The pursuit of happiness is all the rage these days. The United Nations had adopted happiness as an unofficial Millennium Development Goal; France and Britain are incorporating measures of happiness and well-being into their national accounts; and academics in Washington are publishing all sorts of books on the subject.
But in Bhutan, as I found out on a visit last month, pursuing happiness as official government policy is not proving easy.
Bhutan has the idea that maximizing Gross National Happiness matters more than maximizing Gross National Product, that mental and spiritual well-being matter as much as material rewards, and that culture and the environment are as important as money.
There is no doubt that Bhutan’s considered approach to development has a lot going for it. But it is not to everybody’s taste.
In its attempts to preserve the country’s traditional values, some critics argue that GNH overly romanticizes life in rural Bhutan, a vision of Shangri-la that papers over rampant alcoholism and domestic violence in the country’s villages.
Others say government policy has failed to address rising income inequality and is ultimately not much more than a clever public relations exercise designed to win over foreign donors and justify the rule of a small elite in a highly stratified country.
In the capital Thimphu, reformed drug addict Nima Dorji, 28, is one of those who feels distinctly left out. He runs a drop-in-center for young Bhutanese who are struggling to kick dependencies on pills, marijuana and alcohol.
Like many young Bhutanese facing a stifling system and a future of uncertainty, Dorji rebelled as a teenager, took drugs and dropped out of school. His mother, he says, stood by him, even when he stole and ended up in prison, but the system and his teachers were unforgiving.
“Nobody asked me why I did it, what the problem was, how they could help,” he said. “They just wanted to punish me.”
To him, and to many of his friends who sit around watching soccer, with tattoos and T-shirts advertising Western rock bands like The Ramones or Metallica, gross national happiness has yet to trickle down. While Bhutan is trying to tackle its drugs problem, a shortage of detox and rehab beds means that many reforming addicts fail to get the support they need.
“I can’t say much, but GNH is only for some rich people,” Dorji said. “It sounds beautiful, it looks beautiful, but I don’t think it is happening.”