Thirty years ago, the fourth king of Bhutan famously proclaimed that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product,” setting the country on a development path that seeks to integrate sustainable and equitable socioeconomic development with environmental conservation, cultural promotion, and good governance.
This “happiness” has nothing to do with the common use of that word to denote an ephemeral, passing mood—happy today or unhappy tomorrow due to some temporary external condition like praise or blame, gain or loss. Rather, it refers to the deep, abiding happiness that comes from living life in full harmony with the natural world, with our communities and fellow beings, and with our culture and spiritual heritage—in short, from feeling totally connected with our world.
And yet our modern world, and particularly its economic system, promotes precisely the reverse—a profound sense of alienation from the natural world and from each other. Cherishing self-interest and material gain, we destroy nature, degrade our natural and cultural heritage, disrespect indigenous knowledge, overwork, get stressed out, and no longer have time to enjoy each other’s company, let alone to contemplate and meditate on life’s deeper meaning. Myriad scholarly studies now show that massive gains in GNP and income have not made us happier. On the contrary, respected economists have demonstrated empirically that deep social networks are a far better predictor of satisfaction and well-being than income and material gain.
It is significant that the term “Gross National Happiness” was first coined in direct contrast with Gross National Product—as a sharp critique of our current materialist obsession and growth-based economic system. And it is even more significant that the statement was not made in relation to Bhutan alone but as a universal proclamation true for the world and for all beings. The universal chord it struck explains why 68 nations joined Bhutan in cosponsoring the UN General Assembly resolution in July 2011 on “Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development,” which was adopted by consensus by the 193-member United Nations.
And yet, despite valiant efforts made by individuals, communities, and certain nations, human society will continue to hurtle toward self-annihilation unless we act together. The time has come for a global effort to build a new economic system no longer based on the dangerous illusions that irresponsible growth is possible on our finite planet and that endless material gain promotes wellbeing. Instead, it will be a system that promotes harmony and respect for nature and for each other, that respects our ancient wisdom traditions and protects our most vulnerable people as our own family, and that gives us time to live and enjoy our lives and to appreciate rather than destroy our world.
Sustainability is the essential basis and precondition of such a sane economic system. An economy exists not for mere survival but to provide the enabling conditions for human happiness and the well-being of all life forms. The new economy will be based on a genuine vision of life’s ultimate meaning and purpose—an economy that does not cut us off from nature and community but fosters true human potential, fulfillment, and happiness.