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The search for happiness in Antigonish

Globe and Mail Update

Nearly 500 people from around the globe have descended on a small Nova Scotia town this week to try to find the key to world happiness.

Environmentalists, journalists, government officials, entrepreneurs, social activists, youth, business and labour leaders from 33 different countries have come to Antigonish, N.S., to attend the second International Conference on Gross National Happiness, which started Monday.

The delegates have become fascinated by the development model set by a small Himalayan country, which has put economic prosperity behind its general happiness and are bringing input on how their own countries have tried to do the same.

The concept of Gross National Happiness was developed 30 years ago by the King of Bhutan.


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"It is based on the belief that the ultimate pursuit of every human being is happiness. If that it is true, then it becomes the responsibility of the state to create the opportunity for happiness for its people," said Lyonpo Jigmi Thinley, Bhutan's present Home Minister and former prime minister, who is in Nova Scotia attending the conference.

"The example set by most developed countries is that material prosperity has come at the cost of spiritual impoverishment," Mr. Thinley said in an interview with

Bhutan's King and its people were awarded the UN Champion of the Earth Award in April for their efforts to preserve more than 70 per cent of its old growth forests.

He argues that global interest in Bhutan was motivated by a general dissatisfaction with how the world has developed.

"Despite all the wonders, there still a general discontent," Mr. Thinely said.

While Bhutan has forgone economic opportunities because of its insistence on balancing economic development, environmental preservation, cultural promotion and good governance as it develops, he said, it did so to preserve its culture.  The country is ranked 196th in world, with each citizens earning roughly $1,400 on average per year.

"We have not developed as mindlessly and as rapidly as we could have otherwise," Mr. Thinley said. "It's ridiculous that happiness does not figure into political policy. Politicians dismiss it as at utopian, because they can't quantify it. The human mind has to quantify everything and what it can't, it dismisses."

While it may not be possible to quantify happiness, said Ron Colman, of GPI Atlantic, a non-profit organization that is hosting the conference, it is possible measure the essential elements that could lead to happiness.

"We can measure the conditions of well being," Mr. Colman said Monday. "If people are healthy, if they're able to walk the streets at night, or breath the air, they are more likely to be happy."

GPI Atlantic's has tried to quantify the elements of happiness by comparing crime rates, environmental and health standards, volunteer participation, and educational levels in different countries, Mr. Colman said.

Last year, Bhutan held the first conference on Gross National Happiness and invited delegates to offer ideas on how the country could best deal with its rapidly modernizing culture.

The isolated country, situated between China and India, has avoided colonization for centuries. However, it has recently been faced with a rapid modernization, starting with the introduction of television in 1998, and more recently with the Internet, Mr. Colman said, that is testing its development policy.

Last year's conference in Bhutan was an effort to get international input on how Gross National Happiness could be achieved in the modern world and because of its success, GPI Atlantic decided to host this year's event in Canada.

"People from all over the world are coming, because somehow, their imagination was captured by this approach," Mr. Colman said.

Brazilian delegates are there promoting mass transit there rather than automobile use.

The Dutch government is promoting a program that sharply reduced unemployment by encouraging shorter work hours.

And the conference will hear from the leaders of various movements, like Krishna Kumar, director of Kerala's Total Literacy Program, which mobilized 350,000 volunteers to teach everyone in the Indian state to read, write, and do math.

Ray Anderson, CEO of Interface Inc., one of the world's largest commercial interior furnishings companies will also attend.

Mr. Anderson was featured in the documentary The Corporation for his efforts to eliminate waste at Interface.

Among the others, John Ralston Saul will be speaking on good governance later this week and fifty delegates from Bhutan will be in attendance.

"The traditional view is that if you increase (Gross Domestic Product) then you're better off," Mr. Colman said. "Bhutan wants to balance their economic development and Gross National Happiness with rapid change into the 20th century."

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