Animals Deserve GNH

As my wife and I cheerfully ascended up the storied path to the Tiger’s Nest temple complex, inspired by Bhutan’s program 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 to human beings. As wildlife researchers have intimately detailed, other animals’ lives are as vivid and full of emotion as our own. Nearly all creatures, from dogs and cats, to elephants and whales, have been documented demonstrating a wide range of sensations, from ecstatic joy to anguish and mourning. Like humans, other animals desire to avoid pain, fear, and discomfort, to access food and water, and to perform instinctive behaviors, like successfully raising their young. These innate desires can be objectively measured and achieved, just as human progress and satisfaction already are. Defining and quantifying GNH has been rightly hailed by the United Nations as a groundbreaking approach to sustainable human development that works towards the “fundamental human goal” of happiness. But why stop with humans? Bhutan can and should expand their circle of compassion to gauge how the non-human residents of Bhutan register on the happiness scale.

Animals have languages; they just don’t speak ours. Simply asking animals to self-report their levels of happiness in a survey would not be sensible. 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 vigor” and “comfort, companionship, and security” across their lifespans. All animals are motivated to repeat actions that provide positive reinforcement (e.g. eating a favorite food), and seek to avoid those behaviors 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 animals’ daily lives are. Knowing how a representative sample of the animals living in the Kingdom score in terms of Gross National Happiness can catalyze 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’s well documented that sharing our homes with dogs, cats, and other creatures can increase humans’ joy. One of the foundational beliefs of GNH is that ecological diversity and harmony with nature—and by extension, wildlife—improves humans’ overall well-being. To view other species’ happiness as a goal unto itself would lead to some challenging questions and necessary changes to human behavior.

Many common human behaviors occur at the expense of other creatures. 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 visit in Thimphu offers dairy products on their menus, with no thought given to the unhappiness animals endured to get it there.

Public displays of suffering are commonly observed among so-called “working animals,” who are forced to perform daily tasks such as plowing fields, shuttling luggage, hauling logs, or otherwise serving the whims of humans. Horses are strong and powerful creatures, but what 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 behaviorist 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 too: wild cats are breaking through the fences of their zoo enclosures and octopuses are descending down aquarium drain pipes to escape. Animals clearly demonstrate no interest in living in captivity or enslavement. Any happiness that humans gain from not performing burdensome tasks is directly usurped from other creatures.

Bhutan’s 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 species. Elephant mothers strive to maintain close relationships with their children for up to 50 years; disrupting that bond can cause 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. Other creatures, like chameleons, thrive even without their parents raising them; 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, pulling from the best scientific knowledge available.

Bhutan plays an outsized 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 behaviorists. 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, the Kingdom may find that increasing its compassion for animals is both good governance and good for business. Just picture the promotional campaign—“Bhutan: Home of the World’s Happiest Animals!” Has a nice ring, doesn’t it? Bhutanese animals would surely think so.

By Ryan Huling

Ryan Huling is a writer with Sentient Media, based in Southeast Asia. He is a former director of a U.S.-based animal protection organization, and currently a consultant for intergovernmental agencies on sustainable foods. 

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