Gross National Happiness measures the quality of a country in a more holistic way and believes that the beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occurs side by side to complement and reinforce each other.
The small nation-state of Bhutan is something of a poster child for a metric of growth and sustainability different from the outdated, but still ubiquitous, Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In contrast to GDP, which depends on money spent, regardless of what it is spent on, Gross National Happiness (GNH) quantifies development in terms of the economy, the environment, and the culture of Bhutan. As a conceptual ideal, GNH seems to satisfy the requirements of sustainability. As a practice, however, GNH is difficult to define, measure, and implement. Bhutan has served as the world’s leader in moving beyond platitudes and towards implementation of a metric of sustainable well-being.
In an April address to the United Nations, the Prime Minister of Bhutan, Jigmi Y. Thinley, made clear that “Bhutan is not a country that has attained GNH… Like most developing nations, [it is] struggling with the challenge of fulfilling the basic needs of [its] people.” However, unlike most developing and developed nations, Bhutan has chosen happiness and well-being as the benchmarks by which development is measured.
Gross National Happiness was first coined by Bhutan’s king in the early 1970s, but not until recently has it been integrated as the foundation of Bhutan’s development. GNH is fundamentally at odds with the traditional model of unfettered economic growth followed by much of the world. As Thinley stated, “The GDP led development model that compels boundless growth on a planet with limited resources no longer makes economic sense…. Mankind is like a meteor, blazing toward self-annihilation along with all other innocent life forms. But this course can be changed if we act now.” By using GNH as both a measurement standard and a policy goal, Bhutan is leading the way towards a culturally rich, economically sustainable model of development.
In order to develop baseline standards for the GNH indicators, Bhutan has been developing and carrying out surveys since 2005. The surveys are based off the nine domains identified to reflect the mission of GNH: psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, good governance, cultural diversity and resilience, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. Based on survey results, a GNH index was developed to reflect the overall happiness of the Bhutanese people. This index is both “an instrument of public imagination and of policy,” and used in furthering research and development, as well as in policy decisions. Indeed, the GNH index is offered as a public good, aimed at helping not only policymakers and the government, but also at helping business leaders, civil servants, and all citizens in understanding how they can increase the GNH.
Having constitutionally adopted the tenet of Gross National Happiness, Bhutan now incorporates GNH into its planning and policymaking processes. For example, Bhutan’s public education system has embraced the principles of GNH, particularly environmental conservation and sustainable living. Since 2009 the Green Schools for Green Bhutan program has been attempting to instill a conservation ethic into the nation’s children. Additionally, through the Gross National Happiness Commission, policies and their implementation are evaluated in terms of the GNH framework, and Bhutan’s Economic Development Policy, enacted in 2010, emphasizes the promotion of a sustainable economy guided by GNH.
In 2011 the United Nations adopted a resolution which encouraged nations to “pursue the elaboration of additional measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and well-being in development.” This resolution was implemented during the 66th session of the UN General Assembly, with a Bhutan-led meeting on happiness. Conferences focused on GNH have occurred in Canada, Thailand, the Netherlands, and Brazil. Several nations are conducting their own studies of GNH indicators. Happiness surveys are being carried out in cities and regions worldwide as each society seeks to discover its own best indicators of happiness. While Bhutan has thus far seen success with its development paradigm, each nation faces vastly different struggles – economically, culturally, and ecologically. Bhutan has provided a framework and preliminary methodology, but in order to ensure a successful implementation of GNH, individual nations must determine their own indicators and own needs. Hopefully, Bhutan’s success and the increasing interest in Gross National Happiness will spur the necessary paradigm shifts in order to avoid the meteoric self-annihilation warned of by Prime Minister Thinley.
Originally published on Worldwatch’s “Is Sustainability Still Possible?”