Gross national happiness

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Slogan about Gross National Happiness in Thimphu's School of Traditional Arts.

The assessment of gross national happiness (GNH; Wylie: gyal-yong ga'a-kyid pal-'dzoms) was designed in an attempt to define an indicator and concept that measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms than only the economic indicator of gross domestic product (GDP).

GNH has only been officially used in Bhutan, where a Gross National Happiness Commission is charged reviewing policy decisions and allocation of resources. [1]. In 2013, with a new administration, the country shifted the focus from spreading GNH globally to the well-being of people within Bhutan. [2] This shift has been interpreted by some as an abandonment of GNH in favor of more standard development initiatives.[3]

Origins and meaning[edit]

The term "gross national happiness" was coined in 1972 by Bhutan's fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who opened Bhutan to the age of modernization soon after the demise of his father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. He used this phrase to signal his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan's unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. At first offered as a casual, offhand remark, the concept was taken seriously, as the Centre for Bhutan Studies, under the leadership of Karma Ura, developed a sophisticated survey instrument to measure the population's general level of well-being.[1] Two Canadians, Michael and Martha Pennock played a major role in developing the Bhutanese survey, which took a six to seven-hour interview to complete. They developed a shorter international version of the survey which has been used in their home region of Victoria BC as well as in Brazil. The Pennocks also collaborated with Ura in the production of a policy lens which is used by the Bhutanese GNH Commission for anticipating the impact of policy initiatives upon the levels of GNH in Bhutan[2]

Like many psychological and social indicators, GNH is somewhat easier to state than to define with mathematical precision. Nonetheless, it serves as a unifying vision for Bhutan's five-year planning process and all the derived planning documents that guide the economic and development plans of the country. Proposed policies in Bhutan must pass a GNH review based on a GNH impact statement that is similar in nature to the Environmental Impact Statement required for development in the U.S.

At present, we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it GDP.

Paul Hawken[3]

The Bhutanese grounding in Buddhist ideals suggests that beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. At this level of generality, the concept of GNH is transcultural—a nation need not be Buddhist to value sustainable development, cultural integrity, ecosystem conservation, and good governance. Through collaboration with an international group of scholars and empirical researchers the Centre for Bhutan Studies further defined these four pillars with greater specificity into eight general contributors to happiness—physical, mental and spiritual health; time-balance; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality. Although the GNH framework reflects its Buddhist origins, it is solidly based upon the empirical research literature of happiness, positive psychology and well-being.

In 2013, the President of Singapore Dr Tony Tan proposed that in addition to building up substantial financial reserves, Singapore also needed to focus on building up its "social reserves", a concept that appears to have parallels to GNH.[4]

Qualitative and quantitative indicators[edit]

There is no exact quantitative definition of GNH,[5] but elements that contribute to GNH are subject to quantitative measurement. Low rates of infant mortality, for instance, correlate positively with subjective expressions of well-being or happiness within a country. The practice of social science has long been directed toward transforming subjective expression of large numbers of people into meaningful quantitative data; there is no major difference between asking people "how confident are you in the economy?" and "how satisfied are you with your job?"

GNH, like the Genuine Progress Indicator, refers to the concept of a quantitative measurement of well-being and happiness. The two measures are both motivated by the notion that subjective measures like well-being are more relevant and important than more objective measures like consumption. It is not measured directly, but only the factors which are believed to lead to it.

According to Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton University Economist, happiness can be measured using the day reconstruction method, which consists in recollecting memories of the previous working day by writing a short diary.[6]

A second-generation GNH concept, treating happiness as a socioeconomic development metric, was proposed in 2006 by Med Jones, the President of International Institute of Management. The metric measures socioeconomic development by tracking seven development areas including the nation's mental and emotional health.[7] GNH value is proposed to be an index function of the total average per capita of the following measures:

  1. Economic Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of economic metrics such as consumer debt, average income to consumer price index ratio and income distribution
  2. Environmental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of environmental metrics such as pollution, noise and traffic
  3. Physical Wellness: Indicated via statistical measurement of physical health metrics such as severe illnesses
  4. Mental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of mental health metrics such as usage of antidepressants and rise or decline of psychotherapy patients
  5. Workplace Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of labor metrics such as jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints and lawsuits
  6. Social Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of social metrics such as discrimination, safety, divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, crime rates
  7. Political Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of local democracy, individual freedom, and foreign conflicts.

The above seven metrics were incorporated into the first Global GNH Survey.[8]

Ed Diener, a psychologist from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has developed a scale referred to as subjective well-being, a concept related to happiness and quality of life, which has been used to compare nations to each other on this construct.[9] This study found that "high income, individualism, human rights, and social equality correlated strongly with each other, and with SWB" (p. 851, abstract).

Adam Kramer, a psychologist from the University of Oregon, has developed a behavioral model of "Gross National Happiness" based on the use of positive and negative words in social network status updates, resulting in a quantitative GNH metric.[10]


On 19 July 2011, the United Nations approved a Bhutan-sponsored resolution 65/309, titled "Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development", which was co-sponsored by 68 countries. It stated that 'happiness is fundamental human goal and universal aspiration; that GDP by its nature does not reflect the goal; that unsustainable patterns of production and consumption impede sustainable development; and that a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach is needed to promote sustainability, eradicate poverty, and enhance wellbeing and profound happiness." The resolution was followed by a meeting at the UN in April 2012 which was attended by more than 800 participants including the President of Costa Rica, the United Nations general secretary, the president of the UN General Assembly and Economic and Social Council, government ministers and ambassadors, leading economists and scholars and prominent civil society, business and spiritual leaders. As a result of this meeting a Secreatariat was established in Bhutan, supported by an International Expert Working Group, which will draft a new global development paradigm for presentation to the UN in 2013.

In 2009, the 5th International Conference was held at Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, with more than 800 participants. The conference was organised by Future Vision Ecological Institute and Itaipu Bi-national Hydroelectric Facility, in collaboration with the Centre for Bhutan Studies. The growing interest in GNH within Brazil has resulted from the work of Dr. Susan Andrews at the Instituto Visão Futuro which sponsored a series of events in São Paulo and Campinas in October 2008. Speakers included Karma Ura from Bhutan and Michael Pennock from Canada.[11]

The 4th International Conference on Gross National Happiness was held in Bhutan with a focus on Practice and Measurement. Results of the Bhutanese survey were presented and a number of international contributors discussed different approaches and challenges to the measurement and application of the GNH framework.[12]

The 3rd International Conference on Gross National Happiness Towards Global Transformation: World Views Make a Difference offered an opportunity to articulate Asian world views towards transformation in a "message to the world." It took place in Nong Khai and Bangkok, Thailand between 22 and 28 November 2007.

Implying the transition from a natural to modernized state, the 3rd International Conference on Gross National Happiness (GNH 3) took place in two locations: the first three days took place in rural north-eastern province of Nong Khai and the last three days in the urban campus of Chulalongkorn University in central Bangkok, Thailand. The organizers planned all activities so that participants were able to explore a large variety of venues, presentation and discussion formats and draw on the great variety and talents of the entire group of 800 participants who registered.

Main co-organizers were the Sathirakoses Nagapradipa Foundation (Thailand), Centre for Bhutan Studies, while local NGOs, progressive business group Social Venture Network and the government of Thailand in particular The Ministry of Social Development and Human Security, Thailand, have formed a support network together with research agencies and other government departments like the Thai Health Promotion Foundation.

"Rethinking Development: Local Pathways to Global Wellbeing," the Second International Conference on Gross National Happiness was held in Antigonish, Nova Scotia 20–24 June 2005, co-hosted by Genuine Progress Index Atlantic (proceedings online); the Coady International Institute; Shambhala; the Centre for Bhutan Studies; the Province of Nova Scotia; the Gorsebrook Research Institute at Saint Mary's University; and the University of New Brunswick.

The second regional Conference took place 8–11 November 2006 at Meiji Gakuin University in Yokohama. The conference examined Haida successes to apply non-western economic and social modalities.

External studies[edit]

In a widely cited study, "A Global Projection of Subjective Well-being: A Challenge to Positive Psychology?" by Adrian G. White of the University of Leicester in 2007, Bhutan ranked eighth out of 178 countries in Subjective Well-Being, a metric that has been used by many psychologists since 1997.[13] In fact, it is the only country in the top 20 "happiest" countries that has a very low GDP.

National happiness is also sometimes classified under empirically studied "National Happyism," and psychologists, Drs. Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, have researched and analyzed what could be described as technological elements and characteristics of happiness for both individuals and societies.


Domestic critics argue that emphasis on Bhutan's experiment with GNH has diverted global attention away from government suppression of the nation's largest minority the Hindu Lhotshampa, who formerly comprised approximately one sixth of Bhutan's population. Since the mid 19th century, the Lhotshampa coexisted in relative harmony with the dominant Buddhist population, but, as a result of new citizenship laws created in the mid 1980s, the Nepalese descendants suddenly were subjected to mass expulsion and oppressive tactics aimed to bring about their cultural and linguistic annihilation. Bhutan continues to deny those Lhotshampa who have remained basic human rights of cultural and linguistic expression. Instead, the group has been allegedly subject to torture and sexual assault. At the same time, refugees continue to languish in refugee camps, denied the right to return for over 20 years.[14]

From an economic perspective, critics state that because GNH depends on a series of subjective judgments about well-being, governments may be able to define GNH in a way that suits their interests. Economics professor Deirdre McCloskey criticizes such measurements as unscientific, saying that "Recording the percentage of people who say they are happy will tell you... [just] how people use words," making the analogy that society could not "base physics on asking people whether today was 'hot, nice, or cold'". McCloskey also criticizes the anti-consumerism of the movement to base government policy on happiness, asserting that "High culture has in fact always flourished in eras of lively commerce, from fifth-century Greece through Song China and Renaissance Italy down to the Dutch Golden Age."[15]

Other critics say that international comparison of well-being will be difficult on this model; proponents maintain that each country can define its own measure of GNH as it chooses, and that comparisons over time between nations will have validity. GDP provides a convenient, international scale. Research demonstrates that markers of social and individual well-being are remarkably transcultural: people generally report greater subjective life satisfaction if they have strong and frequent social ties, live in healthy ecosystems, experience good governance, etc. Nevertheless, it remains true that reliance on national measures of GNH would render international comparisons of relative well-being more problematic, since there is not and is not likely ever to be a common scale as "portable" as GDP has been.[vague][9][13] Nevertheless, Bhutan's stated goal is to maximize whatever they see as GNH, not compare numbers with other countries.

Alternative indicators of emotion as an analog to economic progress have also been supported by a number of NGOs such as the UK's New Economics Foundation, and are employed in some governments notably in Europe and Canada.[citation needed] The Gallup poll system also collects data on wellbeing on a national and international scale.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Gross National Happiness". The Centre for Bhutan Studies. Retrieved 24 March 2011. 
  2. ^ Pennock M, Ura K. Gross national happiness as a framework for health impact assessment.
  3. ^ Commencement speech at the University of Portland
  4. ^ Leong Wai Kit, “S’pore needs both financial and ‘social’ reserves to thrive: President Tony Tan”, 'Today', 6 November 2013.
  5. ^ McDonald, Ross (2005). "Rethinking Development. Local Pathways to Global Wellbeing". St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada. p. 3. 
  6. ^ Templeton, Sarah-Kate (5 December 2004). "Happiness is the new economics". London: Timesonline. Retrieved 8 January 2007. 
  7. ^ "Gross National Happiness (GNH) – Gross National Happiness Policy and The American Pursuit of Unhappiness- Med Jones, IIM". 10 January 2005. Retrieved 7 November 2012. 
  8. ^ "Gross National Happiness (GNH) Survey | Global GNH Survey". Retrieved 7 November 2012. 
  9. ^ a b Factors Predicting the Subjective Well-Being of Nations
  10. ^ An Unobtrusive Behavioral Model of "Gross National Happiness"
  11. ^ "Gross National Happiness". The Centre for Bhutan Studies. Retrieved 24 March 2011. 
  12. ^ "Gross National Happiness". The Centre for Bhutan Studies. Retrieved 24 March 2011. 
  13. ^ a b A Global Projection of Subjective Well-being: A Challenge to Positive Psychology?
  14. ^ Mishra, Vidhyapati (28 June 2013). "Bhutan Is No Shangri-La". The New York Times. 
  15. ^ McCloskey, Deirdre N. (28 June 2012). Happyism: The Creepy New Economics of Pleasure. The New Republic. pp. 16–23. 
  16. ^ "A Wellbeing Report Card for President Sarkozy". Retrieved 7 November 2012. 
  • Adler Braun, Alejandro. Gross National Happiness in Bhutan: A Living Example of an Alternative Approach to Progress, 24 September 2009.
  • Diener, Ed and Robert-Biswas Diener. Happiness – Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2008. 290 pages. ISBN 978-1-4051-4661-6.
  • Eric Zencey, "GDP RIP," New York Times, 9 August 2009 [4]
  • Eric Ezechieli, "Beyond Sustainable Development: Education for Gross National Happiness in Bhutan", Stanford University, 2003
  • Kammann, R. “The Analysis and Measurement of Happiness as a Sense of Well-Being”, Social Indicators Research, 15(2) (1984:Aug.) p. 91–115
  • Layard, Richard (2005), Happiness: Lessons from a new Science, Penguin Press, ISBN 0-14-303701-3
  • Niestroy, Ingeborg; García Schmidt, Armando; Esche, Andreas (2013). "Bhutan: Paradigms Matter", in: Bertelsmann Stiftung (ed.): Winning Strategies for a Sustainable Future. Reinhard Mohn Prize 2013'. Verlag Bertelsmann Stiftung, Gütersloh. pp. 55–80. ISBN 978-3-86793-491-6. 
  • Powdyel, T.S. “Gross National Happiness, A Tribute,” Gross National Happiness, Kinga, Sonam, et al. (eds) (1999), Thimphu: The Center for Bhutan Studies
  • Priesner, Stefan (2004), Indigeneity and Unversality in Social Science: A South Asian Response, SAGE Publications, ISBN 0-7619-3215-1
  • Thinley, L. (October 1998). Values and Development: “Gross National Happiness.” Speech Presented at the Millennium Meeting for Asia and the Pacific, Seoul, Republic of Korea.

External links[edit]