I was able to meet Mr. Karma Tshiteem, the Bhutanese Secretary for Gross National Happiness (GNH) in his office in the Thimphu Dzong after having spent about a month in the Himalayan mountains of his country.
KoelnerZeilen: Karma, first of all, thank you very much for agreeing to meet me and have a conversation on GNH. I have to say you probably have the most interesting job title in the world: “Secretary of Gross National Happiness”.
Karma: I am very happy that you say that. Most people do start to laugh when they see my title, but maybe making people laugh is not a bad thing either.
KoelnerZeilen: Up in the mountains, I asked everyone I met about the concept of GNH and everyone offered a good explanation. However, they all agreed that the best person to explain that philosophy to me would be you.
Karma: Last year I was walking in these mountains as well and I really enjoyed it. We do like to think about GNH as a concept and as a philosophy, but also as a vision of where we want to go.
Our fourth king over 35 years ago defined the vision when he stated that what the Bhutanese people want and also what he wanted for the Bhutanese people is a good and happy life. Consequently the prime objective of any government should be to do everything possible to enable this good and happy life for the people they have taken responsibility for.
This obviously leads directly to the question: “What makes people happy?” In particular, after we moved to a structure of democracy in 2006, it became important that we define this vision so that it can be used to guide our further development, even as we became a democracy. This led to the development of the GNH Index, comprised of a series of very different metrics that we are tracking.
KoelnerZeilen: Now, obviously I have to ask the question: What creates happiness?
Karma: In our work, we define happiness in a multidimensional manner. We defined nine different areas that are important in creating happiness.
First, there are five areas that I call the tangible ones, and that are relatively straightforward and to do with: Living standards, health, education, environment and good governance. For example, housing and a job should be available to our people as a part of the minimum living standards. We should provide health services to all as well as schooling opportunities. The environmental aspect is really important. A tree that you can look at and that you can enjoy provides a value that is not reflected in its economic value as wood. Finally, we need to strive for a democratic government which allows greater self-determination and involvement of the people in our development, be free of corruption, uphold rule of law etc.
KoelnerZeilen: These do make good sense to me, but you also mentioned the less tangible criteria.
Karma: Among the non-material aspects that contribute to happiness, we are looking at psychological wellbeing. Are the needs of the mind fulfilled? Do we have the right balance between body and mind? This balance can be achieved through very different means. For instance, we know the power of prayers —which God you pray is up to you — and meditation and quietness for reflection are a major source of mental wellbeing. These help to decrease stress. Consequently, even suicide is an indicator of significant imbalances.
Cultural identity is the next important area for us. In Bhutan this is manifested, for example, through our traditional architecture, the clothing and the language. All this creates an identity, makes people proud of being Bhutanese. You are also part of it now by wearing our traditional dress.
Koelnerzeilen: Which is not only special but also comfortable to wear, I have to say.
Karma: Very important also is community vitality. Humans are social animals, so we really thrive on relationships. Family, friends, neighbors need to be around you. Think about it. The same experience is so much more valuable if you can share it with others, rather than experiencing it alone.
In this domain, family is central and critical. We know that you can teach a lot of valuable information at school, but for values, kids look up to their parents. Sharing is another important principle that we are trying to promote. Willingness to volunteer is also a very crucial indicator, as is the level of trust among neighbors.
Finally, and definitely not to be forgotten, we should look at time usage. Some people in your country would say, “Time is money”; we believe, “Time is life”. You need to use your time and spend it wisely on the things that are important to you. If something is important to you and you spend your time on something else, you are not likely to be happy.
Also you need to find the right balance between work, leisure and rest. We think an equal division of the 24 hour day into three is ideal. In this approach it is not necessarily wise to work too hard; what you have to do is to work smart. Time is the most precious of all our resources and needs to be spent wisely.
KoelnerZeilen: So these nine criteria need to play together to create increasing happiness?
Karma: Yes, that is where we have arrived on our journey so far. But you need to make sure that they are in the right balance. Finding the right balance is the central piece.
KoelnerZeilen: Are you afraid that the developments in mobility and communication will change your lifestyle?
Karma: Indeed, we no longer have the situation of multiple generations living on one farm. On the other hand, we are offering good school education in remote places and it is quite often not a good return on investment to stay at your father’s farm if you have received a good education. So, we have to allow for change.
At the same time, our family ties are still very strong and I believe this will continue to be the case. I myself live quite a way from my mother but I always stay in touch and visit her. This makes her happy, which is the most important thing and in turn makes me happy as well.
KoelnerZeilen: How much does the concept of GNH rely on Buddhism?
Karma: Clearly, since it has been developed in Bhutan and we are a Buddhist country, the principles are based on our religion and you could say that the concept of GNH is rooted in Buddhist thoughts. However, its application is not directly based on Buddhist teachings as can be seen from what I have said. However, Buddhists practices that have been incorporated like reflecting upon the day and existence for a few minutes each day are helpful anyway. Therefore, I would say that the successful application of GNH does not depend on a certain religion as a precondition.
KoelnerZeilen: What are the largest challenges that you are seeing for GNH development in Bhutan?
Karma: Of course we always have to readjust and make sure we did find the right balance of things. That is a constant and ongoing effort. As we can see from our indicators, we are doing rather well on all areas, with one notable exception.
We are able to support a structure of free healthcare and education, of improving our infrastructure and so on. But we are struggling to finance this completely by our own means and are still dependent on donor support. Therefore, a key next step that we need to take in order to reach sustainability is to achieve economic self-reliance which will require among others, a diversification of our economy.
KoelnerZeilen: Do the Bhutanese corporations also implement the ideas of GNH?
Karma: Obviously the GNH vision has been created in the political and societal frame but, interestingly, the large companies in Bhutan have recently started to implement the GNH concept into their work. For example, the weekends are sacred and they are striving for a more balanced use of time. They realized that happy employees are more productive and have implemented this voluntarily; there is no political direction given. It is again the art of finding the right balance, in this case between the employees, the customers and the shareholders.
Koelnerzeilen: Do you think the concept of GNH can also be applied to larger countries, like for example Germany?
Karma: Why not? It is worth having that dialogue among you about what really matters, talk about it, discuss it. You could then agree on a target, a vision. Decide what you want to achieve together. For us it was happiness, and I can only say that it is a good target for us. It might very well be a good one for you too.
So try it out and see where it takes you. The chances are pretty good that you will end in a better place than the one you have been in before.
KoelnerZeilen: Are you promoting your ideas outside of Bhutan?
Karma: Yes, we did start this process a while ago through the United Nations. We believe that Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product. That is because GNH is a vision, a goal worth achieving by itself. This does not apply to the Gross National Product, which is only a means to help getting to a target, but is rather meaningless in itself.
Look at China and India, the two large neighbors we have. Both are striving to attain income and lifestyle conditions similar to those of the developed countries like the USA and they are making good progress at it. Yet on the other hand, we also know that our ecological resources are not sufficient to support such aspirations. So if the target is achieved, it will be at the expense of the very earth we call our home. Basically, the right view we all should have is to imagine if we were on a spaceship, in which case, because everyone could see the resource limitations, and we would make very different and considered choices. We would not behave like we do today. Yet the earth is fundamentally a large spaceship.
Consequently, we need a change in the way we think about development. We are all in this together and we in Bhutan think we have some ideas for a different, more sustainable and hopefully happier way forward. And we are happy to share our experience.
Koelnerzeilen: Thank you very much, Karma, for your time and for sharing your insight and experience.
Karma: Thank you for visiting me and visiting my country.