We should help our children realize that what they want in life… is happiness. We cannot stop television, we cannot stop their exposure to commercials… but hopefully we will be able to give them a strong dose of the other kind of temptation — the temptation to be good.
–Lyonchoen Jigme Y. Thinley, first prime minister of Bhutan
When it was first introduced in a post-war economy more than 70 years ago, gross domestic product (GDP) was intended to measure activities — including employment, income and physical amenities — that would prevent another world war. Seven decades is a long time, and today’s global economic landscape looks quite different. In the 21st century, escalating global trade has increased the metric of GDP, but also depleted natural resources, polluted air and water, and accelerated social inequities without significantly impacting the GDP. This metric is not only outdated; it provides misinformation about the state of global health. As an example of how outmoded GDP is as a national indicator, Hurricane Sandy was measured as a net contribution to GDP because it boosted the economy through construction and social services. Senator Robert F. Kennedy once said that GDP measures everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.”
The United Nations is tackling the tough challenge of how to update our national economic metrics with a more relevant metric. In 2015, they launched Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to supersede their prior set of Millennium Development Goals. The SDG aspire to create international standards for global well-being that incorporate both economic measures and quality of life, including environmental and social issues. Within the United States, both Maryland and Vermont were early adopters of the Genuine Progress Indicators (GPI) that take into account income distribution (not just total income), social costs ranging from divorce to crime, and environmental expenses such as water quality and pollution.
With national indices of happiness instead of manufactured goods, Bhutan is perhaps the world’s most forward-thinking country in how it measures the ultimate health and well-being of its population. Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) index embraces economic development, environmental conservation, good governance and cultural priorities. Bhutan prioritizes its traditional values, and only lifted its national ban on television and internet access in 1999. One of the keys to success of GNH in Bhutan is education. Teachers are asked to infuse students with a sense of values that can override today’s emphasis on consumerism and materialistic messaging. Because so many teachers are Buddhist, they have personal value systems that inspire ethics in teaching. But Bhutan’s leadership is admittedly concerned about the next generation of teachers, and strengthening the future of GNH.
The leadership of Bhutan recognizes that one way to ensure the future of GNH — along with its unique value system — is prioritizing access to the natural world for all citizens. Green plants and healthy ecosystems are inextricably linked to human health, a vital part of gross national happiness, and are protected in Bhutan’s environmentally conscious constitution. (Of note, a key drawback to America’s GDP is that it does not measure the value of healthy ecosystems, known as natural capital.) Recently, the King of Bhutan launched a program to protect natural areas, especially national parks. Royal Manas National Park will feature an innovative construction called BATS (Bhutan Aerial Trail System) that entails a massive canopy walkway complex that includes a treetop scientific research station. An international team will work together to develop one of the world’s largest canopy walkway systems to jumpstart research on Bhutan’s biodiversity, but also to infuse a big dose of gross happiness into the fabric of Bhutan’s landscape.
If Americans thought harder about our quality of life than our bank accounts, such currency might provide the greatest inheritance our children and grandchildren could ever receive.