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Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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Bhutan's New Prime Minister Says Happiness Isn't Everything

Aug 3, 2013
Originally published on August 3, 2013 8:28 am

Sad but true, Bhutan's Gross National Happiness index is not immune to politics.

Much has been made in recent years of the measure preferred by the tiny Buddhist kingdom over such cold and utilitarian Western-style metrics as gross domestic product.

The term "gross national happiness" was coined in 1972 by Bhutan's former King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, and the idea of focusing on the less-quantifiable measure of happiness to determine the health of a nation has steadily gained currency among trendier academic and policy circles.

Canada, France and Britain have jumped on the happiness bandwagon by adding measures of citizen happiness to their official national statistics. In recent years, Bhutan's (now former) Prime Minister Jigme Thinley and its secretary of Gross National Happiness, Karma Tshiteem, have attended numerous conferences and talks at such venues as the World Economic Forum, Seattle's Green Festival and a gathering in Vermont, where Tshiteem explained to NPR that his country was "more focused on creating the right conditions that can lead people to fulfilling, and hopefully, happy lives."

But being a global champion of the Bhutanese ideal of happiness didn't translate into votes at home, and in July, Thinley lost at the polls, a defeat that was "attributed partly to his aggressive international public relations campaign to promote GNH at the expense of domestic needs," according to Business Insider.

Thinley's successor, Tshering Tobgay, has already signaled he will step back from promoting GNH, both as a measure of success in his own country and as an object of international diplomacy.

Bhutan's problems, as Tobgay points out, range from a "ballooning debt" that is barely sustainable, to unemployment and growing corruption. As a result of the problems, some in Bhutan have begun referring to the GNH derisively as "government needs help," the BBC reports.

Tobgay, 47, says he supports the notion that gross domestic product isn't the "be-all and end-all of development," but, he says, if the government "[spends] a disproportionate amount of time talking about GNH rather than delivering basic services, then it is a distraction."

With the GNH's reassessment at home, he is also reconsidering its value as an export, too.

Asked whether his government would continue promoting Gross National Happiness abroad, Tobgay said: "I believe it's not the job of the government to do that."

A study by National Geographic discovered that the world's happiest places had some basic things in common, such as freedom from worry about getting health care and education, as well as a sense of equality — things that Tobgay would argue are missing in Bhutan.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.