Happiness Before Profit: Bhutan Seeks to Redefine Business Using Buddhist Values
Bhutan, a remote Vajrayana Buddhist kingdom perched in the rarified air of the eastern Himalayas, is regularly ranked among the happiest countries in the world. With a population of fewer than 800,000 people, it is also one of the world’s smallest and least industrialized countries, yet it has significant experience in maintaining the delicate balance of managing economic growth in a sustainable manner, famously encapsulated in its conservative “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) approach to economic development.
The philosophy of GNH was introduced in the late 1970s by Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk. An alternative to traditional metrics for measuring national development, such as gross national product (GNP) or gross domestic product (GDP), GNH is founded on four underlying principles or “pillars:” good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, the preservation and promotion of culture, and environmental conservation.
While not opposed to material development or economic progress, GNH rejects the pursuit of economic growth as the ultimate good, instead seeking to cultivate a more holistic approach to balanced development and societal well-being, translating cultural and social priorities into developmental goals to create a happier, more equitable society.
A recent summit in the capital Thimphu—the 7th International Conference on Gross National Happiness: GNH of Business*—gathered more than 400 guests and dignitaries, including almost 200 academics, experts, and entrepreneurs, from 29 countries, to explore the potential for translating the principals of GNH into the corporate sphere. The underlying premise of the forum is that most corporate entities have lost sight of, or misunderstand their true raison d’être—instead of maximizing profit, growth, and shareholder value at the expense of the environment, their employees, and even the “consumers” they sell to, companies should prioritize the benefits they provide for the communities they work in, their net positive impact on quality of life, and overall contribution to creating a happier, more sustainable society.
On the sidelines of this landmark event, Buddhistdoor Global had an opportunity to sit down with Dasho Karma Ura, president of the forum’s organizer, the Centre for Bhutan Studies & Gross National Happiness (CBS), who shared some of his thoughts on the national initiative.
His modest demeanor and ready smile bely an impressive resume. After earning an undergraduate degree at Oxford and a master’s degree in the philosophy of economics from the University of Edinburgh, Karma Ura spent 12 years in Bhutan’s Ministry of Planning before being appointed director of CBS from its founding in 1999 until becoming its president in 2008.
He is also a painter and the author of several books, including Faith and Festival of Nimalung; Deities and Archers; The Hero with a Thousand Eyes; The Ballad of Pemi Tshweang Tashi: A Wind Borne Feather; and Leadership of the Wise: Kings of Bhutan. In 2006, he was awarded the ancient title dasho for his services to the country, was a member of the drafting committee for Bhutan’s first constitution, enacted in 2008, and in 2010, received the Druk Khorlo award (Bth. Wheel of the Dragon Kingdom) for his contributions to literature and fine arts.
As the head of CBS, a social science research institute conducting inter-disciplinary studies for advancing social, cultural, and economic well-being in Bhutan, Karma Ura is something of an expert on the subject of happiness. And under his leadership, CBS has been at the forefront of promoting the philosophy of GNH and conducting detailed, multidisciplinary research across the country.
The “GNH of Business,” proposed by prime minister Dasho Tsechering Tobgay in 2015, Bhutan aims to transpose the same principals to create a new model for corporate activity rooted in and informed by the teachings of Buddhism—one might even say a more “spiritual” approach to doing business.
“To the extent that [the GNH of business] is trying to broaden the understanding of the huge number of impacts and connections involved in business itself, it is Buddhist, you can say, because one major, ever-present thought on any phenomenon—anything in Buddhism—is that the network and spillover of externalities are much wider than we ever think. So in that sense, you can say it incorporates some key Buddhist ideas,” Karma Ura observed. “The nature of business and its consequences are much, much wider than we think, so spirituality in the elementary sense of Buddhist mindfulness is very relevant.”
In addition to throwing a spotlight on this more mindful approach to business, the international symposium was also aimed at providing a platform to investigate methodologies for systemizing and quantifying the GNH approach, providing a means of gauging the success of companies applying the principals, and even a system of certification. This new paradigm might eventually lead to an evolution away from traditional corporate hierarchies and toward more horizontal, employee-based ownership models.
“Of course the division of a company between employees and the owners or the management is a very unfortunate language, which by itself shows that things have broken down, you know? That there is no holistic consideration,” Karma Ura explained. “It builds a separation, as though the workers are . . . something insentient; something that is a recipient, that is passive. So you have to intervene; I think the first principal is to emphasize that all are people within the context of a construct like a business or an institution.”
Remote and landlocked, Bhutan has a delicate tightrope to navigate, however. Sandwiched between the uneasy rivalry of economic powerhouses China and India, can this Buddhist kingdom afford to contemplate such a innovative approach to doing business? “Bhutanese businesses should and will respond, however, the constraints are also much wider in the sense that Bhutan is integrated in the regional economy, if not the global economy. So you are embedded or enmeshed in the regional process,” Karmu Ura observed. “So, on their own, Bhutanese businesses should and will make the effort. But to the extent that they are subject to external impetus and impacts, the outside should also change, so it is also something kind of a trans-boundary effort we should make.”
This emphasis on interconnectedness raises the more daring question of whether this radical redefinition of business mores and practices could eventually be adopted on a much larger stage outside of Bhutan. Could such progressive, holistic methodologies that might temper the resource-hungry excesses of capitalism ever find a footing in the international arena and persuade the world’s corporate giants to look beyond their myopic focus on profit and growth?
“They will have to,” Karma Ura affirmed with conviction and a sly smile. “And not only will they have to, they will be forced to as time goes on, because of all the problems which we have discussed, with an orientation to mere financial performance—as though it has a reality on it’s own; it doesn’t have a reality!
“The real reality is the lives of the people, the environment, social harmony, and so on. Otherwise everything will be disrupted by their own consequences; not by others—by their own consequences!” he said laughing. “The building up of momentum and the forces of change are being generated, of which GNH may be considered one.”
Yet Karma Ura is not one to view the world through the rose-tinted spectacles of unbridled optimism, acknowledging the growing pressure on the world’s finite resources from voracious corporate activity and human society’s seemingly limitless capacity for consumption. “It’s very difficult to be optimistic if you follow these kinds of trajectories into the future. If you trace the trajectories for population growth, and energy consumption per individual, and global warming, for example. At the core of it, people are unnecessarily active, you know—consuming energy, generating heat.”
Growing pressure from manmade climate change, environmental degradation, pollution, and the human impact on ecosystems and animal populations in the name of economic growth is undeniable, Karma Ura conceded. “But pessimism is also a kind of realism,” he noted, thumbing a string of mala beads. “It’s quite hopeless to be optimistic and unrealistic. Once you realistically appreciate the dangers, internalizing them, then I think you can do something.
“But time does seem to be running out. You know, we hear a lot in the media pushing the idea that you just have to be satisfied in yourself and everything will follow suit, but this is not really the case. You have to be calm, contented, focused, happy, but also directed and proactive at solving problems.”
“You have to be happy, but you have to solve all the arising problems, so I think there’s much work that needs to be done; turning points that have to be initiated, and this is what we are doing, what all of us are doing. We are trying to ‘swing’ things a little bit, hoping that the amplifying effects will be there, snowballing as people realize the shared dangers and risks and uncertainties that lie in the future. It was Stephen Hawking who recently said that by the year 2600 people will turn into cinders,” he said, referencing the renowned physicist’s apocalyptic prediction of overpopulation and energy consumption.
“So that’s the danger; the imperative in the world to change nature into commodities is working faster and faster and faster. Yet we can slow that down by first making people enjoy a combination of two fundamental qualities—realization and contentment. These two things are key.”
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