Bhutanese people happier but social issues growing: Poll

NEW DELHI • People in Bhutan are getting happier as living standards improve, but social isolation is increasing in the remote kingdom that famously prioritises "gross national happiness" over wealth, Bhutanese Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay said.

Mr Tobgay said on Tuesday that while happiness is improving overall, some Bhutanese people are getting left behind as the country modernises and once-close rural communities fracture.

"We saw some modest gains in areas such as living standards, health and time use since the last survey was conducted in 2010," said Mr Tobgay, as he unveiled the results of the 2015 index.

Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure its success by gross national happiness rather than gross domestic product, a system introduced more than four decades ago by the then King.

"But in other areas, such as community vitality and psychological well-being indicators, we actually seemed to have lost ground," he said, according to an advance copy of his speech.

Bhutan is the only country in the world to measure its success by gross national happiness rather than gross domestic product, a system introduced more than four decades ago by the then King.

The remote Himalayan kingdom, known as the "last Shangri-La", had no roads or currency until the 1960s and began admitting foreign tourists only in 1974.

There were no television sets until 1999 and democratic elections were introduced just seven years ago in the country of about 750,000 people.

But since then, Bhutan has developed rapidly as a new democratically elected government brought roads and electricity to rural areas.

The 2015 report, based on a survey of 7,153 people across Bhutan, is the second national-level index of national happiness. It gives a happiness index of 0.756, up from 0.743 in 2010 - a figure based on nine criteria, including psychological well-being, health, education, community vitality and living standards.

But it also reveals a nation in flux, its traditional social fabric starting to show the strain of modernisation.

Many of those surveyed thought adherence to Bhutan's traditional code of conduct - "Driglam Namzha", or Way of Harmony - is weakening.

The survey also shows a decline in people's sense of belonging to a community.

"In Bhutan, addressing the spiritual dimension of a person's life has been a traditional way of bringing the person's well-being to the forefront," said Mr Tobgay.

"Yet, in the past five years, people's spirituality levels have decreased slightly. People are reporting a higher prevalence of negative emotions such as anger, frustration and jealousy.

"We must think of strategies to protect and promote the emotional, psychological and spiritual skills that underpin happiness."

Bhutan is mostly Buddhist, while remnants of the ancient Bon religion, a form of nature worship, still survive.

Mr Dasho Karma Ura, lead author of the report, said the government needs to address rural isolation as more young people migrate from the countryside, leaving their elders to cope alone.

"One thing we are worried about is the general effect of economic change, which entails migration," Mr Ura said in a phone interview. "If a lot of people move from rural areas, the history and the culture are left behind."

The concept of gross national happiness began as an off-the-cuff remark by former king Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the 1970s and has since become a fully fledged development model.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 05, 2015, with the headline 'Bhutanese people happier but social issues growing: Poll'. Print Edition | Subscribe