GNH – what’s it to us?

Since John deGraaf did such a fine summary of the GNH conference, and those deeply interested can dig deeper here, I want to explore how GNH might translate to a US setting. It’s my “does it hoe corn” eye – what might it take for GNH to make a difference.

First, here are the gifts of GNH, what makes it a step beyond other efforts at making “well being”, not “economic activity” the express purpose of an economy.* First

GNH is the project of a national government, fully funded and empowered to develop a system of measurement of “well being” and then policy tools based on these indicators that will actually guide choices and laws. This is a first in modern times. Most well-being research and writing has been produced by academics and activists – people who push on those in power but who do not have their hands on the levers of power. This makes “well being” an interesting side-line to policy. In October 1986 John Vasconcellos of CA proposed the State Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem that was ridiculed around the country (and the world). We’ve come a long way baby and thank you Bhutan for elevating well being to a national priority.

Second, their 9 domains and 72 indicators are wider than previous well being measures. The domains are:

  • Psychological Well Being
  • Health
  • Use of Time
  • Community Vitality
  • Education
  • Culture
  • Environment
  • Governance
  • Standard of Living

You’ll notice that only one of the nine has to do with economic activity. Thus GDP, while a part of the picture, isn’t the whole picture. It’s positive qualities – that people feel financially secure and have what they need – are included and it’s negative qualities – the environment and culture and personal happiness be damned – contained. GNH decontaminates GDP rather than rejecting it. How Buddhist.

You’ll also notice that subjective well-being is a ninth of the picture. They are grappling with the fact that you can set up conditions for happiness but you can’t make people happy. At the same time, the felt sense of well being is actually the bottom line. Is it all adding up to a good society? In GNH this is taken seriously. If the people aren’t happy the government listens.

You’ll also notice that Time Use is part of it. Time famine is a hidden distress of the modern world. Ask anyone in the US how they are and “busy” is mostly the answer. The speed up of life has allowed us to do more, have more, commit more with no end in sight – and “enough already” is the cry of the soul (which of course is why I am teaching my Discover Your Enough Point class). In Bhutan, if people don’t have enough time to love, to pray, to play with children, to sleep, the government WILL make changes.

Third, GNH is a whole systems approach. It’s a complex equation. All nine domains are interlinked and must be regarded together, not disaggregated and dealt with one by one. This means you can’t adjust for Standard of Living without attending to how that affects time use or culture. Setting up a complex equation and requiring whole systems answers requires the mind to go where it has not gone before. It requires us to expand our understanding of life. To discover options that are invisible in linear systems.

You see why GNH has captured my imagination.


Does it hoe corn?

How does it get applied?

Susan Andrews, hostess of the Brazil Conference, beloved spiritual teacher and iron willed do-er when she hears the call, enacted three projects along the GNH lines. One was in a city, one was in a university and one was in a corporation. Next they are doing one in a favela in Sao Paulo. The city project is the template. She trains young people to be data collectors. The fan out to a statistically signifiant number of households to get the surveys filled out completely – even if the people are not literate. Next a community meeting happens where results are presented and people engage passionately in discussing what the community needs for greater well being. Based on that, and funded by the government, they get project of their own choosing.

This is not so different from what we did as Sustainable Seattle in the early 1990’s. We involved a large swath of the community in developing indicators of sustainability, exploring the linkages among the 40 (how they affect one another) and measuring once a year. We were not, however, a project of the city. Our County Exec, Ron Simms,  once took a copy of our Indicators Report out of his desk drawer and brandished it, saying this was how he gauged how good a job he was doing. And our indicators were more weighted towards economic and environmental factors than social and personal.

So the question remains, would GNH hoe corn on Whidbey Island – better than Transition Whidbey which is actually increasing the ag land being hoed.

I think GNH as a methodology has to be in the hands of people who have the budget and clout to do valid research and may policy that sticks. Unless you have an army of passionate volunteers who can work 12 hours a day for nothings and some of whom have PhDs, I don’t this a citizen group can do this work. Well, with a Susan Andrews you might be able to – but she has a lot of resources behind her through her Visao Futuro teaching center and truly vast networks who listen to her, love her and love working with her.

What a citizen group CAN do is educate, organize, influennce, host conferences, talk to officials, makes brats of themselves. What GNH has that TW doesn’t is a focus on increasing well being rather than a focus on adaptation to dire circumstances with as much pizazz as possible. Measuring GNH in a less rigorous way and committing to increasing it – together with our action groups and storefront and education work – could accelerate the shift on Whidbey and that indeed is compelling.

John deGraaf and I are exploring hosting an educational and networking and base building GNH event in Seattle, perhaps coordinating with two other GNH conferences in 2010 – one in Vermont, one in Wyoming.

Let’s get happy. Together. in a measurable and whole systems sort of way. I’m game.


*By the way, John deG has been a passionate champion of this issue if you want to explore this further


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