What happens when a country strives for happiness — at any cost?
By Patrick Wood via ABC News
Bhutan is something of an enigma to the outside world.
Since the early 1970s the small landlocked country has shunned traditional measures of development and instead focussed on the happiness of its people.
It famously implemented a program of modernisation called "gross national happiness" which, among other things, sought to achieve wellbeing through the preservation and promotion of its culture.
The country's leaders say it has been an enormous success and a leader of the policy is currently in Australia to spread the word.
But critics say that commitment to identity and happiness has not been evenly applied, and Bhutan's treatment of its minority groups has been described as "ethnic cleansing".
So what is this happiness program, does it work, and what's the economic and human cost?
How does this program work?
In 1972 Bhutan's then king Jigme Singye Wangchuck declared gross domestic product was not a meaningful measurement for wellbeing, and said the country should instead look at gross national happiness (GNH).
What started as a loose philosophy about how the country should develop become more concrete over the following decades, until 2008 when GNH was formally enshrined in the constitution.
Along with the creation of the GNH Centre and a GNH Index, this philosophy became a formal guiding hand for the government and its policy development.
"We look into the developments through the lenses of society and happiness," the GNH Centre's executive director, Saamdu Chetri, told News Breakfast.
"We measure the conditions of happiness and we say, OK, if there is increase in the conditions of the people in terms of happiness conditions, then yes, we have developed.
"We don't look into technology or infrastructure for that matter as a means to see how we have developed."
The nine GNH domains
- Living standards
- Community vitality
- Time use
- Psychological wellbeing
- Good governance
- Cultural resilience and promotion
The GNH Centre considers four key "pillars": environmental conservation; good governance; sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; and preservation and promotion of culture.
It then breaks this down into nine "domains", which are interconnected.
And it conducts research and uses indices to monitor whether there is improvement in these areas.
Does it actually work?
According to the GNH Centre's own research published this week, it does.
It found "subjective happiness" among its population — estimated to be about 780,000 — increased slightly across all age groups between 2010 and 2015.
It also found household income had risen.
On the more traditional economic measures, Bhutan has also enjoyed success.
Its GDP has grown each year since 1992 and its gross national income per capita is now at a record high in real terms, according to the World Bank.
And its unemployment rate has not gone above 4 per cent in more than two decades and currently sits at 2.5 per cent.
"We're saying, OK, let's grow technologically, scientifically, but keep regarding the nature and the human on this parameter," Dr Chetri said.
"[Consider] psychological wellbeing, how you use your time, how you communicate with your community, whether there's trust at all or not.
"And culture — how do you communicate in terms of culture and the family within your community?"
Happiness — but not for all
Bhutan's fierce commitment to preserving culture — one of its four pillars of happiness — may have worked, but critics say it has come at an enormous cost for the country's ethnic minority.
They say from the mid-1980s the ruling Buddhist monarchy began enforcing increasingly strict laws against the ethnic Nepalese Hindu population.
"The Drukpas, the Buddhist elite, and the Hindu Lhotshampa had coexisted, largely in peace, until 1989 when the king introduced a One Nation, One People policy imposing Drukpa social norms on everyone," former Bhutan resident Vidhyapati Mishra wrote in the New York Times.
"The edict controlled the smallest details of our lives: how we ate, dressed and talked.
"The Nepali language was banned in schools, and Hindu pathshalas, or seminaries, which teach the Sanskrit scriptures were closed."
Tensions increased in the early 1990s when the Lhotshampa say they were forced out of Bhutan.
"The government enacted discriminatory citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis, that stripped about one-sixth of the population of their citizenship and paved the way for their expulsion," wrote the Human Rights Watch's Bill Frelick.
In a matter of years, more than 100,000 people ended up in seven refugee camps in neighbouring Nepal, where many would live until as recently as 2015.
It was not until a coalition of countries — including Australia — came to an agreement to resettle the refugees in the mid-2000s that many were able to find a new home.
Refugee expert and Melbourne University professor of history, Joy Damousi, told News Breakfast these sort of clashes were sadly familiar around the world.
"It's a sort of ethnic cleansing," she said.
"You get these deep-seated religious tensions that come to the fore; so it's one of those groups asserting its power over another on religious grounds and ethnic grounds.
"And that is a very familiar story around the world."
Today Bhutan's government-mandated cultural preservation manifests itself in more subtle ways.
Traditional clothing is required to be worn during work hours and there is mandatory mindfulness training in schools.
"Cultural expression in Bhutan is as unique and sacred as the holy kingdom," the GNH Centre's website reads.
Spreading the word
Dr Chetri — an ethnic Nepalese man himself — is now in Australia to discuss the GNH philosophy and denied there was ethnic cleansing.
"If that is ethnic cleansing then I ask people, 'What am I doing back in Bhutan?'"
He said that while there was a process of "naturalisation" for ethnic Nepalese living in Bhutan, they were not forced to leave the country.
Instead he accused leaders among the ethnic Nepalese community of "brainwashing" the population and making them feel they had no choice but to flee.
"They created so much fear ... they exaggerated everything," he said.
"They were not told to leave the country, but there was a process to be naturalised.
"It's all fabricated by the leaders who wanted to rise up in their lives.
"By seeking power for themselves they destroyed the lives of so many people."
Dr Chetri is currently on a speaking tour in Australia and said the GNH philosophy could be adopted here.
However, he said rather than being government-led as it is in Bhutan it would need to come from the grassroots.
And he stressed the need for economic change, not cultural.
"What we can change is from the community, because we are the economy. Because of us the economy runs," he said.
"If we can educate all the consumers saying, 'OK, we don't buy clothes that produce by fossil fuels. We buy only organic material, organic food.'
"So we use different corporations and industries and they tend to change the way that you want. So the education must come at the community level."