First World pilgrims in suits seek Elixir of Joy in the Himalayas, writes Asia Sentinel’s Cyril Pereira

Ever since the landmark April 2012 United Nations session convened by Bhutan on “Happiness and Well-being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” attracted 600 participants including presidents, heads of state, economists, Nobel laureates, scholars, NGOs and spiritual leaders to consider Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a holistic extension to Gross National Product (GNP) indicators, Western economists and academics have lost no time clambering aboard the new bandwagon of hope.

Bhutan. The happiest country in the world? Pic: AP.

Bhutan has captured the world’s imagination as the last surviving Shangri-La on planet Earth. A cottage industry of happiness conferences is sprouting from Canada to the US and from Denmark to Germany. Bhutan, which few can place on a map, has overnight become the Mecca for happiness-economics researchers and frayed academics spinning a new career.

On the day the high-level UN meeting was being addressed by the Prime Minister Jigme Thinley, the Bhutan Observer wryly noted: “The Western media, as usual, has started calling Bhutan ‘the happiest country in the world’. As a nation, to be described in such wholesome light is always elevating…but on deeper thought it makes us cringe. For all the positive developments, we are a country, like any other, with our own share of problems.”

It all started with the Fourth Druk Gyalpo (Dragon King)
Jigme Singye Wangchuk was 17 when his father died abroad in 1972. He was formally crowned the Fourth King of Bhutan at 19?in 1974. The young heir traversed the country on horseback, talking to and experiencing life among the farmers, village headmen and civil servants scattered through Bhutan’s harsh, mountainous terrain. He took stock of the kingdom first hand while sharing his ideas for inclusive growth and well-being of society.

The King’s message was that the overall happiness of all the people was more important than profligate production and consumption which was the standard GDP track of economic progress. That telling insight evolved three decades later into Bhutan’s elaborate GNH index of development formally implemented in 2005. He defied entrenched economic orthodoxy for the good of Bhutan as he saw it.

GNH coined off-the-cuff
Gross national happiness got its name by chance in 1979 at Bombay airport, on the King’s transit from a Non-Aligned Meeting in Havana. Responding to a reporter who asked about Bhutan’s gross national product, the King said “We do not believe in gross national product because gross national happiness is more important.”

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