In Thimpu, Bhutan on August 10-12, 2011, Prime Minister Jigme Thinley of Bhutan and Professor Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University co-hosted a conference on Happiness and Economic Development.
The Kingdom of Bhutan has been a global leader in promoting the serious consideration of “gross national happiness” (GNH) as a societal goal. The country has experimented with a holistic approach to development that emphasizes not only growth and gross national product, but also culture, mental health, compassion, and community. In July 2011, Bhutan introduced a resolution adopted by the United Nations on “Happiness: Towards a more holistic approach to development,” which emphasized that happiness is a universal goal to be pursued along with economic advancement.
The conference brought together dozens of experts from around the world, representing disciplines including economics, sociology, ethics, politics, government, and philosophical traditions including Buddhism, utilitarianism, Gandhian philosophy, Confucianism, Aristotelian thought, and more. They took stock of Bhutan’s record and discussed ways forward for the future, discussing the central question: how to achieve happiness in a world that is characterized by rapid urbanization, mass media, global capitalism, and environmental degradation, and how to re-order economic life to recreate a sense of community, trust, and environmental sustainability?
Some initial conclusions the conference participants reached are that we should not denigrate the value of economic progress; that relentless pursuit of GNP to the exclusion of other goals is also no path to happiness; that happiness is achieved through a balanced approach to life by both individuals and societies; that global capitalism presents many direct threats to happiness; and that to promote happiness, we must identify the many factors other than GNP that can raise or lower society’s well-being. There is of course no single, definite answer to this question, which must remain in ongoing dialogue and discussion. However, the conference concluded that economic growth should be supported in the context of environmental sustainability, and the values of compassion and social trust. For more information, see Jeffrey Sachs’s op-ed on the conference experience.