Increasing Gross Municipal Happiness

According to Jigme Thinley, Prime Minister of Bhutan as quoted in the The New York Times, the cause of today’s economic crisis is “Greed, insatiable human greed.” I can’t think of a shorter and more concise analysis of our current condition that says it better.

The Times article is about Bhutan’s efforts to determine policies and programs based upon happiness instead of simply G.N.P. economics (go to and search for Bhutan G.N.H.). Using a “well-being model” based upon “four pillars, nine domains and 72 indicators of happiness,” the government of Bhutan, now a constitutional democracy, seeks to use Gross National Happiness (G.N.H.) calculations as the guidepost for future societal development. A complex yet calculable mathematical formula has been developed through which policies, proposals and concepts can be evaluated. Accordingly, factors such as positive and negative emotions, trust and safety can be tracked and made part of the decision making process. Similarly, the positive and negative effects of more or less pollution, crime and illness can be taken into account.

If crime statistics, drug and alcohol use, high-school dropout rate, economic stability and lapses in health coverage are any indication, America’s G.N.H. is quite low. Unlike Bhutan, measuring happiness is not uppermost in our list of priorities. Despite consumption of 45 percent of the world’s resources, we American’s suffer from an epidemic of depression and substance abuse. Clearly, material wealth is a minor indicator or happiness, not the primary indicator.

We would benefit by exploring G.N.H., and determining in what ways we might adopt a similar tool to guide us into an uncertain future. The past is the best indicator of the future; if we allow economic indicators alone to guide our way forward, our G.N.H. will diminish, not increase.

Even in a small town like Sonoma, we would benefit from this more holistic view and practice of priorities and decision-making. Our General Plan and Development Code are pretty good as far as they go, but they lack particular definitions and standards to weigh and measure the effects of proposals. The environmental impacts of large projects are considered, but with an eye towards mitigating negative effects, not eliminating them. We do not adequately evaluate the effects of noise, lighting, construction waste, or type of jobs created in evaluating project proposals. Even in cities that require more analysis than Sonoma requires, like the economic impact reports now required by the City of Petaluma, the emphasis remains on economics, not happiness.

Bhutan distributes a 72-page questionnaire to its citizens to help gather information about happiness: and click on survey. A similar, if shorter, questionnaire might be an excellent way for us to begin. Moreover, while there are cultural differences, Bhutan’s systematic methodology to calculate the effects on happiness of policies and proposals may be adaptable to our own community.

Many of us suffer from insatiable greed; it is our modern American disease. Less is focused on quality, durability, sustainability and beauty than on convenience, surface appearance, low prices and disposability. Thousands of acres of landfill are filled with our daily refuse. We try to find happiness in all the wrong places, seeking it in short-lived external objects and experiences instead of long-lasting internal values and virtues.

Sonoma is the birthplace of California, and I can’t think of anyplace better to begin America’s very own Happiness program.