Saturday, 23 July 2011

Happiness at the UN

Much happiness is overlooked because it doesn’t cost anything. - Unknown.

In a small fishing village, a local fisherman blearily opened his eyes as the first rays of the morning sun streamed into his simple family home. 

A short time later he was walking towards the beach enjoying the peace and solitude of the early morning and the fresh sea air that filled his nostrils. Pushing his wooden boat into the breaking waves, he set out on the ocean to make his catch.

After a few hours, he was back on dry land, resting in the shade of a large tree when a stranger approached him. Impressed by his catch, the stranger asked how long it took to catch the fish. ‘Oh just a few hours’, the fishermen replied. ‘What do you do for the rest of the day?’, the stranger asked. ‘I spend some time walking on the beach, relaxing with my family and helping my friends.’

The stranger was surprised, ‘What potential there is here. Listen, I’m a businessman, why don’t I make you a loan, you can buy a big boat, employ people and catch 100 times more fish?’ ‘Why would I want to do that?’, asked the fisherman. ‘You could become very wealthy,’ the businessman replied, ‘And then what?’, ‘Well then you could retire to a small village, spend time with your family and friends and enjoy the beach.’

Defining Success
This story and various versions of it are very well known. On the surface the businessman and the fisherman have very different definitions of success but when the fisherman probes a bit deeper, we see that actually they have very similar ideas of a happy life. The difference is only in the means by which they measure it and this brings me to Bhutan and the UN.

Bhutan is a tiny kingdom in the Himalayas, between India and China. Bhutan is predominantly Buddhist and the country has gone to great lengths to preserve the culture and way of life. It would be wrong to suggest that Bhutan is some kind of Utopia, the country certainly has its share of problems. Despite this, in measures of happiness, the country consistently achieves rankings well above many rich and highly developed nations.

The Product of Happiness
What is the secret? It may just be in the way they measure success. Unlike the rest of the world which uses economic output known as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Bhutan uses a direct measure of happiness, Gross National Happiness (GNH). This philosophy permeates every level of Bhutanese life. Decisions are no longer based only on the economic benefit like the businessman earlier but instead on the impact they will have on the quality of people’s lives.

It’s not very often we hear happiness and the UN mentioned in the same sentence, but happily, after lobbying by Bhutan’s ambassador, the UN has now passed a resolution agreeing that ‘happiness’ should be acknowledged as an indicator of a country’s success. A small step yes, but at least a step. 

Image courtesy of agitprop


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