Lessons in Happiness from the Himalayas

Below is an excerpt from the November 2015 edition of GINNED! Magazine about Slingsby Gin from Harrogate.

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Regularly voted one of the UK's happiest towns, Slingsby Gin's home of Harrogate has lots to smile about.

But can money buy happiness? You might think so whilst strolling along Harrogate's Stray, soaking in the smiles of the people in this relatively affluent town. But around the world a trend is growing that believes money is of secondary importance, a trend being led by the small mountain nation of Bhutan.

Until the 1960s, Bhutan, an absolute monarchy steeped in its Buddhist traditions, was completely closed off to the modern world. But since its accession to the United Nations in 1971 the country’s overall well-being has skyrocketed: infant mortality rates have plummeted, life expectancy has soared and nearly 100% children are enrolled in school.

The mountain nation of Bhutan

The mountain nation of Bhutan

That same year, the country’s leaders eschewed the main metric used by its UN peers to gauge well-being - Gross Domestic Product (GDP) - and introduced its own metric, Gross National Happiness (GNH). Coincidence? Possibly. 

The landlocked nation’s newly enlightened rulers defined GNH by four principles - sustainable development, environmental protection, cultural preservation, and good governance - principles to which Western leaders began to pay attention particularly after 2008’s financial crisis.

David Cameron was perhaps the most vocal Western politician in favour of including GNH criteria in economic reports, calling “society’s sense of wellbeing… the central political challenge of our times.” Good to Cameron’s word, the Office for National Statistics Report first modified its economic indicators to include well-being in 2014 with measures that included “how well-off people are feeling.”

Measuring happiness by smiles in Bhutan

Measuring happiness by smiles in Bhutan

Certainly there are things to be said for considering general well-being aside GDP figures: there are plenty of cash-poor people who are perfectly content with their lot in life and study after study shows that the pursuit of material wealth makes people more miserable. Even the Nobel Prize-winning American architect of GDP, Simon Kuznets, declared his model flawed upon its release during the Great Depression because of its lack of measurement of social wellbeing.

But at the same time, correlations between GDP and the overall happiness abound. The happiest countries in the world according to the UN’s World Happiness Report are all rich countries like Switzerland, Finland and Canada that enjoy peaceful societies, high standards of living and top-notch social welfare. 

Jumping for joy

Jumping for joy

So where does GNH pioneer, Bhutan, where 70% of the population don’t have electricity and over 25% live below the extreme poverty line of $1.25 (£0.81) per day, place on the UN’s list? Right in the middle at 79 out of 158 surveyed countries.

At the same time, Bhutan ranks towards the bottom 10% of all countries in terms of GDP at 168 out of 193 on the UN list. With such a gap between GNH and GDP standings, perhaps there is something to say after all for the country’s groundbreaking gauge. 

The answer isn’t quite yet as crystal clear as the spring water from the Harrogate of the Himalayas, but we’ll take comfort in knowing that happiness in the UK remains high, especially now that we can all toast our cheer with a glass of our Harrogate’s Slingsby Gin.

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