Economy of Well Being
Karen Mazurkewich, staff reporter of
The Wall Street
THIMPHU, Bhutan - Five years ago, Tashi
Wangyal had it all: a master's degree in philosophy from
Cambridge University, a beautiful girlfriend, and an attractive
job offer as a consultant in London. But the scholarship
student, then 25 years of age, threw it all away for a $120-a-month
job in Bhutan, the isolated Buddhist kingdom perched in
The Bhutanese native's decision confounded
his university friends, particularly classmates from neighboring
India and Nepal who dreamed of working abroad in high-paying
jobs. But Mr. Wangyal thought long and hard about a different
commodity that preoccupies the minds of his fellow Bhutanese:
"The reason was fairly simple: the more
I traveled and lived abroad, the more I learned to appreciate
what we had at home," he says.
Despite Bhutan being among the poorest nations
in the world, almost all of its scholarship students studying
overseas return home after graduation. One reason they cite:
The Bhutanese government has not only pushed forward with
improvements in health care, education, and the environment,
it has also actively pursued the more elusive goal of promoting
its nation's happiness.
A few years ago, the government threw out
the usual indicators measuring progress, replacing them
instead with an innovative model-called "gross national
happiness"-that now has researchers and think-tank agencies
around the world taking note. While GNH isn't something
that can be charted or ranked, Bhutan's concept embraces
everything from protecting natural resources to promoting
a strong national culture and ensuring democratic governance-goals
that help create a foundation of happiness for citizens.
"Bhutan is a very rare example, probably
the only example in the world, of a country that has built
happiness into the center of its development strategy,"
says Ron Coleman, director of GPI Atlantic, a Canadian nonprofit
research organization that studies the quality of life.
"They are sacrificing short-term income for long-term social
It's not only Bhutan that is questioning
the value of measuring material wealth without regard to
a more comprehensive notion of fulfillment.
The World Values Survey, a group of international
social scientists, released a report last year that ranked
happiness by country. The study, which analyzes the impact
of values and beliefs on political and social life through
a series of questionnaires, concluded that the African country
of Nigeria is the happiest in the world, perhaps a result
of its residents' striking tendency to describe their emotional
highs in extreme terms; the U.S. came in at 16.
At least one marketing firm in the U.S.
is interested in tweaking the old GDP model to take into
account wellbeing. And Ed Diener, a professor of psychology
at the University of Illinois, has been asked by the Gallup
Organization, the U.S.-based research and polling group,
to create a national well-being index. Although the initiative
has just begun, "the goal is to design something that could
sit next to the Dow Jones average [stock index] in the corner
of the TV screen," he says.
Mr. Diener has spent the past 18 years studying
the link between happiness and prosperity. He's trying to
debunk the notion that gross domestic product, a measure
of a country's economic production, provides an accurate
snapshot of national well-being.
Mr. Diener recently analyzed more than 150
studies on wealth and happiness, co-publishing a comprehensive
report, "Beyond Money: Toward an Economy of Well-Being."
His conclusion on global progress: "Although economic output
has risen steeply over the past decades, there has been
no rise in life satisfaction."
According to Mr. Diener's report, as societies
attain a certain level of wealth, income becomes less of
a factor in people's level of contentment. Emotional well-being
is determined not necessarily by your bank account, but
by the quality of social relationships, enjoyment at work,
job stability, democratic institutions, and strong human
Emotional well-being is something Bhutan's
King Druk Gyalpo Jigme Singye Wangchuck has been pursuing
for his subjects since he ascended the throne in 1972. Like
Mr. Diener, the king sought an alternative to the GDP progress
ranking. His philosophy was this: GDP reveals precious little
about a nation's true wealth. Leaders shouldn't only strive
for material wealth, they must also cultivate inner contentment.
The concept was formalized in 1998, with the prime minister
of the time, Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, charged with articulating
the government's new master School children in Bhutan master
plan, dubbed the Four Pillars of Happiness. These pillars-sustainable
economic development, conservation of the environment, the
promotion of national culture, and good governance -create
conditions "in which every individual will be able to pursue
happiness with reasonable success," says Mr. Thinley.
First and foremost, in the wake of globalization,
the tiny kingdom of Bhutan-population 828,000-had to push
reforms that would stimulate its economic development. But
the key, as outlined in the first pillar, was "sustainable"
economic development. This meant prioritizing long-term
healthcare, education, and social economic services over
other infrastructure needs. To this end, about a quarter
of the country's annual budget was set aside for hospital
services and schools.
The second pillar, conservation of the environment,
was also given top priority in the country's new development
scheme. Rather than throw open the country's doors to foreign
investment and sell off its precious natural resources,
the country kept investors at bay, banned the export of
unprocessed timber, and restricted the number of tourists
to about 6,000 per year.
The third pillar, the promotion of culture,
was considered essential to maintain spiritual balance.
Anchoring his subjects in religious practice was part of
the king's master plan. And finally, the last goal was good
governance. In 1998, the king accelerated the process of
democratization by voluntarily divesting himself of some
of his powers. The government's Council of Ministers is
now elected and vested with full executive powers.
Not only was Mr. Thinley charged with helping
to draft these policies to ensure happiness, but the king
assigned him "the task of taking the concept of GNH beyond
our borders." The graying statesman didn't relish the job:
"I went, but with a great sense of hesitation because we
had no idea how it would be received," he recalls.
But the world has been hungry for a little
happiness. In the past few years Mr. Thinley has been talking
about GNH on the international speakers circuit, including
at a United Nations' conference in Seoul in 1998.
Bhutan may also generate its own quantifiable
happiness index for use abroad. Mr. Coleman, of GPI Atlantic,
is hoping to work with the Center for Bhutan Studies to
calculate a well-being ranking that will factor in human
Mr. Thinley is eager to prove that his country didn't sacrifice
development for happiness, and social indices back this
up. Since 1985, life expectancy has improved from 48 years
to 66 years. Over that time, infant mortality has dropped
from 142 deaths per thousand to 61. Education is also a
success story: The literacy rate has climbed from 23% to
54% of the population, and the country's first university
was inaugurated in 2003. In addition, the number of health
facilities rose from 65 in 1985 to 155 today.
The country's economic prospects are also
improving. Bhutan's GDP has risen about 45% in the past
few years, moving from $445 million in 1999 to $645 million
While its neighbor Nepal has a much higher
GDP, it ranks lower than Bhutan on education and environmental
fronts. In Bhutan, more than 90% of children reach grade
five schooling, compared to 62% in Nepal.
Bhutan is no utopia. Its capital is looking
less pristine these days, beset by traffic jams at rush
hour and the strains of rapid growth from urbanization.
Set in picturesque mountains, it's experiencing a mini-boom
in building that is cluttering a once unspoiled landscape.
Five years ago, Bhutan hired its first psychologist,
Chencho Dorji. "Among the youth, we are seeing more anxiety,"
Mr. Dorji says. He attributes this in part to job insecurity:
"We have acquired a huge population boom since the 1960s
because of increased health care."
The belated arrival of media and technology
has also had an impact. Television was finally allowed into
the country in 1998, and cell phones were introduced last
year. "Suddenly it's dawned on us that ours is a growing
materialistic society," says Mr. Dorji. Stress and alcoholism
are also on the rise.
But ask any local if Bhutanese citizens
are the happiest in the world, and the answer is most likely
The secret to Bhutan's success is balance,
says restaurant owner Sangay Penjor, 53, who runs the Yoddzer
Hotel and Indian restaurant in Bhutan's capital of Thimphu.
During peak tourist season he can make $2,000 a month profit;
in the lean months, he just breaks even. "If you are too
poor, you are fighting for your basic needs," he says. "But
when there's an excess of ambition and goals you lose track
of your human face. Once your basic needs are taken care
of, you should know what is enough."
Religion provides the check, he adds. "It's
human nature to want money and every comfort that the modern
world offers you: electricity, cars, expensive things."
Despite the arrival of secular influences such as television
and mobile phones, spiritual life in Bhutan is stronger
than ever, with enrollments at monasteries reaching an all-time
high, and donations at record levels.
So, if religion is one of the keys to happiness,
can Buddhist Bhutan serve as a template for other countries?
"Other countries can learn from [Bhutan's] ability to take
national planning to the grassroots level," says Enrique
Pantoja, a World Bank country officer.
But there is a catch. "The evolution of
Bhutan as a nation has been underlined by the articulation
of a distinct Bhutanese identity. I think it would be difficult
for any country without such a strong philosophy and development
vision to emulate Bhutan's," he says.
The indicators for happiness as defined by both Mr. Coleman
and Mr. Diener of the University of Illinois mirror the
reasons Tashi Wangyal gives for returning to the country.
While it was important for Mr. Wangyal to provide comfortably
for his family-he earns about the average wage for a government
employee-it wasn't high on his list of aspirations. Having
a voice and making a contribution to society gave him more
pleasure. Mr. Wangyal, now a researcher at the Foreign Affairs
Ministry, says good governance and political reforms made
him confident about the future of his country, as did the
free medical care and education.
But, most importantly: "Bhutan is one of
the best places in the world to raise a child." Mr. Wangyal,
who married his childhood sweetheart, Dechen Wangmo, and
now has a two-and-ahalf- year-old daughter, says that he
has a whole network of people to look after his family if
he has to work late. "People in the West focus on career.
It's fairly individualistic," he says. In Bhutan, "community
values are prized and everyone helps each other out."
There are some downsides, he admits. It's
too expensive to travel outside of Bhutan, and he still
can't afford a car. Mr. Wangyal's biggest purchase since
his return was a $300 mountain bike that he rides to work
every day. And then there's his weakness for fresh coffee.
"There's no Starbucks here. That's what I miss the most."
This story appeared in the Friday, October 8, 2004 online
The Wall Street Journal.
It is reprinted
here by permission of
The Wall Street Journal,
© 2004 Dow Jones Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
License number 1092690332489.
© 1990-2005, More Than Money, All rights reserved