This secluded Buddhist kingdom uses a unique barometer to measure economic progress. And the message of the 2015 Gross National Happiness Index is a troubling one: Money isn’t buying enough contentment. Tucked high in the Himalayas between India and China, Bhutan was poor and largely closed to foreigners when its fourth king declared, in the 1970s, that “gross national happiness” was more important than gross domestic product, or GDP.
So Bhutan’s happiness surveyors think it’s worth asking a few questions. Among them:
“How much do you trust your neighbours?” “Is lying justifiable?” “Do you feel like a stranger in your family?” The index also surveys knowledge of artisan skills such as embroidery, carpentry and papermaking.
If “we are increasing in richness but we’re not doing so well overall in well-being, and people are not as content, then something definitely is wrong,” Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said in this serene capital, 7,700 feet above sea level.
Bhutan, population 750,000, still feels like a place out of time. Traditional architecture and dress prevail: Men wear knee-length robes, tied at the waist, with over-the-calf socks. An early-morning prayer session is among the state-run television network’s most popular programs. The fourth monarch’s pronouncements about national happiness were only pronouncements until 2010, when Bhutan computed its first happiness index. By then, he had abdicated the Golden Throne and his son and successor, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, presided over the country’s transition to a parliamentary democracy.
In the meantime, his philosophy inspired others around the globe. In 2008, France’s then-president, Nicolas Sarkozy, commissioned an influential study of alternative gauges of economic welfare. The U.K. started a “Measuring National Well-Being” program in 2010, and U.S. cities like Santa Monica, Calif., have followed suit. The U.N. just released its third World Happiness Report, created in response to a 2011 proposal by Bhutan. Yet none of those efforts to measure national morale are quite like Bhutan’s. For Further reading