Holding the national flag, local students wait to catch a glimpse of Bhutan's King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema on their return to the capital following their marriage. (Kevin Frayer/AP)

Some fidget, a few eyes wander here and there, but for a minute or two, hundreds of primary schoolchildren are quiet, learning to meditate together at morning assembly — palms upturned and thumbs together in the style of Buddha.

This is Gross National Happiness — or GNH — at work in the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, a country determined to hold on to its ancient values even as it modernizes, to preserve its environment even as its economy grows and to prove to the world that there is more to life than money.

The term was coined by the fourth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in 1972 in an apparently off-the-cuff remark to a journalist.

“I am not so much interested in gross national product,” he reportedly said. “I am more interested in gross national happiness.”

Those words grew into an ideology that has been examined and embraced by development economists and political leaders the world over.

Not since Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence of people’s inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has the idea been so widely disseminated that a government should promote — or at least not obstruct — its citizens’ happiness. France and Britain are incorporating measures of happiness and well-being into their national accounts, and the U.N. General Assembly adopted happiness as an unofficial Millennium Development Goal in July.

The U.N. resolution was a victory for Bhutan as it looks to win global approval for its national philosophy, but the utopian-sounding idea has proved difficult to put into practice at home.

“The joy of GNH is that it offers Bhutan a distinct and alternative path to development,” said opposition leader Tshering Tobgay. “The pitfall of GNH is that we are more satisfied with talking about it, preaching about it, rather than sincerely implementing some of its important principles.”

The government has tried to factor happiness into policy in a systematic way, creating a Gross National Happiness Commission and conducting two comprehensive studies of the happiness of its citizens based on what it sees as the four pillars of happiness: sustainable development, good governance, preservation of the environment and promotion of traditional culture.

In a survey that took half a day to complete, people were asked some conventional development questions — about their access to health services, clean drinking water and electricity — and some slightly more unusual ones, such as how well they slept, whether they were prone to feelings of jealousy, how much time they spent in prayer and how well they knew local folk stories.

The initial results were striking — the rural western Haa district recorded the highest GNH score, while people in the capital, Thimphu, scored significantly lower, the numbers pulled down because people reported that they often neither knew nor trusted their neighbors and had less time for their families or for themselves.

The next step was to screen government policies, to see whether they enhanced overall happiness, and to design ones that would benefit the economy and promote a better quality of life.

“Our approach to development is about making better choices,” said Karma Tshiteem, secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission. “It is not anti-
development, anti-urbanization, anti-modernization. But when we make our choice, we have more circumspection, a more holistic consideration, so, hopefully, we will be happier where we will end up.”

It is an approach that, not surprisingly, has won many admirers in the global development community. Mark LaPrairie, the local World Bank representative, calls it “development with good values.”

Taming the beast

A generation or two ago, the people of Bhutan lived in a medieval, feudal bubble. When the first jeep arrived in Thimpu in the 1960s, locals ran in fear of the fire-breathing dragon. Television was legalized in 1999, and democracy was imposed by the fourth king on his reluctant subjects in 2008.

Now, roads, schools and hospitals have been built. And although there is more work to be done, the Bhutanese enjoy near universal access to safe drinking water and primary education, in stark contrast to their South Asian neighbors. Bhutan is on track, the United Nations says, to meet its Millennium Development Goals.

Yet as it develops, Bhutan is confronting another foreign, fire-breathing dragon, that of modern culture and consumerism, and the country is trying to tame it rather than turn it away. While many young men prefer jeans and T-shirts to the long robes and knee-length socks of their traditional dress, and listen to modern rock rather than local folk songs, there is undoubtedly more respect for authority and tradition here than in most parts of the world.

GNH is an attempt to measure and preserve the values the country treasures, but it is not, Tshiteem insists, a direct attempt to make people happier through government policy.

“We are trying to create conditions for people to lead their happy lives,” he said. “Whether you use those conditions is up to you.”

One of the greatest challenges facing Bhutan is that universal education has proved a double-edged sword. Children who complete secondary school — and watch television when they are not studying — do not want to spend their lives tilling the fields. Instead, they have poured into Thimphu and into an economy that can barely support them.

Hydroelectric power, built with Indian money, is the engine of Bhutan’s economy, but it scarcely employs anyone except for some Indian laborers and a few engineers. Youth unemployment is a growing problem in Thimphu, and petty crime, gangs and drugs have come in its wake. In the countryside, fields are being left fallow and villages are populated by the elderly. The rural idyll imagined by the happiness survey has few takers these days, and some Bhutanese wonder whether GNH is a luxury their country cannot afford.

The new king, 31-year-old Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, crowned in 2008 and married this month, seldom loses an opportunity to remind his government and his people that there is little point in talking about happiness unless the economy is strong.

“One of his concerns is that GNH is misunderstood as a substitute for GNP or GDP [gross domestic product],” the king’s press secretary, Dorji Wangchuck, diplomatically explains. “GNP is one of the means to achieve GNH; it is not either/or.”

The progress paradox

One of the most damaging criticisms of GNH is associated with the national policy of preserving Bhutan’s ancient Buddhist culture. It was that policy — and anger about the country’s national dress and Dzongkha language being made compulsory — that led to protests from the large ethnic Nepali and Hindu minorities in the late 1980s and early ’90s and, ultimately, the expulsion of tens of thousands of them.

Many refugees have spent two decades in camps in Nepal, appealing for the chance to return to Bhutan, although a large proportion has resettled in the United States in the past three years, with communities sprouting up from the Bronx to West Virginia.

But there is a more fundamental objection that strikes at the problem of making happiness a national goal. In Bhutan, some people are complaining that the government has no right to decide what makes them happy — not least when it banned smoking and made possession of cigarettes or tobacco a jailable offense in 2010.

When a Buddhist monk was arrested and sentenced to three years in jail for possession of $2 to $3 worth of tobacco, even the normally quiescent Bhutanese rebelled. GNH was nicknamed “Gross National Harassment,” and a Facebook campaign helped crystallize the opposition. Although about 60 people are in prison, the government has promised to amend the law.

“The smoking law is the overzealous Bhutanese mind-set at work,” said Kinley Tshering, a media consultant and editor who started the Facebook campaign.

Money is not everything, some critics say, but at least economic growth seems like an objective, measurable goal, while the pursuit of happiness is subjective, easily manipulated by the government to justify any policy it wants to implement. In the cities, people barely understand GNH, and in the villages, many farmers find its dogma frustrating. Under law inspired by Buddhism, they are not allowed to kill wild animals and are virtually powerless to prevent their crops from being eaten by wild boars, monkeys and elephants.

“The whole concept of GNH in Bhutan is a democratic one, but the way it is implemented is not democratic at all,” said Tashi Dorji, the editor of Business Bhutan, a newspaper that has played a leading role in investigating and holding the government accountable. “It’s top-down, with politicians and leaders telling us what is GNH.”

At the Brookings Institution in Washington, senior fellow and happiness expert Carol Graham says she finds much to admire in Bhutan’s considered approach to development and well-being, but accepts that it might not be to everyone’s taste.

She says development and happiness do not always go hand in hand. “Bhutan is facing the same progress paradox that every other developing nation faces — that change makes people unhappy,” she said, something she calls the paradox of the happy peasants and the miserable millionaires.

“People living a simple life may report that they are feeling happy, but all of a sudden, things change.”