, skier and outdoorsman.

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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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