The value of happiness
By Siok Sian Pek-Dorji
Bhutan is a small kingdom with 650,000 people, landlocked between the world’s giants — China to the north, India to the south. It is the world’s youngest democracy with the world’s youngest king. And it is a country that believes in Gross National Happiness (GNH).
The vision of GNH is the developmental philosophy of Bhutan, a nation about the size of Switzerland. Often called the “hermit kingdom,” Bhutan only recently opened its doors to the world with the beginning of a drive towards modern development in the 1960s, and the introduction of television and the Internet in 1999.
Bhutan has been my home for 21 years, and during that time I watched as the enlightened king of this country gave up his absolute power and led his people into a democratic transition. Democracy is today a whole new culture that introduced party politics and caused tensions in a harmonious country that had never before required a winner and loser at the polls. But with the shift to democracy has also come philosophical change. Amidst this dramatic period of change, the confidence of a people who have never suffered the throes of colonization emerges stronger than ever. Here is a rugged mountain people who embrace life with an inner sense of connection with family, community and their spiritual land. And I often wonder how this small country has tapped the wisdom of centuries to pursue a lofty vision that values Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product.
So what is GNH?
This happiness is not pleasure, not Disneyland fun. It is the ability to need less, not want more. It is about contentment, about wisdom and compassion. It is also about equity and justice. In Bhutanese society, happiness is not the ha-ha happiness sold in popular media. It is a deeper sense of being, and of the realization that we are all connected – every one of us in the human, animal and plant kingdoms.
The fourth King of Bhutan first expressed the idea of GNH in 1979 to Indian journalists who asked him what Bhutan’s GNP was. The young king simply said, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product”, thus becoming the first leader in current times to articulate the vision so clearly and to plant a seed so radically that it would change the way we view our world.
Over time Bhutan has measured the road to GNH with the ability to preserve the environment, ensure socio-economic development, stress good governance and preserve the importance of tradition and culture.
In the GNH perspective, democracy is not the end goal as it is for many countries that continue to struggle to make that system work. Democracy is the path to good governance that is one of the pillars of GNH. The end goal is human contentment and happiness.
This idea that people’s happiness matters is becoming more relevant as the world continues to plunge headlong into an existence that is no longer sustainable. GNH has caught the attention of other countries as thinkers, economists and academics have begun to re-examine the notion of happiness as the raison d’être for mankind. International academic conferences on GNH have been held in Bhutan, Canada, Thailand and Brazil and the discourse continues to pick up momentum within Bhutan, the home of GNH.
On a personal level, GNH reminds us to look at all the facets of human development and to question once again the true meaning of development, social justice, equity and freedom. Even as I am forced to look deep within myself to come to terms with such ideals I wonder how I can share them with my own children, my family, my friends, my community? How do we learn to balance physical health with the spiritual and emotional states? How do we go beyond the material world to something deeper and more meaningful for humankind?
As a journalist, there are other questions that challenge me and others in the media.
How do we examine the profundity of a human goal that officially places contentment above material well-being in an increasingly commercial world? How do we convey this concept to those who read our stories, those who watch our films, those who listen to our programs? How can we explain the value of happiness? How can we, as journalists, continue to provide the impetus for individual and societal evolution?
I have learned, from the growing discourse on Gross National Happiness, that GNH is not a promise, or a guarantee, of happiness. Happiness is an individual pursuit so GNH is the responsibility of the state to create an environment where citizens can pursue happiness. Bhutan’s government, therefore, continues to provide free education and health care, pursue environmentally sound policies, and accelerate the transition to democracy, to lay the foundation for a GNH environment.
I have also discovered that GNH is not a physical goal that you arrive at. It is an inspiration that keeps you going, keeps you questioning, and that keeps you seeking the balance in life.
How do we translate this into journalism? How do we, as journalists and media professionals, help empower individual citizens in the pursuit of happiness?
For me it has meant moving from the daily demands of journalism and story-telling to a new task of working with Bhutanese media as they help society understand this unique aspiration for human development. As the world’s youngest democracy strives to achieve this ideal, journalists need to understand their responsibility to seek, to probe, to question and to provide clarity to the values that represent GNH. The media must help create an environment and define criteria for citizens to pursue happiness.
We do this by creating opportunities for media professionals to explore, debate and discuss the changes that are taking place in Bhutan and to understand it in the perspective of GNH. We have launched a series of forums on what media can do to make a difference today. In this democratic transition Bhutan must not lose sight of the ideals of GNH which is an antidote to GDP in an increasingly commercialized world. As global media undergo transformation today, Bhutanese journalists must help society resist the pressures of materialism that come with globalization.
As a late starter in the process of development, Bhutan has the advantage of learning from mistakes that other societies have made. To avoid those pitfalls, how do we encourage media to be catalysts of an enlightened society and not merely a tool for hedonistic consumerism?
Media must help society find the balance between entertainment and enlightenment. They must inspire citizens to seek a deeper sense of responsibility and commitment to make the world a better place.
Media must continue to play the dual roles of reporting on what works while continuing to be the watchdogs of society to tell us what doesn’t.
Journalism, like GNH, must be an inspiration in itself. As journalists we need to understand the power we have to create culture, to change paradigms, and to share visions that can transform the world. It is a responsibility that evolves with our own experiences and with our own growth.
Our job is to provide people the information – or the truth, as some would argue – that they need to pursue their goals in life. For those of us in Bhutan that includes the pursuit of happiness.
Siok Sian Pek-Dorji’s piece is from a series of essays on Voices & Values of Journalism that has been created by Images & Voices of Hope with the generous support of the Fetzer Institute and the Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics at DePauw University. Our collective intention is to make these essays widely available to journalists, aspiring journalists and anyone interested in the field as part of an emergent curriculum to explore the deep foundation of values that support the important work that journalists do.