Skip to main content

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index(GNH): A Sane Idea That Could Change the World

  • Author:
  • Updated date:

I regularly write on social issues of India. My favorite topics are poverty, population, terrorism, and climate change.

The Taktsang Monastery Near Paro, Bhutan

The Taktsang Monastery Near Paro, Bhutan

Bhutan Defines Its Own Measure of Progress: The Gross National Happiness

Our world is ruled by money and “profit maximizers” and beset by collapsing family, cultural and moral values, ever-widening inequalities, large-scale environmental destruction and the ever-increasing threat of climatic disasters. If someone talks of “maximizing people’s happiness,” he is most likely to be seen as an alien from another planet. For people growing up learning that accumulating wealth is the only aim in life and that money alone can make them happy, it could be frightening for someone to suggest for them to pause and think about where they are going.

In the tiny Himalayan Kingdom, Bhutan, it is the Gross National Happiness (GNH) that dictates State policies, not the gross domestic product (GDP). In the 1970s, its king declared that “Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross National Product (GDP).” Since 1972, Bhutan has rejected GDP as the barometer of people's well-being. Instead, it followed the holistic principles of gross national happiness (GNH) as a measure of prosperity. GNH goes well beyond economic aspects and gives importance to other dimensions of human life such as cultural, spiritual and social, as well as the health of the environment.

While the rest of the world is still shying away from taking responsibility for the environment despite increasing threats of climatic and ecological disasters, this barely known, tiny country of only about 742,000 people (2012 data) is suddenly drawing all-round attention for its initiative. Experts like to talk about environmental conservation and sustainability, and most people agree with their arguments, but this small and "barely developed" country is actually enacting sustainability through the philosophy of GNH, which is mandated by its Constitution.

Articles 9 and 11.2 of the Constitution of Bhutan safeguard the GNH:

  • Article 9: The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of GNH.
  • Article 11.2: The end result of all development activities should be the attainment of GNH.

The Gross National Happiness (GNH)

The Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) offers an alternate way to measure the progress of a country—in fact, a better way. It believes that for development to be sustainable, it should take a holistic approach by also giving equal importance to non-economic aspects of human well-being. Therefore, the GNH includes spiritual, physical and social well-being of people as well as the health of the environmental.

The idea of GNH was first proposed in 1972 by Bhutan's former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk. Since then, enhancing people’s happiness has been the prime goal of the government. In 1999, the Center for Bhutan Studies (CBS) was established as an autonomous research institute for the purpose of ‘promoting and deepening the understanding of Gross National Happiness’. It also helps policymakers define development strategies to promote the GNH and check that no policy is going against the guiding principle of GNH. The center conceived the idea of quantifying happiness in the form of a Gross National Happiness Index and came up with 9 domains of well-being to be probed by 33 indicators. Thus, GNHI makes it possible to quantify happiness.

The nine domains of GNH are:

  1. Psychological well-being
  2. Health
  3. Time use
  4. Education
  5. Cultural diversity and resilience
  6. Good governance
  7. Community vitality
  8. Ecological diversity and resilience
  9. Living standard

These nine domains actually come from the four pillars (or dimensions) of GNH: 1) Sustainable and Equitable Socio-Economic Development, 2) Conservation of the Environment, 3) Preservation and Promotion of Culture and 4) Good Governance. These are broad foundations of the GNH.

In 2004, Bhutan held an international seminar on GNH. According to the permanent mission of Bhutan in the UN, since the 2004 seminar the GNH became a standard in Bhutan and "a bridge between the fundamental values of kindness, equality, and humanity and the necessary pursuit of economic growth."

The first official GNH pilot survey was conducted in 2006-2007 which showed that over 68% of Bhutan's people were happy and rated income, family, health and spirituality as their most important requirements for happiness.

How the GNH Is Implemented

Role of the GNH Commission (GNHC)

GNHC is the Central Planning agency of the Government that identifies and recommends priorities, allocation of resources, setting of targets, and co-ordinates, monitors and evaluates policies and programs. The Commission is responsible for operationalizing GNH by mainstreaming its elements into our plans and programs. The Commission uses the GNH Index, its domains and indicators, and the survey results (published by CBS):

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Soapboxie

  • To draw attention to areas that need to be addressed, and as basis for resource allocation.
  • As basis to formulate public policies, plans and programs by mainstreaming the GNH elements using the GNH Policy and Project Screening Tools (PPST).

What is GNH Policy & Project Screening Tool (PPST)?

It’s a tool that enables planners to institutionalize GNH policy development by ensuring that all relevant dimensions of GNH are considered in a systematic way while assessing policies and projects. It uses 22 GNH variables representing the 9 domains. The main objective of using the screening tools therefore, is to ensure that all the policies and projects are GNH enhancing or have minimal or no adverse effect on the GNH variables.

After compiling the results of the policy screening test, it is presented to the GNH Commission highlighting the variables on which the particular policy has scored low or high. If a policy doesn't achieve the required threshold during the screening exercise, the Commission sends back the policy with instructions to improve on the areas/variables with low scores along with recommendations. The proposed policy is then modified by incorporating the recommendations and resubmitted it to the Commission.

How Is GNH Different From Other Development Models?

The idea of happiness engrossed in GNH is distinct from the western understanding of the term, 'happiness.‘ The monarch has put it aptly:

We have now clearly distinguished the 'happiness' in GNH from the fleeting, pleasurable 'feel good' moods so often associated with that term. We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realizing our innate wisdom and the true and brilliant nature of our own minds.

Unlike other development models, GNH is more comprehensive and has a holistic approach to development by having incorporated the innovative dimensions like Psychological Qell-being, Community Vitality, Time Use and Cultural Diversity and Resilience, devalued in other policy-making frameworks. So this makes GNH a more realistic measure of progress which ensures a consistent alignment between what an individual hopes for from development and what the Government does in the name of development.

The GNH paradigm concludes that economic growth is not an end in itself but rather a means to achieve more important ends – a sense of satisfaction and happiness.

Importance of Non-Material Development

And yet all these conditions (even of GNH) are only means rather than ends. Without the knowledge, skills, and ability to achieve their potential, a person may have all the conditions listed above and more, and still be miserable. The internal development (development of people’s mind and cultivation of proper attitude and behavior) is as impor­tant for enhancing feelings of well-being and happiness as the creation of outside facilities.

Mental Development Promotes Well-being and Happiness

Happiness, sense of satisfaction and well-being are things to be felt in the mind – they are very much mental / emotional feeling. Even if all the ideal physical conditions exist, a person may not feel happy. So some form of mental development is very much needed to steer the mind towards peace and happiness. Conscious processes and skills – drawn from histori­cal experience, ancient traditions, meditation spiritual practices and modern sciences (like neuroscience, positive psychology, behavioral and eco­logical economics, etc.) – are needed to enlarge our sense of a common humanity sharing a common fate in the world.

Bhutan’s own culture has a rich tradition of profound wisdom and meditative practices, designed to realize our inseparability from the world and fellow beings, as the path to genuine happiness. These methods have been tried, tested and found effective over hun­dreds of years, and passed on from one generation to the next. Even die-hard materialists and their “modern science” cannot deny the importance of mental cultivation through such methods because they also improve physical health.

The practice of mindfulness is one of the most important of these tools cultivate people’s mind and promotes happiness. It is a behavioral technique involv­ing the cultivation of non-judgmental, non-reactive, metacognitive awareness of moment-to-moment experience. Regular mindfulness practice contributes to health and well-being in various ways, including enhanced concentration and objectivity; improving social relationships; increasing productivity; reducing stress, depression, and anxiety. It also naturally promotes a sense of oneness with the world.

Other happiness skills involve development of positive mental frame and altruism through cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion and conscious practice of gratitude, empathy, and patience. These skills can all be cultivated through well-tested practices such as meditation, and can help shift the effects of the hyper-individualism that characterizes much of modern behavior. It is a well known fact that benevolent feelings and an in­creased capacity for altruism towards others leads to a higher sense of self-worth. That people get greater and more sustained pleasure when they do something for others is also increasingly confirmed in happiness research.

Conversely, research shows that individuals who focus their lives on wealth, image, social status, and other materialistic values promot­ed by a consumerist society are much less satisfied than those less at­tached to such material values. Strong individualism and a selfish lack of concern for others and for global issues are characteristics found among those who prioritize external values and consumerism. Studies reveal that pure consumerist beliefs are generally correlated with higher levels of suffer­ing, lower levels of happiness, fewer pleasant emotions, and tendencies towards depression, anxiety, headaches, and other physical ailments.

Thus, the new development paradigm recognizes that external conditions for well-being must be complemented by mental cultivation and skills for transforming those conditions towards higher human potential and experiencing happiness.

A Critique of the “Critics” of Gross National Happiness

For the world used to defining status of the societies and people in terms of simple economic numbers, human well-being is really a complicated subject. The truth is: people and their well-being are not commodities to put the price tags (or material values). Yet, the world has been following the faulty tradition of measuring national status in terms of GDP which should have been limited to production of commodities and services – economics.

Their biggest mental block comes from the popular thinking that economics or money is all that counts in people’s lives. In other words, families, relationships, society, natural environment and concern for these things are somehow inferior or subordinate things - and hence should not concern "developed" people. Clearly, if someone say that let’s give these things equal importance to economics, it is going to be very hard to digest.

Another standard criticism comes from the inconvenience of dealing with non-material aspects of human life. Their concern is “subjectivity” – there is a widespread dogma that everything has to be objective (impersonal). Human beings have faculties of feeling and sensing; these are non-material but integral aspects of people and can’t be separated from them – else, they will turn into robots. This dogma, most favored by “educated” people, implies that if you can’t measure something in material terms or simple numbers it should be ignored, it has no value. May someone ask them politely: When did you fall in love "objectively?" or Sir, you are so overweight, why don't you eat "objectively?"

I have read several writings of travelers who visited Bhutan and their “expert” opinions on "happiness" after returning. Barring a few with open minds, all these “expert tourists-cum-philosophers” failed to remove their “subjective economic goggles” while writing on a complex topic of human well-being and talking of "objectivity." If staring at poor people, plastic garbage, trees, waters and mountains is all there is to tourism, it can be most conveniently done at the computer screen with simple mouse clicks - sitting at home! Their decision to travel to an unknown corner of the globe and finding nothing to learn, appreciate or be happy about sounded most subjective, most unscientific, most strange and most uneconomical decision to me.

On the healthy side, however, here is the experience of a person who appears to travels with an open mind and is not shy of appreciating human goodness which is non-materialistic: Finding Happiness.


Significance of GNH in the Current Development Scenario

The consequences of unbridled economic growth and materialism are obvious in the form of pollution, loss of biodiversity, climate change, rising inequalities, and poverty. The pursuit of GDP-led growth only causes ever increasing consumption at the expense of family and social relations, health, leisure, spirituality and the environment. It is difficult to conclude that greater and ever increasing consumption is going to make people happier.

For the present King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the GNH signifies “development with values.” He sees GNH as the bridge between the fundamental values of kindness, equality and humanity and the necessary pursuit of economic growth.


Human Well-Being

At the individual level, people’s well-being crucially depends upon good mental physical health, having people to count on, livelihood security and stable families.

Bhutan’s Influence on the Global Well-Being and Happiness Agenda

Situated on the southern slopes of the Himalayas between Tibet on the North and India on the south, Bhutan is better known for its isolation from rest of the world – it allowed cable TV and internet connectivity only in late 1990s. While it succeeded in protecting its culture and society from the influence of the wave of materialism and consumerism originating from the West, it is helpless before the ruinous impacts of climate change on the well-being of its heavenly Himalayan landscape. The local ecology in hilly environment is very fragile; that makes the so-called developmental activities purely for sake of GDP growth, a good way to slow suicide.

For the global business community, forests are just “carbon sinks” and trees mere “carbon-sticks”; its vision is limited to calculating economics of C-credits and emission-offsets. Bhutan already pledges to remain carbon neutral and to ensure that at least 60% of its land always remains under forest cover and bans export of logs. If it were like any other country, it would have already denuded its heavenly mountainous landscape and turned forests into money spinners (given the fact that its GDP is only about $5 Billion). But people of the kingdom are wise enough to understand that forests are much more than jungles of “carbon-sticks” called trees and they play vital role in preserving biodiversity, soil integrity and local ecology – all these go to making human lives better. They also fail to understand how setting up more industries can add to people's well-being, as promoted by the West.

According to Bhutan’s education minister, it's easy to cut forests and fish the seas and get rich but you can’t remain prosperous in the long-run if you don’t conserve the natural environment or nurture the well-being of people. No wonder the global community is seeing Bhutan’s development model with interest, despite the long mental conditioning that economy is the sole important thing in people's life. Here is the chronology of United Nations' interest in the concept of human happiness and sustainable development.

December 2009: Bhutan government is committed to remain Carbon neutral. At the UNFCCC 15th Session of Conference of Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen in December 2009, this was declared through the “Declaration of the Kingdom of Bhutan – The Land of Gross National Happiness to Save our Planet.” Bhutan’s 2010 economic policy also reaffirmed its “green growth” stand.

July 2011: Bhutan tabled the UN resolution “Happiness: Towards a holistic approach to development”; it was adopted by all UN members

April 2012: Bhutan hosts high-level meeting at the UN headquarters in New York with over 800 distinguished participants to explore a “New Economic Paradigm”

June 2012: The UN declares March 20 to be observed as the International Day of Happiness

July 2012: Bhutan establishes a Steering Committee and an International Expert Working Group (IEWG) to draft the proposed New Development Paradigm (NDP).

Nov/Dec 2012: Bhutan’s leadership role for environmental protection was recognized at the UN climate summit in Nov/Dec 2012 in Doha, Qatar.

September 2013: Bhutan submitted its report titled Happiness: Towards A New Development Paradigm to the UN General Assembly. It hopes that the report will influence the UN’s Post-2015 development agenda.

Bhutan’s holistic view of development has the potential to transform humanity’s relationship with nature, restructure economies, change attitudes to food and wealth, and promote caring, altruism, inclusiveness and cooperation. So what, if they sound subjective?



Insanity is to keep doing the same thing repeatedly expecting different results. It is the same with leaders who want to focus almost entirely on economic growth and corporate interests and yet expect climate change to disappear and people’s well-being to improve.

What's Wrong With the GDP as a Measure of Progress

The gross domestic product (GDP) is a pure economic number – total market value of final goods and services produced during a specified time interval. It makes no value judgment about which economic activities are beneficial to people, society and the environment. Highly expensive parties of celebrities or expenditure on charitable work in poor communities are just the same as far as GDP is concerned. Though we know better!

Consider these oddities of GDP: Polluting activities increase the GDP because of the expenses involved in the clean up. Crimes boost the GDP due to expenses on police, security, jails, are legal procedures. Wars and conflicts increase expenditure on weapons. None of these are healthy expenditure and should be avoided by creating peace and respect for environmental well-being.

Further, as people tend to become self reliant, the GDP goes down. If a community decides to grow fruits and vegetables together and share or if community members decide to help each other at times of financial crisis, the GDP decreases. If you decide ride a bike in place of car you save on all expenses related to maintenance and running of the car. But you hurt the GDP. Yet another aspect of GDP: if you buy low quality products with shorter lives, you will be buying frequently and boost the GDP. But if you are wise and select high quality goods that last much longer, you will not a frequent spender; the GDP suffers. Thus, wasteful, unnecessary and inefficient products promote GDP.

Moreover, there are many things that never enter GDP even if they are important for people’s well-being. All household and volunteer work is ignored, so is the contribution of nature in the form of resources. Yet, when people see it as the primary indicator of economic health and people’s well-being, reality gets blurred and the dialog goes in the wrong directions.



Initiatives for Alternate Development Models

The fact that GDP is not a good proxy of people’s well-being or status of human life is not a hidden secret. The only reason GDP has remained popular as a yardstick of progress is its simplicity and that it suits the interests of people who rule the world today. However, today their interests are at odds with rest of humanity which is troubled by climate change disasters and ever increasing gap between the richest few and rest of the people. More and more people are realizing that ever-increasing GDP is only increasing consumption without meaningful enhancement in people’s sense of well-being.

The Human Development Approach (UNDP)

Perhaps, the human development (HD) approach of the UNDP is the most well known global attempt to look at people’s life beyond economic parameters. The first Human Development Report, “Concept and Measurement of Human Development” of 1990, marked a paradigm shift in thinking on development. It also offered a way to measure it through its human development index (HDI). Since then, the annual human development reports have been touching upon various themes around “human development” and guiding the developmental policies around the world.

The most important aspect of the HD approach is that it puts the focus of development on people, not economy. It stems from its notion of wealth; “People are the real wealth of a nation.” The annual HD reports clearly show how countries are stuck with “mere economic growth” in the name of development and are actually paying a huge human cost to achieve it. The core of the HD approach is nicely summed up by Nobel winner economist, Professor Amartya Sen:

Human development, as an approach, is concerned with what I take to be the basic development idea: namely, advancing the richness of human life, rather than the richness of the economy in which human beings live, which is only a part of it.

Bhutan’s GNH is still far more explicit and elaborate compared with the HD by considering spiritual, cultural, community and environmental aspects. Yet, what is common is that both put the focus of development on people and their well-being, not economy.

Other Initiatives

Bhutan’s initiative has certainly motivated the global community to think out of the box and try to move away from the business-as-usual scenario and come out of the confinements of economic boundaries. Here are some of the efforts from the West, naturally with not much focus on mental or personal development of people:

Social Progress Index

Happy Planet Index (New Economics Foundation)

Better Life Index (OECD)

Canadian Index of Wellbeing

The Way Forward

What Bhutan's initiative tells us is that it is possible to live in peace connected with nature - an idea contrary to the Western thinking that industrialization is the sole way to develop. People may not agree unanimously with what constitute happiness, but that is missing the point. For sustainable development, people and nature must be put at the center of the development process. Economic activities must enhance people's well-being without plundering the nature or exploiting people.

The Economics of Happiness

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Related Articles