Friday, October 21, 2011

Reflections from August--the Conference on Happiness and Economic Development


Earlier this month the Wheaton group attended the Conference on Happiness and Economics in Bhutan. The conference centered around the concept and method of measuring well-being in relation to economic development. As you may know, Bhutan's unique form of measuring development, Gross National Happiness (GNH), is quickly gaining popularity around the world. The main thrust and logic behind GNH is that every society is striving to increase happiness... So why not measure progress in terms of happiness? GNH motivates individuals and governments to foster the conditions for society to maximize the happiness of its members. Prominent members at the conference were His Excellency and Prime Minister of Bhutan Jigme Y Thinley, economist Jeffery Sachs, philosopher Peter Singer, head of the Center for Bhutan Studies, Dasho Karma Ura, and many more international academics and community visionaries.

Since GNH has become popular, communities around the world have been striving to define what they consider happiness and well-being, and then find their own ways to maximize it. The Conference provided a forum for discussion on different movements and their quest for well-being, as well as academic analyses of the relationship between economics and well-being.
Some lessons emerged: individuals with a sense of agency (or empowerment) are happier than those who aren't; agency combined with capability (captured by Amartya Sen's capabilities approach) yields greater happiness; happiness is inclusive of all people and reaches into the physical and psychological domains; altruism is essential to individual and social transformation; income alone does not contribute to happiness...

I found that most interesting, aside from these findings, were some of the perspectives and questions posed. John Wiseman asked: what are the spiritual, emotional and cultural needs of society, as well as its material needs? And how do we achieve a balance between the two? Ultimately, Wiseman contended, a measure of development should support citizen engagement in the public domain and in policy making. GNH was later put in Bhutanese context: "happiness is our goal and philosophy, and economic development is the path we must take."

The head of Bhutan's monastic body discussed the importance of wisdom in attaining happiness. Temporary happiness is caused by emotion or impulse, while long term happiness results from inner wisdom and revealing the Buddha nature that lies within each sentient being. The way to happiness can be taught, as Buddhism strives to do by teaching the study the mind and human nature. It is the eight-fold path that provides the framework to a life of happiness. Most important is the practice of meditation and developing mindfulness. Without these wisdom is fleeting and happiness evasive. We, like the Buddha himself, must become buddha to help others reach the same destination: happiness.
Jeffery Sachs made the concluding remarks. He discussed the many approaches to happiness, emphasizing that the Buddhist approach begins from within and leads to social, political and economic change. Context is essential to understanding any approach. In this respect, Sachs asserted, we are experiencing the crisis of modernity: urban life is much more complex and stressful than the traditional life, which is excelled by rapid economic development and industrialization. Coupled with this is the crisis of spirituality, which is observable in the destruction of our natural environment. The problem, says Sachs, is that that there is a separation of the individual from the environment which is exacerbated by urbanization.

These reflections are hardly new, but serve to put GNH in perspective of Bhutan's development. Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, is growing rapidly and is a case study of rapid development/urbanization. In the past, Bhutan's society and economy was focused on rural life, consisting of farming and tending to livestock. Now, most youth and many adults are attracted to the benefits of the urban life: service and business based jobs (as compared with the rural hard labor), more opportunities for employment and social mobility, higher incomes and their associated benefits (technology, cars, fashion, etc). In short, living in the city seems to be more rewarding and desirable than living in the country.

The youth is quite fond of Western music, style and behavior. Accompanying rapid urbanization are social problems such as alcoholism, tobacco and substance addictions, poverty, untreated waste and environmental destruction. Traditional Buddhist and Bhutanese values are naturally eroding and transforming. In this respect,GNH is much more than a measurement of development, but also a tool for social change. The four pillars of GNH are environmental conservation, good governance, preservation and promotion of cultural values, and sustainable development. One could see how GNH could be a response to the problems facing Bhutan, discussed above and embodied in the effects of globalization. Emerging from this conversation is a focus on value-education, through which the youth and future of Bhutan will harbor Buddhist and Bhutanese values, including: social responsibility, respect for self and other, compassion, environmental sensitivity, and so forth.

I finish here with recommendations made by Jeffery Sachs to advance global GNH: 1) document conference proceedings to expose greater population to discussion, 2) create a World Happiness/ economic forum to include main actors of globalization in this conversation, 3) co-host a UN meeting in the spring for a global meeting on happiness, to be summarized in a UN report, 4) reach across organization, suggesting that governments set own goals and use their own measurements for well-being progress, and 5) make recommendations for policy making and GNH implementations, using lessons from own experiences.

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