Gross Domestic Happiness

Trip Start Jan 08, 2004
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Flag of Thailand  ,
Thursday, September 30, 2004

This travel log and the next will largely be written for me by one of the local Thai newspapers. Why? 1. I am busy and have little time to write. 2. Nothing overly exciting has been happening here. Just working. And 3. The topics of the articles are interesting, they are well written and about subjects I would have liked to discuss anyway.


A while ago while I was studying Tibetan Buddhism, we discussed why people wanted to make money. What was the purpose of it? The logical conclusion to the question is that people want greater and more sustainable happiness. At first people may answer they want a new car or they want more security, however if questioned further as to why they want these things, eventually the answer is for greater happiness. The purpose of collecting money is for increased happiness. (Interestingly, you can deduce from this, that if you can gain greater happiness without collecting large sums of money, then there is no point in collecting large sums of money).

After this discussion I experimented a little by asking young Australians why they wanted money. Quite often I was surprised that many, if not most were completely unable to get to the point where they could see the acquisition of money was for increased happiness. They all knew they wanted money. Society and their schooling had drummed this into them. But why? All they knew is they wanted more "stuff".

A while after this occurred I also saw on TV a report about Bhutan. Bhutan is a country in the Himalayas, with a culture not too dissimilar to Tibet. The report was interesting and recorded such things as: In Bhutan it is illegal to chop down a tree without permission from the King. For the King to chop down a tree he needs the support of 2/3rds of Parliament. Plastic bags have been banned from Bhutan for a long time. Bhutan is an extremely poor country, however the Bhutanese government when questioned about the country's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) answered that this was not something they were concerned about. Instead the Bhutanese government is concerned about the Gross Domestic Happiness of the Bhutanese people. I thought this was a wonderful concept and I would certainly rather have a government that is concerned for the happiness and well being of it's people than a government that is blindly chasing economic growth (which generally seems to benefit only a few in the society). However, despite the logic in the Bhutanese government's view, I was living in Australia and these views seemed to have no chance in current Australian society.

Just before leaving Australia I also read a little about Permaculture. It is also logical and an interesting concept. It is one that talks about a better life and a better environment for people. However once again it was clear that this sort of idea is very much on the fringe of Australian society and has little chance of developing.

Australia is a modern capitalist representative democracy. This has some benefits. But it also means that once every few years the individual adult people of Australia get a very small say in which of the two parties will form the government of Australia for the next few years. Both parties are very similar and once in power they are not required to listen to the opinion of the people again until the next election. Australia's invasion of Iraq and the GST, are examples of this for those that doubt my point.

When moving to Thailand, things at first seem very much the same. Thailand is a modern capitalist representative democracy. Every few years people get to have a say in which party will form government, etc. The current government is headed by a millionaire businessman and is very much interested in GDP and economic growth. The environment of Thailand has taken a lot of punishment in the last 50 years in pursuit of economic growth. TV in Thailand is full of game shows and crappy soap operas, there is materialism and advertising all over the cities and people are pushed to have more "stuff". More and more the rich get richer and the poor get comparatively poorer, crime increases and happiness decreases.

However, when looking a bit further into Thailand there is some hope that alternative ideas, and sustainable happiness can flourish here. The King of Thailand himself works hard, leads a simple life and teaches people about ideas similar to Permaculture. About not wanting too much money and about sustainable and self-sufficient farming. Even in dirty and polluted Bangkok, there are small cooperative communities, organically farming and helping each other. There is more. The following article explains things a bit more and appeared in today's paper. It made me happy to read it.


Redefining 'progress'

A new development model, using Gross Domestic Happiness instead of GDP as an index, is slowly emerging _ and deserves our whole-hearted support
Story by PRAWASE WASI

Money has radically changed the manner in which we think. Living with nature, man has observed the cyclical nature of things. Things move in circles. Money, however, has a peculiar nature in that its quantity can increase indefinitely. You can add an infinite number of zeros to any number.

Before the creation of money, man's greed was limited. There was no use hunting too many animals because the meat would simply rot. But money can be accumulated and kept indefinitely without decaying. Thus human greed can expand indefinitely.

Here emerges an unresolvable conflict between world resources, which are finite, and money/greed, which is infinite.

Money, although an illusion, is power. This power leads to inequality and disruption.

According to the Buddhist law of causality, or itappacagata, all things are interconnected in a dynamic manner without an absolute beginning or absolute end. In the cyclical nature of things, there is no beginning and no end. Things move around endlessly. But they tend to maintain an equilibrium.

Prawase Wasi
The idea of "progress" is new. It came with money and the advent of the industrial age. Continuous progress is an isolated thrust in one way, and out of context, thus leading to the disruption of the equilibrium of all things.

That is what development based on gross domestic product (GDP) brings about. Resources are sucked up and converted into money. Money is endless and so is the consumption of resources. Natural, cultural, social and spiritual resources are converted into an endlessly increasing GDP. Disruption of the human, social and ecological spheres ensues.




Money and inequality

Money-oriented development has brought about extreme inequality throughout the world, both within and between countries.

A few hundred of the richest Americans have more money than the total held by some 2 billion people elsewhere in the world. One transnational corporation may have more capital than several developing countries combined.

Massive amounts of money circulate around the world at the speed of light. Only 0.2 percent of this vast amount has an economic function; the rest is used to seek opportunities to suck more money from people who are less well-off, have less information and less experience.

Money is power. But this power is distributed in an extremely unequal way, destroying human dignity and value, leading to social injustice, conflict, violence and wars. Materialism and consumerism lead to spiritual crisis and evaporating morality. The ecological crisis caused by, among other things, rapid deforestation, chemical pollution, the depletion of the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect is putting the future of the entire planet at risk.

Countries are interconnected by a complex system governing economics and the dissemination of information. A small incident in one place can have an incredibly large effect elsewhere in the system _ the so-called "butterfly effect" in chaos theory. With massive amounts of money moving rapidly around the world and the infinite greed associated with "monitocracy" repeated chaos is inevitable.

The human system is not built to cope with such a chaotic world. Humankind is plunged into crisis. Stress is a symptom of our failure to cope with this crisis.

Humanity can no longer live happily with the present economic model of GDP-oriented development. A development model oriented towards happiness or well-being is what we should be looking for.




GDH-oriented development

Happiness consists of four components, namely: physical well-being, mental well-being, social well-being and spiritual well-being.

- actors that bring about:

- physical well-being include having good physical health, sufficient means to survive and a sound ecology;

- mental well-being include being under the minimum of stress, having mindfulness and good mental health;

- social well-being include being able to enjoy a good life within the bosom of one's family, community and society, and in a context of cultural development and peace;

- spiritual well-being include mutual compassion, having the right worldview and the minimum of self-centredness.

Thus happiness or well-being comes from physical, mental, social and spiritual development in an integrated manner, not from the mere fact of having money. A GDH (Gross Domestic Happiness) index can be developed from this integrated model of development. GDH, not GDP, should be used to measure development




Comparing GDP and GDH

GDP-oriented development is characterised by money, free competition, free trade, consumerism, materialism, lack of eco-friendliness and a development imbalance.

GDH, meanwhile, is marked by human and social capital, togetherness, selective exchanges, self-sufficiency, frugality, culture and spiritual development, eco-friendliness and balanced development

It is very obvious which of the above is more destructive and which more creative.

The GDP model emphasizes the free flow of money. Biologically speaking, "free flow" is destructive to life. The cell is the basic unit of life. If a cell lets everything flow freely through it, it will die. It exchanges substances with its environment but in a selective manner in order to maintain its identity and equilibrium.

The family and the community are the basic social units. They need selective exchanges to maintain their identity and equilibrium. Money-oriented development which emphasizes free competition, free trade and the free flow of money disrupts the integrity of family and community. When the basic social units are disrupted, the entire society collapses.

The economic-growth model depends on the continuous stimulation of consumption. In order to increase consumption the market economy does everything possible _ marketing techniques, lying, using sex to sell products, encouraging self-indulgence to extremes. This is contrary to the traditional values of hard work and frugality.

Materialism and consumerism lead to a drop in morality, lack of sustainability, cultural and spiritual crisis.




Local initiatives

For half a century now Thailand has been following the money-oriented model of economic development. The result has been modernisation with a myriad of negative effects.

His Majesty the King has recommended a "sufficiency economy" which embodies all the characteristics of Gross Domestic Happiness. It also embraces the mental, physical, social, economic and ecological in an integrated manner, leading to balanced development and happiness.

Over the last 50 years, a modern system of agriculture, which is cash crop- or mono-crop-oriented, has been enforced by the government. This has led to the devastation of our environment, of farmers' lives and of society in general. The failure of the rural economy has led to increased urban migration, the emergence of slums in our cities, more crime, prostitution, drug addiction, HIV/Aids transmission and other social ills.

One sign of change has appeared, however.

Some farmers had given up on mono-crop cultivation. Others have rediscovered integrated farming, and this has led to greater self-sufficiency, happiness and a decrease in violence. More and more people are taking up this kind of farming.

Villagers in approximately 1,000 tambon are conducting research into their own economic affairs. By doing so, they have discovered why they are poor and they are using the results of their research to draw up master plans for the integrated development of their communities. This new development paradigm lifts them from poverty and restores the balance of community life. They are, consequently, much happier.

The villagers have formed Master Community Plan Network 4 Regions to promote movement toward this new development paradigm. Supporting the villagers' initiatives are organisations including the CODI (Community Organisations Development Institute), the Bank of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), the Local Development Institute, the Institute for Community Entrepreneurship, the Thai Health Promotion Foundation and the Office of the National Economic and Social Development Board.

Although the government is still moving strongly in a GDP-led direction, both HM the King's Sufficiency Economy concept and the Community Economy movement are gathering momentum. As GDP-led development runs into trouble, GDH-led development will gradually, but inevitably, prevail.




The future

The new development paradigm, with GDH replacing GDP, should be promoted. Supportive measures would include the following:

- Promote better understanding and common purpose through methods such as the dissemination of documents, meetings, site visits and media reports.

- Promote and support community initiatives for integrated development.

- Organisation should set up mechanisms to support Sufficiency Economy and the Community Economy movement.

- A GDH index should be developed and used to monitor progress, finally replacing GDP.

- Research on the various dimensions of GDH-led development should be conducted and the results used to guide further movement.

- The spirit of GNH (Gross National Happiness) should be promoted through regular international meetings like this one (see note below).

- Political parties should be challenged to adopt the GNH model of development.

This new development paradigm _ GNH instead of GNP (Gross National Product) _ must be absorbed into the consciousness of mankind so that peaceful co-existence will replace the hatred, competition and destruction that presently prevail.

Prof Prawase Wasi is a prominent civic leader and professor emeritus of medicine at Mahidol University. The above are edited excerpts from a keynote speech he delivered at a seminar entitled "Gross National Happiness in the Asian Context: The Message from Bhutan" held at the Asian Institute of Technology on September 24.
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