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Q&A: Explaining gross national happiness

This past week, Thakur Powdyel—the former Minister of Education of Bhutan and one of the pioneers in instituting “gross national happiness” as an education policy in Bhutan—spent some time at Grinnell. During his stay, Powdyel spoke with various students, including Hall Wellness Coordinators and students concentrating in Global Development Studies. He delivered a talk titled “Educating for Sustainable Happiness: Green Schools in Bhutan” in Herrick Chapel on Wednesday, Oct. 30. 

How did Gross National Happiness originate?

The fourth King of Bhutan, [His Majesty] Jigme Singye Wangchuck, developed the idea of Gross National Happiness. GNH balances between [Gross Domestic Product]—that only looks at the material world—and the subjective dimension, which contains the emotional, the spiritual and the artistic. We have to address all these different elements in our lives, to create balance. The resources of planet Earth are limited and finite. There is the tension between finite nature and unlimited desires and demands of human species.

Could you give an example of this balance between the outside world and ourselves?

Think about how many people take care of and produce our food. There’s planting, watering, harvesting, packing, shipping and so on. So many people have left behind their impressions on the way we eat, it is hard to maintain this balance.

What would you say is the core ideology behind the concept of Gross National Happiness?

The objective and the subjective well-being is the essence to Gross National Happiness. It is founded on four pillars: environmental harmony, cultural sense of identity, a balanced and equitable social development and good governance.

As the Former Education Minister of Bhutan, you oversaw the concept of Gross National Happiness becoming a significant part of government policy. Could you provide more depth on what this means?

In Bhutan, all plans and projects should be GNH-positive. If it is not, then there will be no state funding. There is a special committee that was created to determine the GNH contributions of every project, and it is of utmost importance that each project meets these requirements to build a better tomorrow.

How does Grinnell qualify, in your observations, on the concept of GNH?

Coming to this college, I see that the priorities have been set straight. I sat down at an early morning session with a few educators, and I asked them, what keeps them going from day to day? Without a second thought, they said “Our wonderful students.”

The concepts of humanity and the heart of the student play strongly into GNH’s goals and ways of thinking. Could you elaborate on that?

Grinnell has fabulous facilities and state of the art resources. But all of these on their own do not have a life. You animate these buildings. You animate these facilities. You bring them to life. Resources should be engaged because the mind, like soil, must be fertile.

How can schools in the United States embrace the concept of Gross National Happiness?

In school, it is of utmost importance to open the mind to new ideas, to new knowledge. That creates a green mind. Green is a color, but it is also a metaphor for life and for growth. For example, there is academic, cultural and social greenery.

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