Can Bhutan’s Concept Of Gross National Happiness Be Applied On Animals?


Should Bhutan's concept of Gross National Happiness be applied to animals and how can it be done?

At the Royal Laya Highland Festival (Source: Lost With Purpose)


By Ryan HulingThe Bhutanese


Ryan Huling is a writer with Sentient Media, based in Southeast Asia. He is a former director of a US-based animal protection organisation, and currently a consultant for inter-governmental agencies on sustainable foods. 


As my wife and I cheerfully ascended up the path to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, inspired by Bhutan’s concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), our own happiness was dimmed by the sight of horses being forced to carry heavy luggage up the mountain.

This stark contrast between our happiness and that of the horses’ raises the question: Don’t other animals deserve to be happy too?

Happiness isn’t a goal or state of mind exclusive only to human beings. As wildlife researchers have intimately detailed, animals’ lives are as vivid and full of emotions as our own.

Nearly all creatures, from dogs and cats, to elephants and whales, have been documented to demonstrate a wide range of sensations, from ecstatic joy to pain and anguish.

Like humans, animals desire to avoid pain, fear, and discomfort, to access food and water, and to perform instinctive behaviours, like successfully raising their young.

These innate desires can be objectively measured and achieved, just as human progress and satisfaction already.

Defining and quantifying GNH has been rightly hailed by the United Nations as a ground-breaking approach to sustainable human development that works towards the ‘fundamental human goal’ of happiness.

Extending the concepts of GNH to animals

But why stop with humans? Bhutan can and should expand their circle of compassion to gauge how its non-human residents register on the happiness scale.

Animals ‘speak’ their own languages, although it is not possible for them to ‘self-report’ their levels of happiness in a survey. There are other ways to gain insight into animals’ emotions though.

British biologist, Dr. Marian Dawkins states that if an observer knows what to look for, it is possible to assess animals’ “health and vigour” as well as “comfort, companionship, and security” across their lifespans.

All animals are motivated to repeat actions that provide positive reinforcement (e.g. eating their favourite food), or they seek to avoid behaviour that result in negative outcomes.

Recording detailed notes and documenting the proportion of positive to negative experiences of animals can enable humans to gauge how satisfying the animals’ daily lives are.


Source: Youtube/Wisdom Together


Knowing how a representative sample of the animals’ well-being in the Kingdom score in terms of Gross National Happiness can catalyse the process of looking for ways to make all animals happier.

When animals are considered in the context of global happiness, the conversation tends to focus on how much joy animal companions can bring to humans.

It has been well documented that sharing our homes with dogs, cats, and other creatures can increase the joy of human beings.

One of the foundational belief of GNH is that ecological diversity and harmony with nature and by extension, wildlife improves humans’ overall well-being.

However, to view other species’ happiness as a goal unto itself would lead to some challenging questions and necessary changes to human behaviour.

Examples of how animals are exploited

Many common human behaviours occur at the expense of other creatures. For example, consuming the milk of another species is an inherently exploitative act, one that no other species does.

Mother cows, goats, sheep, and yaks all produce milk for the same reason that humans do - to feed their babies. Factory-farmed animals are impregnated repeatedly to keep their milk flowing; their babies are removed from them and denied the milk that is rightfully theirs.

This interference causes well-documented anguish among animal mothers, who often cry out for their babies for days on end. Yet, nearly every restaurant I had visited in Thimphu offers dairy products on their menus, with no thought given to the unhappiness that the animals had to endure to get it there.

Public displays of suffering are commonly observed among the so-called “working animals” which are forced to perform daily tasks such as plowing the fields, shuttling luggage, hauling logs, or otherwise serving the whims of humans.

Horses are strong and powerful creatures, but which sentient individual, if truly given a choice, would choose to lug another species’ heavy suitcases up and down a mountain every day, for no reward and with no relief?

If an animal behaviourist were to assess the life satisfaction of these “beasts of burden”, the animals would likely indicate a strong desire to stop carrying our stuff.

Captive animals are revolting sights too: wild cats have been known to break through the fences of their zoo enclosures and octopuses have descended through aquarium drain pipes in order to escape.

That said, animals clearly demonstrate no interest in living in captivity or enslavement. Any happiness that humans gain from not performing burdensome tasks themselves is directly usurped from other creatures.

Adapting GNH values for the welfare of animals

Bhutan’s principles of GNH, as currently devised, reflects only humans’ desires. To account for animals’ happiness, the Kingdom’s goals would need to be altered to incorporate the priorities of other non-human species.


Source: Youtube/iammanus Travel stories


Takes for instance, elephant mothers strive to maintain close relationships with their children for up to 50 years; disrupting that bond can cause these elephants a sense of profound loss and suffering.

Any legitimate attempt to measure and increase elephants’ Gross National Happiness would need to take into account this matriarchal priority.

However, some other creatures, such as chameleons, thrive even without their parents raising them. Therefore, increasing GNH for these lizards would require a fundamentally different approach.

We humans have our own evolved aspirations - good governance for example, that other creatures do not share. Each species can and should have its own nuanced definition of a life well-lived, based on the best scientific knowledge available.

As the birthplace of the concepts of GNH, Bhutan plays a significant role in the world when it comes to promoting happiness.

Measuring and enhancing the satisfaction of animals within its borders is a logical extension of its mission. The innate needs and desires of other species have already been extensively researched and documented by animal behaviourists. Bhutan’s leaders can, and should, use the available data to create more meaningful lives for all of the Kingdom’s inhabitants.

In a world where travel companies are rapidly updating their policies to stop supporting tourist attractions where animals suffer (such as elephant rides in Thailand), the Kingdom may find that increasing its compassion for animals is both good governance and beneficial for tourism.

Just picture the promotional campaign - “Bhutan: Home of the World’s Happiest Animals!”

It has a nice ring, don’t you think? Animals in Bhutan would surely think so.


This article first appeared in The Bhutanese and has been edited for Daily Bhutan.



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