In a unique nomenclature, Bhutan rechristened its Planning Commission as Gross National Happiness Commission a few years ago. Commission secretary Karma Tshiteem was in India to participate in the OECD World Forum. He tells Dilasha Seth that the country is planning to expand its widely acclaimed Gross National Happiness Index to the global level. Excerpts:
Can Bhutan's Happiness Index be replicated in other countries, since the parameters seemed to be too subjective?
I think all these kinds of movement towards defining well being indicators should begin with close consultation with the people. Eventually, the indicators which are going to guide countries’ development must reflect the true aspirations of the people, which cannot be found out by clever bureaucrats. When we formulated the domains and indicators, it was preceded by a nationwide survey where we asked close to 500 questions to understand what it is that people really care about. Then we mined the data and came out with 9 domains and 124 variables which capture well-being.
Critics of the index say that politicians could manipulate such a subjective index?
Politicians promise growth numbers, employment numbers, and level of inflation and expect to be happy. On the other hand,want much more. So, this index is much more difficult for politicians as it captures not just the GDP, but also housing, health, and non-physical aspects, which look beyond the framework of economic indicators.
Well-being indicators include poverty reduction and employments, so it is not as if we are removing the economic indicators. We have to start with survival conditions first. If a person doesn’t have a meal, how can he talk about other aspects?
How will you blend economic indicators with other factors? Will the composite index not be difficult to measure?
If you focus only on the economy, you will achieve economic growth, but will face negative consequences on other fronts such as environment, sustainable social issues, stress in everyday life, etc. But, if you concentrate on holistic development, then you are likely to achieve improvement in well-being.
You have such a spiritual aspect like meditation as one of the components of the index, for that your government introduced meditation in schools. Is this aspect really necessary to measure happiness?
Yes. We have nine domains. So, these nine conditions must co-exist, if people are to lead a happy life. One of them is psychological well-being, which stresses on things like emotions, life satisfaction, and spirituality. Now, spiritual or the non-physical aspects also require nourishments just like the physical side requires three meals a day. Activities like meditation and prayers, with or without religion, are powerful ways to provide non-physical nourishment. Our survey showed that less than 5 per cent of the respondents meditated in the country. So, we introduced meditation in all our schools. It’s an important skill to have. After all, happiness is a way of life.
Did you act on improvement in any other indicator the same way?
We have done two surveys in 2008 and 2010. On our 124 variables, we are doing quite well in all of them. Meditation was one of the areas where we needed to intervene. Some other areas of concern are about strength of relationships. In urban settings, the relationships and trust among neighbours are lower than in rural population. Now we are struggling to find ways to improve community in urban settings. In urban areas, many a times people do not know who is living next door, while in a rural setting, everybody knows everyone.
Can the model be replicated in India?
I think so. Of course, as we see from diverse countries from Mexico to China to Canada, all are doing the same thing. The nitty-gritty may differ. Something may be more pronounced in one country than the other. It is about customising the index according to what is the need and what’s applicable to a country. Something may be more pronounced in one region due to culture, but I think the subset at the domain level will be the same. I am sure everyone cares about the work-life balance. It gives meaning to your life. Everyone wants rest on a daily basis, and spend time with loved ones and friends.
Are you also looking at an index that could cater to measuring happiness at a global level?
Bhutan is working for post-2015 goals of the United Nations Organisation. We will present a body of work to the UN, taking the same ideas that we use in Bhutan and see if we can come up something at the global level.
We also have an international expert working group for this purpose and we are quite optimistic. It will be on the lines of our Happiness Index, but will also incorporate those variables which are applicable and accepted globally.