Gross National Happiness in World Building

Gross National Happiness is a term coined by His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck in the 1970s. The concept implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notions of progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing. The concept of GNH has often been explained by its four pillars: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. Lately the four pillars have been further classified into nine domains in order to create widespread understanding of GNH and to reflect the holistic range of GNH values. The nine domains are: psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. The domains represents each of the components of wellbeing of the Bhutanese people, and the term ‘wellbeing’ here refers to fulfilling conditions of a ‘good life’ as per the values and principles laid down by the concept of Gross National Happiness.” -

The tiny, remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan first invented the idea of using happiness as a measure of good governance – an idea its superpower neighbour China has now borrowed.” -

In November 2008, 66 international guests attended the fourth International Gross National Happiness Conference in Thimphu, Bhutan. Six attendees were from Vermont. We decided the time was ripe to import GNH concepts to the U.S., starting with our small but progressive New England home state.“-

As a writer, I often hear people talk about ‘world building’. If you don’t do it successfully, you lose your readership. You have to create a world that is believable on some level. It has to make sense, not only to the characters in the book, but to the reader. In order for that to happen, it has to make sense to the writer. Therefore, most writers stay in the world they know best; their own. Most of the rest of us go one easier; we make up one very similar to our own, but we change anything we need to.

The most successful writers create whole new worlds, with whole new rules, for the reader to live in. Examples: Harry Potter, Game of Thrones, The Martian Chronicles, Xanth.

People love the idea of learning the new rules of the world. To see how a character can find a way to exploit them to their advantage, or conversely, stop the bad guy who is exploiting or breaking the rules.

But how hard is it to make up these rules? It can be very difficult. I have met many an author, myself included, who has written a wonderful story (ok, maybe not including myself) only to have a reader ask something along the lines of “but if they can fly, why did they have to take the boat for six weeks?”

Ok, that’s not a really good example. That one is easy to answer. “Um…they can only fly for an hour over water, because the resistance is different than over land…” or something like that. The thing is, you have to suspend your reader’s disbelief, and then you have to do your best to never interrupt it.

The best way to do that, is to ground your world in as much reality as possible before adding the ‘unreal’ rules.

And this is where I tie in to the above reference quotes.

There are places in the world where people are actually trying to govern by monitoring happiness. It would be easy to study what they have done, see their mistakes and triumphs, and extrapolate into a new world of your own.

If they can do it with happiness, why not with greed, lust, envy, anger, depression, or any other emotion? How hard is it to envision a world where the CIA is replaced by a covert agency whose job it is to cause horrible things to happen to increase the ‘grieving index’ because of the known ‘rebound effect’ it has upon the ‘happiness index’?

Perhaps people would be hired to do crimes and get caught to increase the ‘revenge satisfaction index’.

See how fast we are building a whole new world? And we did it by looking at something unusual happening right here in ours. The world your character lives in should be as alive and vibrant as your character is, and then you will have hooked your reader. After that, you just need a good story. (Which, ideally, could only happen in the world you created.)


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