Gross National Happiness

Gross National Happiness: Bhutan's strategy for sustainability.

center for ecoliteracy_gross national happiness

When the world leaders gathered at the last session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, they were struck by a multiplicity of crises as never before. Each of us shared our sense of deep concern and helplessness even as the devastating consequences of climate change, escalating conflicts, and deepening poverty begged our attention. Most leaders chose to address each of these as separate challenges and offered separate solutions. I submitted that Bhutan did not look at these unfortunate developments as disconnected events. Rather, we saw them as directly interconnected symptoms of a larger and deeper malaise that threatens our collective well-being and survival. And that disease has to do with our way of life that is just not rational and sustainable!

As far back as the early 1970s, there were signs of some of these seismic events on the horizon. It was obvious that natural resources will become scarcer and competition for their control fiercer. In their eagerness to taste the fruit of modernization, developing and newly independent nations were compromising their identity, culture, and their soul. Material enrichment was being pursued at the cost of spiritual impoverishment. People were forgetting how to be happy and eagerly becoming slaves of greed. Natural resources were being callously exploited by outsiders and the first signs of environmental stress were becoming visible. Even development assistance was guided by motives that were far less pure than they are now.

These were the concerns and realities that disturbed our king, who at a very young age, suddenly found himself on the throne of a medieval feudal state in a modern world divided between two superpowers. Dissatisfied with the development models in vogue, he articulated what was the desire of every citizen, i.e., happiness. He declared collective happiness the goal of our country and facilitating its pursuit the raison d'ĂȘtre for his rule. Not even once [did I hear] him use the phrase, 'economic growth.' It was within the human dimension that he conceptualized his national development plans.

Now more than ever, during these difficult and uncertain times, when dreams of a more secure future cross our mind, Gross National Happiness (GNH) has become relevant. While it was dismissed as utopian idealism in the past, it is now attracting growing interest under different nomenclatures and signatures. Four international conferences have been held. The OECD, comprising the developed countries, has held a series of regional and global conferences in its search for a noneconomic-based model for true human progress. The Australians, British, Canadians, Chinese, Dutch, and the Thais are taking the pursuit of happiness or human well-being seriously in their public policies. GNH indicators are to be adopted by Fiji and the Melanesian countries. In Brazil, there is an amazing GNH following, community-by-community, city-by-city, with children in the lead. 

GNH is not a dogma that espouses asceticism. It is about finding durable happiness, of the kind that does not come at the cost of the well-being of others. It is about making human life more meaningful, fulfilling, and sustainable. It is about finding ways to build harmonious societies on mutually supportive human relationships as opposed to competition being the basis for all success. It is about having to be consciously aware of the truth that happiness, not only material wealth, is the purpose of life and that it is achievable.

Here it is important to understand why happiness and not contentment is the end that is pursued. The way we see it, contentment is a passive state of mind that accepts any state of being. Happiness, on the other hand, is a state of being that can be realized only from the happiness of others. It is a state of mind that will act to alter unhappy conditions. It is a product of sharing and giving and is not fleeting like the pleasure that the Canadian thinker John Ralston Saul calls the "Disney World" happiness. Pursuit of happiness makes an individual socially, economically, and politically responsible. It contributes to the making of a safer and equitable world. 

GNH in Bhutan is pursued through goals known popularly as the four pillars. All socio-economic programs, including political development of our young democracy, must subscribe to the strengthening of these pillars. These are:

  • Sustainable and equitable socio-economic development
  • Environmental conservation
  • Promotion of culture
  • Enhancement of good governance

While these are the purposes that form the core of our development programs since the late 1970s, the growing interest in GNH worldwide, and the quantitative world we live in have compelled us to develop a GNH index so that it can find greater acceptance and application against the powerful ethics of consumerism. This includes the need to enthuse academics into conducting deeper research and promoting GNH values to guide true societal development; to convince economists to define, promote, and measure these values as true wealth to aspire for; to create an enlightened society that will want to pursue these values; and to cause policy makers to realize that there are no greater goods and services for the people than those that facilitate their pursuit of happiness.

In developing a GNH index, the four pillars have been elaborated into a total of nine domains, which represent all the dimensions of an individual's life. All are considered crucial to the holistic development of the individual and society:

  • Living standard, health, and education form the first pillar
  • Ecological integrity constitutes the second pillar
  • Culture, psychological well-being, time use, and community vitality comprise the third pillar
  • Good governance (democracy, equity and justice) is the substance of the fourth pillar

Each of these nine domains, which are equally weighted, is then divided into 72 variables or indicators. The level needed to be achieved to make a difference to happiness level is specified in such ways as the minimum income level, health condition, educational achievement, environmental diversity, voluntarism, time spent with family, etc. The aggregation of all these, qualified further by a measure of breadth (coverage) and depth (intensity), form the basis for quantitative assessment of an individual's, a community's, or the country's level of happiness at any given time.

It is not a simple process by which we can arrive at a GNH aggregate number like GDP. Seventy-two variables do not make it easy for any respondent in a survey. But as the GNH discourse goes on, better and more accurate indicators can be developed. My confidence in this comes from the expanding circle of GNH enthusiasts among all walks of life.

Change from the GDP-inspired consumer or market-centric macroeconomic model to the GNH paradigm calls for a fundamental departure from the way we are used to living our lives. It must arise from acknowledging mankind's astonishing material achievements and accepting that more will not necessarily further human advancement. It requires breaking out of the mold of consumerism to pursue not so much the unknown but the less-trodden path. It is not so much the adoption of new values as reprioritizing them. The biggest challenge is in redefining wealth and prosperity and making these the continued objects of common desire.

GNH calls for social, cultural, and technological reorientation, including re-examining the rationale for the structural basis of our laws and politics. It must result in stronger environmental ethics and a new kind of economics. The good thing is that much is already happening in this direction, off and on the main street.

What do these mean for the corporate/business world? What will happen to our factories, our banks, and businesses as we know them? How should our education system be changed in form and content? Should the fundamentals of governance, even of the democratic kind, change? How will GNH "markets" function and be regulated? How should the financial and trading systems be restructured? These are questions that we need to devote our thoughts and attention to.


This essay is adapted from the keynote address at the conference of the Junior Chamber of Conference of Japan, August 29, 2009.