Jigme Wangchuck: The Story of GNH: Gross National Happiness

The Story of GNH: Gross National Happiness

GNH Center Bhutan


King Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King of Bhutan: “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product”.

With his famous declaration in the 1970s, the former King of Bhutan challenged conventional, narrow and materialistic notions of human progress. He realized and declared that the existing development paradigm – GNP (or GDP) – did not consider the ultimate goal of every human being: happiness.

Old Wisdom for a Modern Age!

Perhaps inspired by age-old wisdom in the ancient Kingdom of Bhutan, the fourth King concluded that GDP was neither an equitable nor a meaningful measurement for human happiness, nor should it be the primary focus for governance; and thus the philosophy of Gross National Happiness: GNH is born.

Since that time this pioneering vision of GNH has guided Bhutan’s development and policy formation. Unique among the community of nations, it is a balanced ‘middle path’ in which equitable socio-economic development is integrated with environmental conservation, cultural promotion and good governance.

For over 2 decades as Bhutan remained largely isolated from the world, GNH remained largely an intuitive insight and guiding light. It reminded the government and people alike that material progress was not the only, and not even, the most important contributor to well-being. As Bhutan increasingly engaged with the global community, joining international organizations, substantial efforts were made to define, explain and even measure GNH. Indices were created, measurements were recorded and screening tools for government policy were created, and the second phase in the development of GNH saw its practical implementation in government become a living reality.

The Folly of the GDP obsession!

The folly of an obsession with GDP, as a measure of economic activity which does not distinguish between those activities that increase a nation’s wealth and those that deplete its natural resources or result in poor health or widening social inequalities is so clearly evident.  If the forests of Bhutan were logged for profit, GDP would increase;  if Bhutanese citizens picked up modern living habits adversely affecting their health, investments in health care systems would be made and GDP would increase; and if environmental considerations were not taken into account during growth and development, investments to deal with landslides, road damages and flooding would be needed, and GDP would increase. All of these actions could negatively affect the lives of the Bhutanese people yet paradoxically would contribute to an increase in GDP.

“Our Gross National Product…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising…special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder…It measures everything, in short….…except that which makes life worthwhile.”
-Robert f. Kennedy 1968

“Development is too important to be left solely to financial ministries and economic measures“
– Joseph Stiglitz

“First the economy separated itself from ecology…then it separated itself from society…[through] the artificial measure of growth [that is] GDP“
-Vandana Shiva

GNP has long been the yardstick by which economies and politicians have been measured. Yet it fails to take into account the social and environmental costs of so-called progress. We need a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental wellbeing are indivisible.”
-H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon

An increasing wave of eminent economists, environmentalists, psychologists, religious and political leaders in the wake of global social, financial and environmental crises, are deeply concerned about how our current GDP-based development paradigm is failing to serve the wellbeing of people or the planet. With many of these experts and leaders gathering at the United Nations in 2012 to learn more about Bhutan’s experience of GNH the call for a new path is growing.

Yet even as the global community looks on, explores and engages with interest in Bhutan’s experience of GNH, the nation’s leaders have responded with humility.

“Although the GNH model has indeed, served us well…we do not claim that it is the best option. It has its limitations. We see it as a dynamic design that must be constantly enriched and improved with the help of people from all walks of life who bring with them immense experience and knowledge with a shared inspiration to create a better world. In this regard, we are most heartened by the interest the world has taken in our development approach.”
– HRH Princess Kezang Choden Wangchuck, President of the GNH Centre Bhutan

GNH: The next phase – development for all

Enshrined in the Constitution of 2008 the role of GNH is firmly established now at the heart of the nation and government.

“…if the Government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.”
– Legal Code of Bhutan 1729

As the present King, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has said:

“Today GNH has come to mean so many things to so many people, but to me it signifies simply – development with values. Thus for my nation today GNH is the bridge between the fundamental values of kindness, equality and humanity and the necessary pursuit of economic growth. GNH acts as our National Conscience guiding us towards making wise decisions for a better future.”

We are beginning to embark on a new phase in the evolution of GNH, with many Bhutanese and international citizens wondering what this concept – which until now has seemed fairly abstract and remote – might mean in their everyday lives. What would constitute a GNH living practice, how would a GNH way of life look? And then what could this mean for our families, our communities, our schools, governments and businesses? With these questions and challenges in mind, the dream and vision of a GNH Centre is born.

“The GNH Centre will be a place where all walks of life can come and live GNH in practice, living in harmony with nature, with families and communities serving others, discovering one’s innate human values… living applied GNH!”
– Dr Saamdu Chetri, Executive Director the GNH Centre Bhutan

» Gross National Happiness Center: The Story of GNH.


Gross National Happiness Research

The grossnationalhappines.com website is dedicated to publishing Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research’s works on Gross National Happiness. The Centre is a government autonomous organisation that is mandated to carry out research on GNH. In order to develop the GNH indicators, the first pilot GNH Survey was carried out in 2006 with 350 respondents. The questionnaire was further refined after the pilot survey and it was administered to 950 respondents from 12 dzongkhags. The questionnaire was again reviewed and refined for a nation wide GNH Survey which was carried out in 2010. This Survey result was then used to develop the indicators and set benchmark values for the different indicators that were used for the GNH Index. The next nation wide GNH Survey was carried out in 2015. The results of both these surveys are available under Publications, Survey Report category.


Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index

The phrase ‘gross national happiness’ was first coined by the 4th King of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in 1972 when he declared, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” 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.

Since then the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has influenced Bhutan’s economic and social policy, and also captured the imagination of others far beyond its borders. In creating the Gross National Happiness Index, Bhutan sought to create a measurement tool that would be useful for policymaking and create policy incentives for the government, NGOs and businesses of Bhutan to increase GNH.

The GNH Index includes both traditional areas of socio-economic concern such as living standards, health and education and less traditional aspects of culture and psychological wellbeing. It is a holistic reflection of the general wellbeing of the Bhutanese population rather than a subjective psychological ranking of ‘happiness’ alone.


Construction of the GNH Index

The GNH Index includes nine domains

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

The GNH Index is decomposable by any demographic characteristic, meaning it can be broken down by population group, for example, to show the composition of GNH among men and among women, or by district, and by dimension, for example to show which group is lacking in education. The indicators and domains aim to emphasize different aspects of wellbeing, and different ways of meeting underlying human needs.

The Government of Bhutan’s Centre for Bhutan Studies revised and released an updated GNH index in 2011. There are 33 indicators in the 9 domains above and the Index seeks to measure the nation’s wellbeing directly by starting with each person’s achievements in each indicator. The GNH index is based on the Alkire Foster methodology of multidimensional measurement, which has been adapted for this purpose. It identifies four groups of people – unhappy, narrowly happy, extensively happy, and deeply happy. The analysis explores the happiness people enjoy already, then focuses on how policies can increase happiness and sufficiency among the unhappy and narrowly happy people.

Bhutan and the UN Resolution on Happiness and Development

In 2011, the UN unanimously adopted a General Assembly resolution, introduced by Bhutan with support from 68 member states, calling for a “holistic approach to development” aimed at promoting sustainable happiness and wellbeing. This was followed in April 2012 by a UN High-Level Meeting on “Happiness and Wellbeing: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” designed to bring world leaders, experts and civil society and spiritual leaders together to develop a new economic paradigm based on sustainability and wellbeing. This builds on the Government of Bhutan’s pioneering work to develop the GNH Index.

Composition of the GNH Index

The Gross National Happiness Index is a single number index developed from the 33 indicators categorized under nine domains. The Centre for Bhutan Studies constructed the GNH Index using robust multidimensional methodology known as Alkire Foster method.

The concept of GNH has often been explained by its four pillars; good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. 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 equally weighted because each domain is considered to be equal in terms of its intrinsic importance as a component of GNH.

The 33 indicators are statistically reliable, are normatively important, and are easily understood by large audiences. Within each domain, two to four indicators were selected that seemed likely to remain informative across time, had high response rates, and were relatively uncorrelated. Within each domain, the objective indicators are given higher weights while the subjective and self-reported indicators are assigned far lighter weights.

The 2011 GNH index identifies four groups of people. For policy purposes it identifies ‘happiness’ as comprising sufficient achievements in 66% of the weighted indicators, whichever domains they come from. This corresponds to the groups who are identified as ‘extensively’ and ‘deeply’ happy.

Full details of the indicators and survey questions can be found on the Gross National Happiness website.

Relationship with other happiness measures

The GNH measure has been designed to fulfil various criteria which are needed for an official national measure of happiness that is also relevant to national and district policy. It aims to reflect the happiness and general wellbeing of the Bhutanese population more accurately and profoundly than a monetary measure.

A measure of Gross National Happiness might be presumed to comprise a single psychological question on happiness such as “Taking all things together, would you say you are: Very happy, Rather happy, Not very happy, or Not at all happy.” However, this is not the case here. The objectives of Bhutan, and the Buddhist understandings of happiness, are much broader than those that are referred to as ‘happiness’ in the Western literature. Under the title of happiness in GNH comes a range of domains of human wellbeing including traditional areas of social concern such as living standards, health, and education, while some are less traditional, such as time use, psychological well-being, culture, community vitality, and environmental diversity.

More information on Bhutan’s GNH Index

» Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative: Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index.