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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Gross National Happiness

[This essay was originally posted to a blog on Weebly. In transferring it I have updated and made corrections where necessary.]

I've just finished reading Three Cups of Tea, the fascinating story of American mountain-climber Greg Mortenson, who, after losing his way near the Himalayan peak known as K2, promised a poor village that he would build them a school.

Years later, he is the head of the Central Asia Institute, and is responsible not only for building schools, but also for teachers' salaries, medical facilities and supplies, clean water projects, and a host of other humanitarian projects. Mortenson truly is, as the subtitle says, "Promot[ing] Peace...One School at a Time."

[NB: The book later came under suspicion of having been at least partially fabricated, and the funds it raised misused.]

But, much as my teacher's heart loves the idea of building schools, I'm not writing about him today.

The book references another book, Ancient Futures, by Helena Norberg Hodge, detailing her intermittent stays in Ladakh. But what caught my eye was a quote from the king of the small Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan:

As the king of Bhutan puts it, the true indication of a society's well-being is not gross national product but "gross national happiness." (page 103)

Further research shows that, since His Majesty Jigme Khesar Wangchuck uttered that comment in 1972, "Gross National Happiness," or GNH, has become the subject of a number of global conferences, workshops, surveys, etc.

A list of seven "Wellness" criteria has been developed for the (admittedly subjective) measurement of GNH. These are: Economic Wellness, Environmental Wellness, Physical Wellness, Mental Wellness, Workplace Wellness, Social Wellness, and Political Wellness.

You can read more about these in the Wikipedia article.

But I am more intrigued by the simpler list found in the same article. These are the so-called "Four Pillars" of GNH, which are: "the promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance."

Let's take a brief look at these--and their challenges--one by one:

  1. "the promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development": Of course, we all recognize the importance of sustainability; but that word "equitable" is equally as important, since so often in developing economies, the rich get much richer, at the expense of the very poor.
  2. "preservation and promotion of cultural values": as opposed to the wholesale elimination of local culture in the name of "progress."
  3. "conservation of the natural environment": When a nation is attempting to pull itself up by the bootstraps, the environment is often considered a necessary casualty. Only the wisest of policy-makers can see the long-term benefit of sacrificing some short-term profits in the interest of environmental protection.
  4. "establishment of good governance": Though mentioned last, the other three "pillars" stand on this one. The "goodness" of a government might be judged in terms of how effectively that government manages the other three. It goes without saying that the absence of corruption is also a key factor.

As a five-year resident of China, I've been living with the results of neglecting these Four Pillars. I've been chasing down temples and other cultural relics here in Shenzhen, China's Boomtown, even as they disappear or are transformed into tourist attractions.

And, as a future resident of the Philippines, I am even more sensitive to these, as--after centuries of occupation by Spain and then America--the Islas Filipinas in their over-sixty years of independence still seem to struggle with all four of these issues.

And how about my homeland? How are we doing on measures of GNH? And will it get better after November 4th?

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