Sunday, 1 April 2012

The soft power of happiness

On Monday 2 April 2012, the UN will implement Resolution 65/39 which places 'happiness' officially on the global agenda. The Resolution also empowers the Kingdom of Bhutan to convene a meeting on happiness as part of the 66th session of the UN General Assembly, opened by Prince Charles. Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs will discuss 'happiness indicators'.

This is a major triumph for Bhutan's soft power. Forty years ago, the King of this nation established Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an alternative to Gross National Product (GNP). Although Bhutan is one of the least developed and poorest countries in the world, it has been described as the happiest nation in Asia and the eighth happiest in the world by Business Week. Conferences on GNH have taken place across the world, including Canada and the Netherlands, and high-profile economists like Amartya Sen and the French President have taken notice of how happiness can measure performance and progress.

I think this is an interesting development for two reasons and deserves greater attention.
First, it is an interesting measure of soft power. Happiness is a core value in Bhutan, and if soft power really does mean the attraction of national values and ideals, then perhaps happiness is something we now should consider alongside other such values as democracy, freedom etc, prosperity etc.

Second, the fact that GNH has been adopted by the UN, and that governments, policy-makers and policy-relevant thinkers are talking about happiness demonstrates the success of Bhutan's soft power capacity. Bhutan has been able to persuade the world over the last forty years that GNH is worth noticing. In studying soft power we become obsessed by measurement; can we find any credible and genuine proof that the soft power has worked? Perhaps in this case we can. Perhaps it reveals a deeper malaise: it is not so much the success of Bhutan's capacity to convince the world to measure happiness, but a failure of other, more conventional approaches to measuring progress that seem to be challenged by global recession, wars and man-made crises. Nevertheless, we have clear evidence here of parts of the world, and the UN, embracing the values of a small, poor, landlocked Himalayan kingdom that barely makes the news. This is a step forward. It has taken forty years, but this only demonstrates that persuasion is a long-term process and that soft power cannot expect results overnight.

All in all, I am happy.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Gary,
    Interesting post on the soft power of happiness and good to know that you're happy. I’m doing research on Bhutan’s soft power and GNH is indeed a key instrument of Bhutan’s soft power. In reply to your comments, the high level meeting in April indicates that happiness will become a core value since a new economic paradigm was defined that includes four dimensions: well-being and happiness; ecological sustainability; fair distribution; efficient use of increasingly scarce resources. These four dimensions will be further expanded by experts in the field. And the resolution on happiness was also adopted without a vote in the UNGA; there was unanimous support among the 193 member countries of the UN.
    It certainly takes time to develop and wield soft power but in the case of Bhutan, it didn’t take 40 years. The fourth King of Bhutan coined the term GNH in 1979 during an interview with the Indian media. At that time the concept was quite ‘empty’. It was not defined but just explained as ‘gross national happiness is more important than gross national product.’ It was only after the Bhutanese government further developed and defined the concept that it really became a soft power tool. The main advocate of GNH is the Prime Minister of Bhutan, H.E. Jigmi Y. Thinley.
    So no doubt that happiness will become a core value but I wonder whether prosperity is still one. Perceptions are shifting which results in the replacement of old values into new ones. As such, it’s not a coincidence that the world is looking for a new economic paradigm for which Bhutan seems to have the answer.
    Sarina

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