For the last decade or so, I’ve increasingly felt glimmerings of a consciousness raising in the United States, a growing movement of people dissatisfied with materialism as their sole or primary life goal. They seem to be aware of the ‘Easterlin Effect,’ the oft-repeated finding that above a certain relatively modest income level, more money, more stuff, doesn’t mean more happiness. The recession has complicated this movement, making it at the same time more and less relevant to our immediate lives. But the signs are around us, in the ‘mindfulness’ movement, in environmentalism, in the increasingly common discourse about work-life balance.
And then today I picked up Time Magazine and read an article about Bhutan, a tiny little country in the Himalayas whose government has recently transitioned from monarchy to budding democracy and is trying to achieve ‘sustainable development,’ i.e., economic growth that doesn’t devastate the culture and environment and lead to inequality and loss of quality of life.
The Bhutanese are not using Gross Domestic Product – GDP, the measure we use – to measure development.
Instead, they’ve developed a metric for something they call GNH – Gross National Happiness.
And as if that isn’t enough – their model is championed by Nobel winning economist Joseph Stiglitz. Stiglitz has become the world’s leading advocate for developing better measures of national well being. More surprising still – some countries are taking him seriously. There are attempts underway to change the way progress is measured that are very hopeful because they acknowledge the human need for happiness and the global need for balance, moderation, and diversity. The governments of Canada, France, Great Britain – and U.S. states Maryland and Vermont – are developing models similar to that of Bhutan. And therein lies the hope.
Will Bhutan become a 21st century Shangri La, a model of caring about human and environmental needs? Whatever happens, it is worth watching – and learning from.