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Towards a New Conceptualization of Gross National Happiness and its Foundations McDonald, Ross, 1961- between 2005-06 and 2005-08

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 Towards a New Conceptualization of Gross National Happiness
and its Foundations
Dr Ross McDonald*
As all reading this will be aware, Bhutan's development
philosophy aims to increase Gross National Happiness (GNH),
a worthy and highly meaningful goal and anyone choosing to
work in this area will find a widespread affirmation of this
'novel' vision from almost all to whom it is mentioned.
However, we would be making a serious error if we were to
believe that national happiness constitutes a new goal. It has
in fact been the primary goal of both Buddhist and non-
Buddhist cultures for millennia and indeed it is difficult to
conceive of any form of social governance which does not have
this as its central spoken or unspoken goal. Even those forms
of social governance which have in practice produced massive
suffering (those devised by Pol Pot, Hitler and Stalin come
readily to mind) sought happiness - albeit for only a select few
and typically through ill-conceived ideological assumptions.
Across time and space, although we might premise social
progress upon seemingly differing goals, such as wealth,
fame, honour, love, equality, freedom or even racial purity all
such alternatives ultimately gain a common legitimacy from
an assumed association with enhanced fulfilment - and their
failure to produce this is always their final undoing. On an
individual level, the value of happiness as a super-ordrnate
outcome can be revealed in simple thought experiments
where we ask ourselves if we would be willing to seek money
if it did not lead to happiness, or fame even if it produced
'Professor, University of Auckland, New Zealand.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
personal misery. The answer is of course, a resounding no - a
fact that reveals the pre-eminence of happiness in human
Indeed, the desire for happiness is central to all western
philosophical traditions with the possible exception of a stern
stoicism and it is readily apparent in all of the world's major
religious forms where promises of bliss, joy and ecstasy draw
millions of the faithful into a wide range of spiritual beliefs
and practices. Thus Bhutan's development philosophy
accords with long established ideals in Western secularism,
Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and Confucianism along with
the vast majority of the world's indigenous 'faiths' from Africa
to the Americas and from the Pacific to Asia. To seek national
happiness then is nothing new but rather a long standing
tradition that only appears novel to modern secular societies
as a function of the obscuring impacts of a modernist
paradigm that confuses the means to happiness with the end
itself. As we shall see in the pages that follow, this is
particularly apparent in the ideology of free market
globalisation which has diluted many of the wiser traditions
listed above.
But before venturing into this terrain we need to note a
further and perhaps more fundamental obscuration central to
modernisation and that is the critical disregard for a similarly
foundational understanding common to all of the
aforementioned traditions - that the achievement of
widespread happiness is only possible via the prior cultivation
of moral maturity.
The Practical Inseparability of Moral Development and
The inviolable connection between moral maturity and true
happiness provides the intellectual foundation for almost
every system of sustainable social co-ordination. In
Christianity for example, the deepest fulfilment is
characterised by generosity, compassion, mutual respect and
the control of excessive appetites. This is readily apparent in
 Towards a New Conceptualization of Gross National
Happiness and its Foundations
the central core of Christian doctrine, the Ten
Commandments in which progress towards collective
wellbeing comes from the cultivation of these moral
sensibilities and the pro-social conduct that flows
spontaneously from them. Likewise, for Muslims, the Five
Pillars of Islam aim to inculcate a happy morality in which
charity, peacefulness, fellow-feeling and the control of
selfishness are the highest and most adaptive virtues. In
Confucianism, the skilful state of wu-wei is characterised by
respect, sympathy, service and generosity - attitudes
inseparable from happiness. In Hinduism the cultivation of
upeksa, mudita, maitri and brahmacarya represent the
flowering of our potential for joy and the same is thematically
true for Judaism, Jarnism, Sufisim and of course all branches
of Buddhism. Here, and particularly in Mahayana, the way to
happiness lies in the simultaneous cultivation of mindful
compassion and self-control. Evident in the articulation of the
Four Noble Truths, the Three Roots of Evil, the Eightfold path
and other insights is this central understanding that
happiness demands a compassionate connection with, and
contribution to the welfare of others. The same connection
applies to indigenous worldviews. In Maoridom for example, a
consciousness characterised by service to the collective,
respect for the environment and the containment of self-
seeking represents the most accomplished and fulfilling mode
of being as it does in almost every indigenous culture this
author is aware of. And although in some of the latter cases it
might be argued that a certain warrior-like violence is
condoned, this does not represent a denial of the need for
moral maturity but rather (as with Pol Pot et al) a failure to
extend the moral precepts to sufficiently broad and diverse
This essential co-joining of moral improvement and progress
towards both individual and collective happiness is equally
central to the secular traditions that underpin the
contemporary process of Western style modernisation.
Aristotle for example, argued forcibly that progress towards
the happiness he believed constituted the ultimate goal of
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human existence, was only possible via the cultivation of
moral virtue. A similar assumption underlies of all major
schools of Western philosophical ethics, as in Kantian
deontology for example, and is particularly explicit in that
most influential of forms - utilitarianism.
For Jeremy Bentham, The so-called 'father' of utilitarianism,
both the ultimate value of happiness and the need for a prior
moral accomplishment were self-evident. In attempting to
devise a rigorous liedonic calculus', he and his followers (Mill
and Rawls more recently) sought to systematically identify the
increases and decreases in happiness that accrue to all
affected by any particular course of action. In this scheme,
the relative value of action can be theoretically charted by
estimating its relative utility (its ability to induce lasting,
contagious and deep happiness) and dis-utility (its contrary
tendency to induce lasting, contagious and deep
unhappiness) in order that social action be directed towards
producing "the greatest happiness for the greatest number" -
exactly the goal that Bhutan has set for itself. Explicit in this
endeavour is the need to found an effective progress upon the
twin foundations of maximised sympathy for others and
maximum self-control - in other words upon the cultivation of
moral maturity.
Indeed even the great Adam Smith (that doyen of those who
would deny the need for moral intentionality) clearly
emphasised this same connection, a fact demonstrated by the
conceptual ordering of his highly influential works. His three-
volume treatise begins with the Theory of Moral Sentiments, a
systematic exposition of the need for sympathy and Truman
heartedness' if progress towards the decent society is to be
All in all then, as the above sketch illustrates, not only is
progress towards happiness the central aim shared by almost
all social philosophies both historical and contemporary, but
it is a progress utterly inseparable from the prior cultivation
of self-restraint,  respect and care for other constituencies.
 Towards a New Conceptualization of Gross National
Happiness and its Foundations
This almost universal wisdom has however, been successively
lost in the process of modernisation to be replaced by a less
grounded understanding characterised by two fateful
compromises. First the abandonment of happiness as the
ultimate end to be sought - this being replaced by a series of
subsidiary goals such as wealth and democracy. And second,
the denial of any need for an intentional morality - this being
replaced by a functional amorality in which progress is to be
coordinated by forces beyond our own control predominantly
the 'invisible hand' or the 'market mechanism'. The impact of
these obscurations is of tremendous importance and it is
imperative that Bhutan see clearly how and why this loss of
direction has come into being.
The Loss of Direction in Contemporary Globalisation
If we return to the historical roots of contemporary
globalisation we can see that the predominant intention of the
rational Enlightenment from which it emerged was explicitly
to increase the happiness of nations through moral
improvement. However, it did not take long for the integrity of
this originating intent to be compromised and for the basic
process of moral waywardness so characteristic of western
expansion to begin. In essence the loss of direction stems
directly from the rejection of an over-arching spiritual
authority in the form of the Christian Church and the
monolithic moral control it had exercised in European society
from the fourth century onwards.
In the two centuries preceding the 18th century
Enlightenment, European Christianity suffered from an
almost relentless decline in legitimacy, a crisis brought on by
a complex interplay of factors but centrally involving a
systematic increase in corruption and hypocrisy. The
increasing tendency of those high in the ranks of the Catholic
Church to seek material self-aggrandisement (through the
use of mortgages, the enclosure of common lands, the selling
of Indulgences and so forth) and to cling to untenable
scriptural 'truths' (concerning gravity, the movement of
planets,    the   nature   of   human   physiology   and   so   on)
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condemned the church to a diminishing authority, Critically
also, the split between the major orders of Christianity, the
Protestants and the Catholics, following Martin Luther's
damning attacks on Catholic legitimacy, led to a hundred
year war and a mutual derogation that left the credibility of
both in irreparable ruins. Thus, by the end of the seventeenth
century in Europe, religious authority had begun to wane and
it was into the resulting ideological breach that the rational
philosophers of the Enlightenment stepped.
These philosophers, Paine, Hutcheson, Smith, Bentham, Mill
and others argued cogently that there was a need for a radical
new approach to human progress and that this should be
based above all upon rational appraisal and the scientific-
technical improvement of society. Underlying the idealism of
the age was the assumed primacy of moral improvement to
individual development and the belief that this would be
spontaneously forthcoming if only society could free itself
from the corrupted influence of an irrational and morally
compromised church. Happiness then, would be best served
by facilitating personal freedom, a freedom in which
individuals could decide for themselves what constituted
acceptable behaviour. However, as history from that point on
has clearly shown, such optimism was misplaced and without
the restraining authority of a coherent institutionalised
morality, individual freedom has tended easily towards
neglect of others interests and the concomitant elevation of
selfishness to a pre-eminent operational status. The
permissive idealism inherent in Enlightenment individualism
has then moved Western society away from a trajectory of
rational self-improvement towards a deeply irrational culture
of oblivious self-indulgence.
The aetiology of this shift is highly complex involving
numerous strands of influence, but in broad outline the
source of the change is easy to identify. Simply put, the moral
optimism of the 18th century was undermined by the ascent
of an economistic philosophy propagated by the narrow
interests of a rising commercial class primarily interested in
 Towards a New Conceptualization of Gross National
Happiness and its Foundations
furthering its own material improvement. This elite managed
to effectively transform the pro-social potential of
Enlightenment doctrine into a compromised vision in which
the cultivation of moral maturity was deemed unnecessary.
This movement gained much strength from a partial reading
of the key Enlightenment texts and in particular of the
writings of Adam Smith. Thus, from the late Eighteenth
century on, the key moral arguments of the great
philosophers like Hutcheson, Smith and Bentham were
selectively ignored and their theorising reshaped in order to
provide justification for a much more exploitative and self-
seeking agenda. Key to this shift was the Wealth of Nations
and its proposal that an Invisible Hand would faultlessly
redirect self-seeking in such a way as to provide the greatest
collective happiness possible. That this argument was never
truly made by Smith was, and still is, unimportant to a
business class intent on seeking ideological justification for
its own immaturity. Thus, the contention that enacting a
rational competitiveness in which no consideration of others'
well being is necessary provided the perfect cover for
exploitation and self-indulgence. In a selective reading of
Smiths philosophy, there is no need for intentional
considerateness, generosity, respect or self-control as their
opposites, inconsiderateness, meanness, disrespect and
untrammelled self-indulgence will unerringly move society
towards universal wellbeing via the magical mechanism of an
Invisible Hand'. In fact, as this deeply irrational doctrine has
become embedded, the claim has transformed into an even
more extreme form in which the cultivation of any intentional
morality is seen as being deeply disruptive to market
functioning and injurious to the cause of widespread
Furthermore, modernist post-Enlightenment doctrine has
come to argue that happiness itself can be effectively ignored
as an outcome as it can be faultlessly replaced by more
proximate measures of market scale and expansion. This
revisionist tendency is again founded on disingenuous and
self-serving interpretations of such key thinkers as Smith,
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Bentham and David Ricardo to produce an ideology in which
all market expansion indicates an equivalent expansion in
satisfaction. This effective substitution of means for ends is
premised upon deeply irrational assumptions, such as the
belief that all market exchange is freely entered into and that
there are no ecological limitations beyond which economic
expansion cannot proceed without enormous cost. With these
falsehoods firmly institutionalised, the architects of modern
economic globalisation have forged for us all a deeply
problematic trajectory.
The end result of this obscurantism has been the
transformation of an integrated blue-print for simultaneous
moral and material development into a morally chaotic
'progress' that has polarised the world into unhappy and
unstable divisions of indulgent wealth and indefensible
poverty. Thus, we have come to inhabit a world in which a
few hundred billionaires have more wealth than the poorest
2.5 billion people combined, one in which 40,000 children die
each day from preventable starvation while wealthy countries
throw out 15-20% of all food as uneaten waste, and one that
is likely to be witness to the destruction of up to 25% of all
living species as we seek ever greater market growth. Under
the current doctrine of market pre-eminence, toxic pollution
is a rapidly growing problem and global food security is in
steep decline driven by collapsing fish stocks, changing
weather patterns and declining soil fertility. National
governments' ability to contain the amorality of market
'integration' is on the decline as they become increasingly
captured by the commercial imperatives that further embed
gross inequalities in wellbeing. Millions are being driven into
privation and dependence by the compete-or-die philosophy
of the worlds dominating financial institutions. And of critical
importance, morally restraining cultural systems the world
over are being swept away in a torrent of commercial media.
In sum then, post-Enlightenment modernity has lost its way
as a direct function of its critical rejection of happiness as a
conscious goal and of moral improvement as a necessary
 Towards a New Conceptualization of Gross National
Happiness and its Foundations
precondition for any meaningful 'progress'. That this is true is
evident not only in the objective state of the world but more
centrally in the utter futility of inconsiderate and exploitative
means to securing greater happiness. Despite a dramatic
acceleration in rates of material consumption in the post-war
period, developed societies have achieved no significant
advance towards greater national happiness. The well
documented fact that greater material consumption cannot
increase happiness after basic needs have been taken care of
is clear testimony to the moral and practical bankruptcy of
post-Enlightenment attempts to secure happiness through
proxy measures and moral laxity.
Currently, Bhutan's national development policy stands in
wise opposition to this trend seeking to maintain the explicit
pre-eminence of happiness as a national goal. In its current
formulation, Gross National Happiness is seen to rest upon
four foundations - culture, governance, the environment and
economy. The above discussion would suggest however, that
the real foundation of happiness is a widespread morality and
that if this is indeed the case, then Bhutan's current model is
incomplete in its failure to explicitly recognise the
fundamental importance of this factor in determining the
subsequent quality of cultural, governmental, environmental
and economic interaction. It is important that this key insight
be made foundational to policy making if Bhutan is to avoid
the unhappy disorientation inherent in modernity.
Towards a New Conceptualisation of Gross National
Having noted that the cultivation of moral maturity has not
yet been made an explicit part of the model of GNH to date, it
is nonetheless clearly evident that implicitly the connection
has been made. Thus, the four pillars are typically spoken
about in ways that clearly assume morality. Thus, governance
denotes good and progressive governance, culture a vibrant
and meaningful culture, economy a just and productive
economy and the environment a healthy and sustainable
environment. Essentially then, the present formulation clearly
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implies that happiness is founded on morally positive
relations with the four domains central to securing on-going
wellbeing. The implicit inverse of this conceptualisation
accordingly claims that unhappiness comes from morally
negative relations in these same domains
In reality then, the four 'pillars' central to Bhutanese
development represent overlapping domains of interaction,
ones which are truly inseparable from each other, and from
the broad level of moral development obtaining in a given
population. With regard to the environment for example, it is
clear that any population can interact with the surrounding
ecological system in either responsible or irresponsible ways -
ways that either recognise or fail to recognise the dependence
of all on the overall health of that system and accordingly
either tempers selfishness to accord with mature restraint or
fails to do so, When the former orientation dominates the
integral beauty of nature will be spontaneously respected, the
rights of other sentient beings upheld and the on-going
generatitivty of nature kept uppermost in considering the
needs of present and future generations. Alternatively, a
population can interact with the surrounding ecological
system in ways that are disrespectful and exploitative leading
to the integral beauty of nature being subjugated to selfish
short-term interests, the rights of other sentient beings being
denied and on-going generativity being undermined. The
former orientation premised upon a positive morality will
produce harmony and happiness in both the short and the
long run, while the latter orientation will produce conflict and
unhappiness both in the short and the long run.
A similar conclusion applies to each of the other three
domains of interaction. Thus, for example, relationships with
culture can be considerate and respectful, or they can be
exploitative and disrespectful. In the former case, the beauty
and meaning of Buddhist culture will be sustained by those
who appreciate its positive purpose and accordingly,
relationship with existing cultural forms will be healthy and
contributory.     Thus,      traditional     wisdom,     ideals     and
 Towards a New Conceptualization of Gross National
Happiness and its Foundations
meaningful practice can be continued into the future.
Alternatively, the relationship with culture can be
disrespectful and exploitative leading to the denial of its
relevance, legitimacy and beauty. Insights and ideals will be
rejected or engaged with only for personal gain - such as in
the raiding of lhakhangs and chortens and the selling of
cultural treasures for financial gain. Again, the former
orientation premised upon broad considerateness and self-
restraint will be more productive of happiness and harmony,
while the latter orientation will be produce unhappiness and
conflict both in the short and long term.
In the realm of governance the same principles apply.
Governance can be dominated by moral maturity leading to
contributory conduct both on the part of the governed and
the governing. Such a positive orientation will produce
policies that are non-corrupt, inclusive and caring whereas
morally immature orientations will produce the opposite
outcomes - corruption, favouritism, non-responsiveness and
a lack of care. Once again, moral maturity will produce
greater happiness and harmony than immaturity. Similarly,
with regard to the economy, persons and populations can
interact in ways that are considerate and contributory or in
ways that are inconsiderate and exploitative. The former will
engender a spirit of contribution, providing goods and
services that are of genuine value in enhancing the quality of
life and doing so in ways that are respectful of the dignity and
rights of workers and consumers. If driven by less mature
understandings, economic action will be more likely to
produce unnecessary or even harmful goods and services in
unsustainable and inconsiderate ways
From the above analysis then, it should be apparent that the
four interdependent domains identified in Bhutanese
development policy are indeed critical to enhancing national
happiness but that the determining factor is the degree of
actualised morality evident in government and the population
as a whole. Without broad considerateness and the
containment of excessive selfishness, environmental, political,
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social, cultural and economic relationships will be unhealthy
and deeply harmful to the cause of national happiness.
The implications of this are clear, namely that Bhutan's
developmental strategy must, as a pre-requisite priority, aim
towards the cultivation of those mature, non-exploitative and
unselfish attitudes upon which healthy and happy
relationships with the surrounding world depend. This
understanding returns us to a more grounded intuition
regarding the essential inseparability of morality and
widespread happiness and allows for a constructive realignment of Bhutan's current priorities with the original
intent of the modernist paradigm that Bhutan now wishes to
engage with.
Of Reframing our Understanding of the Four Contributory
Domains Happiness
As we have seen, Bhutan's development philosophy proposes
a series of four discrete domains but further clarification is in
order as, in reality these do not have an equal nor
independent impact on national happiness. Rather, these
elements exist in a more complex and subtle relationship
wherein culture constitutes the most fundamental principle -
effectively shaping all decision-making relating to the other
three domains of interest. This is due to the simple fact that
in any human collective, direction comes most fundamentally
from the values that constitute the core of that collective's
shared ideals. In other words, it is the moral code inherent in
culture that defines what constitutes progressive or regressive
development. If a culture is dominated by ideals of sympathy
and self-restraint then governance will be characterised by
these same principles and will aim towards establishing
social, economic and environmental policies that reflect and
regenerate these considerate values. If on the other hand, a
society's shared ideals come to revolve around the denial of
sympathy and self-restraint, governance will be characterised
by these contrary ideals and will aim towards enacting social,
economic and environmental policies that reflect these deeply
inconsiderate values.   Culture  then is not just  a co-equal
 Towards a New Conceptualization of Gross National
Happiness and its Foundations
factor in an adaptive pattern of development it is the critical
orientation that drives the whole pattern of collective
The values that are enshrined in Buddhist culture must then
be effectively applied by government and the degree of
governmental 'goodness' measured by reference to its
effectiveness in furthering these sovereign ideals. Thus, in
Bhutan, it is government's duty to pursue development
policies that further the cultivation of widespread wisdom,
compassion, sympathy, loving kindness and equanimity as an
inseparable precondition for national happiness. If this can be
done skilfully then development will be characterised by
ecological sustainability, social harmony and economic
balance but if governance succumbs to the compromised
ideals of globalisation in its current form, then these
relationships will instead be characterised by ecological
unsustainability, social conflict and economic imbalance. If
the latter were to obtain in Bhutan then governance, as
measured by Buddhist ideals could not be deemed to be
In essence then, I propose that GNH model be reframed in
accordance with the following diagram - one grounded in
Buddhist morality and one that illustrates what might be
termed a virtuous cycle of positive development conducive to
the creation of Gross National Happiness.
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The Positive of Gross National Cycle Happiness
2) Good' governance
and the formation of
considerate social,
economic and
3) Harmonious
relationships between
social, economic and
1) Buddhist cultural
values of self-control
and moral
consideration of other
constituencies (all
sentient beings)
In the above diagram, Buddhist moral-cultural values
determine government policy making in such a way that
relationships with environmental, social and economic
constituencies are mutually reinforcing and productive of a
deep and growing national happiness. Central to this
conceptualisation is the regenerative potential of such a
virtuous cycle such that the direction of positive advance
becomes self-reinforcing as balanced outcomes come to affirm
the on-going legitimacy of existing culture - strengthening
and continuing its influence on social development.
This progressive cycle can be compared with a regressive,
non-virtuous cycle of development, one detrimental to the
creation of national happiness. Here we see the opposite
potential in which morally immature values of inconsideration
and self-indulgence come to perpetuate a similarly
regenerating pattern of development, but one characterised
by mounting social, economic and environmental malady.
 Towards a New Conceptualization of Gross National
Happiness and its Foundations
The Negative Cycle of Gross National Unhappiness
2) 'Bad' governance and
the formation of
inconsiderate social,
economic and
environmental policies
3) Conflict-based
relationships between
social, economic and
1) Western cultural
values of self-indulgence
and inconsideration of
other constituencies
What this new conceptualisation implies is that if Bhutan is
to have a reasonable chance of forging a culturally consonant
pattern of genuine development, it must subject the process
of modernisation to a critical analysis grounded firmly in the
moral values of a considerate Buddhism. Hence, every major
aspect of modernisation from media to money must be
subjected to an evaluation that measures its worthiness
directly in terms of its contribution to, or detraction from the
moral maturity upon which sustainable happiness rests. .
The challenge then fundamentally relates to the maintenance
perspective and wisdom - that most foundational of Buddhist
values and the one from which all moral accomplishment
stems. In its current form, economic globalisation advances a
moral insensitivity that is profoundly ignorant of its own
ideological confusion. The only meaningful way to counter
this  is  through  education  and  the  maintenance  of moral
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clarity. So what are the implications of this for Bhutan's
future? I would argue that once the foundational importance
of morality is accepted that the government has little choice
but to implement on-going means of public education
designed to clarify the unhappy impacts of western-style
modernisation and counter these with culturally consonant
means to a happier development. In saying this however, I am
aware immediately of how this might be received by
enthusiastic modernisers both inside and outside of Bhutan
who may immediately sense in this recommendation a
patronising and controlling moralism. However, this
perception must be challenged as it is at base, an argument
for further embedding the moral chaos that is productive of
so much misery in the global order. In response the question
must be asked of whether the current trajectory of increasing
ecological collapse and economic privation is in any way
justifiable. It can indeed be argued that people ought to be
free to determine their own morality, but this freedom has to
operate within reasonable limits - bounded by some degree of
consideration and self-control.
Ideally of course, any institutional imposition on the
individual is undesirable but that is not the aim here. The
point rather is to facilitate a willing acceptance of the need for
self-restraint in order that the wellbeing of those beyond the
furthered. This takes us to an important observation - that all
human collectives need to socialise their members and
inculcate those values that promote social harmony and well-
being. The error often made by advocates of a purified
freedom is to assume that members of modern and
modernising societies can be truly free from such influence.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the
expansion of modern globalising culture is premised upon a
highly systematic socialisation through which the values of
negligent individualism are propagated. Central to this is the
unstinting drive to inculcate values of material accumulation
and social comparison. Commercial television, magazines,
radio and above all, advertising, all constitute tremendously
powerful forces intent on encouraging disconnection from the
 Towards a New Conceptualization of Gross National
Happiness and its Foundations
environmental and social impacts of excessive personal
consumption. It should be clear to any observer of the current
order that an institutional shaping of values is very much a
part of globalisation and its agenda. To deny this is simply
naive. The choice for Bhutan then is not between institutional
imposition and freedom, but rather between conflicting types
of institutional socialisation - one intent on forging an
irresponsible sense of moral disconnection, the other intent
on forging a sense of responsible moral connectedness.
So how would a more progressive Buddhist socialisation
work. In essence it must accord with the main tenets of a
Buddhist sensibility and particularly with the realisation that
forcible imposition rarely constitutes a workable means to
moral improvement. Rather, we should recall that Buddhism
is explicit in its recommendation that personal development
can only truly occur when practice is chosen freely and the
fruits of that practice experienced in such a way that its
legitimacy is realised. Thus, Buddhist morality must be made
available as a framework that has much to offer individuals
and communities in their own strivings for happiness and
care must be taken to ensure that its wisdom is not washed
away in a torrent of distraction and sub-conscious
commercial socialisation.
Forging a Balanced Development in Bhutan
Over the coming years Bhutan will be challenged to balance
two radically differing worldviews, an indigenous one in which
self-restraint and non-accumulation lead to happiness and a
foreign one in which self-indulgence and accumulation lead to
happiness. In all such situations, the former can only prevail
if it is institutionally facilitated and the latter institutionally
contained. It has been suggested above that in order to
maintain the values of a positive development, an on-going
education be facilitated and I will return to the specifics of
this in a moment. Firstly though, some comments on the
containment of modernity's corruptions are in order.
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
It is well known that the major socialising effects in modern
culture come from the commercial imperatives of corporations
and their control of the critical media through which public
'reality' is shaped. In a previous paper1, I argued that
commercial television is the central mode of consumerist
socialisation and that its introduction into Bhutan represents
the single biggest threat to the virtuous cycle outlined above.
This conclusion was based on the well-documented impacts
of commercial television on community cohesion, personal
appetite and moral clarity. If Bhutan genuinely wishes to
forge a more constructive path to genuine happiness then it
must seek to control the degenerative impact of this medium.
This argument applies not only to the actual content of
television programming and its celebrations of sex, violence
and possessiveness but most of all to the direct
manipulations of advertising. The values central to modern
entertainment stands in direct opposition to Buddhist values
and if these are to survive, the onslaught of televisions
contrary influence must be contained in one way or another.
How this might be done is a difficult issue and it is clear that
Bhutanese officials are grappling with it. However, I would
have to say that recent attempts to censor certain channels
seem somewhat poorly targeted - taking Indian soap operas
to task for example, but not 'shoot-em-up' American movies. I
would suggest that a more simple solution be applied, one
which would involve a strict limitation of the hours of
broadcast, say to four hours per day. This suggestion is based
upon the understanding that the most dramatic impacts of
television lie in its constant absorption of the viewers
attention and its ability to obviate understandings of larger,
more grounding realities. The current 24 hours of multichannel broadcasting permits an unprecedented socialisation
that is deeply damaging to Bhutan's stated agenda. Rather
than engage with a complex censorship of particular
programmes, I would suggest a simpler and more effective
solution and allow broadcasting of imported programming
only between the hours of 6 and 10pm. In this way it can be
included   in   Bhutanese   life   without   wholly   undermining
 Towards a New Conceptualization of Gross National
Happiness and its Foundations
cultural values to the extent that it is almost certainly doing
at the moment.
This I believe is a critical challenge and one in which the
opposing ideals of Buddhist and modern culture are inherent.
Given the state of the current global order it is beyond doubt
that Western style development is completely unsustainable
and wholly indefensible in its polarisations of rich and the
poor. The resource base of the planet is sufficiently limited
that encouraging more rapid consumption of what remains is
reckless in the extreme. Television is the mode through which
enhanced appetites are propagated and although it might
indeed be argued that individuals ought to be free to be
shaped into these maladaptive priorities, such a perspective
is defensible only to the extent that a Buddhist morality is
suspended. The argument is similar in form to the
government's recent laudable decision to ban smoking in the
Kingdom. This decision recognises the negative effects of
smoking on well being and denies individuals the right to do
themselves and others harm through indulging the habit. A
similar restraint can be applied to the television habit where
again I believe there is a clear need for protective measures to
be taken if Buddhism is to remain vital and vibrant.
Noting the need to contain the dissolving morality of modern
individualism is only half of the strategic picture though, and
simultaneously Bhutan would be well-advised to implement
strategies through which Buddhism's authority can be
maintained. Central to this is the generation of a thorough
understanding of just how consumerism is impacting the
world and why it cannot produce widespread happiness in
either the short or the long term. Such wisdom must involve a
clear comprehension that the root problem of modern
globalisation lies in the disconnection it cultivates in the mind
of the modern consumer - one that that renders all
consumable goods and services devoid of history and future.
It is indeed one of the hallmarks of modern consumer culture
that products are removed from their social and ecological
context and such a 'forgetting' is central to the expansion of
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
globalisation in its current form. If Bhutan as a nation is not
to become party to the destructiveness of the modern world
then it must freely and consciously decide that widespread
privation and ecocide are not acceptable outcomes - a
decision that can only emerge from a morally connected
understanding of globalisation and its discontents. Thus a
widespread understanding of the dynamics of global trade,
finance, environment, society, culture, debt, governance and
happiness must be encouraged if Bhutan's newly
democratising government is to find the pubic support
necessary for national restraint. This facilitation of national
understanding can be engaged in a variety of ways only a few
of which are sketched below.
Public Education through the Media
Although the negative effects of imported commercial
television have been noted, it should be equally apparent that
the medium has much to offer if it is utilised as an
instrument for broad-mindedness as opposed to narrow-
mindedness. This was the original intention in setting up the
Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) which was designed to
provide a counterweight to the influence of imported
programming. In its current form it does much that is useful
for the continuation of Bhutanese culture through its popular
radio and television offerings but its potential is perhaps
being under-utilised to the extent that it does not contribute
to a questioning of the hegemonic nature of incoming
commercialisation. I suggest that BBS take on a wider role as
an agency concerned not only with the promotion of existing
culture but also with a critical questioning of the consumerist
culture that seeks to replace it. There are a host of valuable
documentaries that would be readily available to Bhutan if
she were to show an interest. The global media network TVE
for example is a non-profit distributor of high quality
educational documentaries that has agreements with scores
of countries allowing them to access and broadcast a huge
range of programming exploring the current state of global
society and environment. If these programmes were
selectively broadcast in conjunction with the current range of
 Towards a New Conceptualization of Gross National
Happiness and its Foundations
excellent indigenous programming, then Bhutan could go a
long way towards cultivating the perspective necessary for
walking a middle path of reasonable and sustainable
development. This would be particularly so if such
programming were skilfully integrated with current affairs
programming encouraging public debate on the conflicting
values and impacts of indigenous versus foreign style
The Public Education System
The value of education was noted early in Bhutan's five year
planning process and the majority of the Kingdoms
population now have widespread access to education. This is
a very valuable advance but as many in Bhutan have pointed
out, there is a considerable emphasis on an Anglo-Indian
curriculum, one that enshrines the values of competitiveness,
individual achievement and the technical mastery of
numeracy and literacy. Alongside this largely imported
system, is an indigenous monastic form in which more
traditional emphases on self-understanding and moral clarity
are uppermost. It is not surprising that these educational
systems seem to produce different outcomes and that the
former has been associated with a lesser respect for Buddhist
knowledge and tradition. I would suggest that if a truly
Buddhist path to happiness is desired, then it is important to
explore the reasons why imported education seems to hinder
an appreciation of existing culture.
Much of this may have to do with a radical under-emphasis
on Buddhism as a way of understanding and orienting to the
world around. Problem solving in the realms of language,
mathematics and science are all of critical importance but
this is equally true with regard to the interactions between
environment, economy, governance, culture and self and
these themes could usefully be integrated into the
mainstream curriculum to much greater effect. The moral
quality of these interactions is absolutely central to Gross
National Happiness and I would suggest that these issues be
brought into the heart of the national curriculum in order
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
that students gain the skills to debate and evaluate GNH as a
national goal and the various means by which their own
conduct might contribute to (or detract from) that goal. If
these themes could be integrated at all levels of the education
system then the understanding of happiness, morality and
the four interdependent domains of culture, governance,
environment and economy could be greatly advanced and the
quality of national debate significantly improved. (In part this
suggestion is based upon the striking observation that most
'ordinary' people I speak to in Bhutan have little to no idea of
what GNH means).
Open Policy Formation.
In the day-to-day functioning of government, it is critically
important that policy formation continue to be seen as an
opportunity for education and debate over the direction of
national development. An excellent precedent for this has
already been set in the system of national five year plans
which are widely available for public perusal and comment. It
is particularly apparent in the current process of
democratisation where the National Constitution has been
made available to almost the entire population for their
consideration and input. As has been constantly reiterated in
this paper, a national consensus for a restrained and decent
form of achieving national happiness can only be practically
successful if the majority accept and internalise its
foundational legitimacy and this can only be ensured if there
is a broad understanding of GNH and its moral foundations
on the part of the vast majority.
Given that Bhutan is in the process of decentralising its
traditional monarchic power base, it is particularly important
that the broad populace who will determine national policy
through the democratic process be familiar with the moral
grounding of national policy and the reasons for its
development. Policy making should be driven by a spirit of
genuine openness and resist any temptation towards
dogmatism or force. After all, if the cultural framework from
which GNH emanates is indeed sufficiently profound to direct
 Towards a New Conceptualization of Gross National
Happiness and its Foundations
a more meaningful form of national development then it must
be capable of standing up to scrutiny and open debate. If in
fact it is valid, it can only be strengthened by such open
exploration and so facilitating this within the broad polity
would be time very well spent for Bhutan's future.
Summary and Conclusion
This paper has argued that Gross National Happiness is not
the novel vision that many imagine but rather the central
common goal of societies and cultures around the world.
Further, it has been argued that all such sociologies have at
their heart a moral code that insists upon the cultivation of
sympathy and self-restraint if the goal of widespread
happiness is to be achieved. The exception to this is
globalisation in its modern form, an ideology that has
removed itself from these explicit foundations to counter-
intuitively propose that pursuing the means of individual
accumulation can somehow substitute for an explicit pursuit
of collective happiness and that in this pursuit no moral
intentionality is required. This contrary perspective is both
logically false and practically disastrous.
If Bhutan is to achieve the national happiness it seeks then it
must reject this dissolving rationalisation as it constitutes
little more than an opaque excuse for responsibility-free
governance and morally oblivious self-indulgence. But as
things stand the development philosophy of the Royal
Government is only partially complete in pointing to four
domains important to achieving national happiness. The true
foundations of GNH are mutual sympathy and self-restraint
as these determine the quality of relationship in each of the
four domains listed above.
It is essential then that Bhutan recognise the fundamental
nature of the development challenge that now faces the
country and see the centrality of the conflict between
opposing moral world views, one of which insists that the
traditional strengths of generosity, compassion, loving-
kindness and equanimity be enhanced, the other that they be
 Journal of Bhutan Studies
abandoned. If they are abandoned then Bhutan joins the host
of nations that are forcing upon the world an unhappy and
troublesome future. If they are maintained then Bhutan can
rightfully accept the praise showered upon GNH by so many
around the world. Buddhist restraint is deeply inimical to
modernist economy which seeks to overthrow it and replace it
with a wholly negligent freedom. Bhutan may prone to
accepting this corruption not through any rational analysis of
its worthiness but rather through the suspension of any
critical judgement grounded in her own cultural inheritance.
This can only be avoided if Bhutanese policy makers
consciously place culture and its continuation at the heart of
development and utilise its on-going wisdom in orienting
responsibly and happily to the changing currents of modern


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