Remembering Bhutan: What we can learn from Gross National Happiness

For the past few days, Tai and I have been staying in a Castle about an hour north of Cordoba, Argentina.  That’s right.  A castle.  Our week in the castle has been the closest we have come to a stereotypical honeymoon on this trip.  But more on that later.  The castle has given us a lot of time to relax and reflect on the last few months.  It has given me personally a lot of time to think and write… and write… and write extensively about a subject that has fascinated me for longer than I care to admit:  Bhutan and Gross National Happiness.  In order to feel like this all this thinking and writing has come to some useful end, I have decided to offer up my loquacious thoughts to you.  May they inspire reactions and ridicule galore. (Be warned:  this is an absurdly long essay and not for the faint of heart.  But if you’re interested in this idea of Gross National Happinessss as I am, I think you’ll like it.)

It’s been nearly three months since we left Bhutan.  But the country stays with you long after you are gone.  Even after the spectacle of Antarctica, I still remember Bhutan with fondness and clarity.  The winding roads through steep green valleys.  Thimphu with its no traffic lights and clean air.  The golden rice fields and white capped Himalayas.  The peaceful monasteries and the red, toothless grins of the people.  Bhutan was so different from anywhere I had ever been, made more remarkable by the fact that it was sandwiched between the madness that is modern day China and India.  It was a country that seemed protected and free from the burdens of progress.  Life followed a different rhythm.  I felt lucky to have experienced the peace, tranquility, and beauty of Bhutan first-hand.  And yet, as we were leaving, I also felt discouraged.  In my heart, I had gone to Bhutan to learn the secrets of this crazy idea called Gross National Happiness.  The idea of Gross National Happiness has fascinated me for years.  I have always wanted to believe that the small, enlightened country of Bhutan had implemented a model that could save the modern world.  But as I was leaving, I realized two problems.  #1. As much as I loved Bhutan,  it was not Shangri-La, but rather, a real country with real challenges to overcome. #2. I still knew almost nothing about Gross National Happiness.  I couldn’t let these problems go.  Within days of leaving Bhutan, I started a new journey to Bhutan, a meandering research project conducted over sketchy internet connections from the places we traveled.  The goal was to answer a simple question:  What is Gross National Happiness and what can we learn from it?  The result was a fascinating look at a benevolent monarchy, an age-old economics debate, and a simple question that may define the next century for humanity.


“We strive for the benefits of economic growth and modernization while ensuring that in our drive to acquire greater status and wealth we do not forget to nurture that which makes us happy to be Bhutanese. Is it our strong family structure? Our culture and traditions? Our pristine environment? Our respect for community and country? Our desire for a peaceful coexistence with other nations? If so, then the duty of our government must be to ensure that these invaluable elements contributing to the happiness and wellbeing of our people are nurtured and protected. Our government must be human.” The Madhavrao Scindia Memorial Lecture delivered by His Majesty the 4th King of Bhutan, 23 December 2009 (1)

In 1972, His Majesty, Jigme Singye Wangchuk was crowned the 4th King of Bhutan at the ripe old age of 20.   For the 65 years leading up to his coronation, Wangchuk’s forefathers had enagaged in modest efforts to modernize and democratize Bhutan.  But more than anything else, they kept Bhutan isolated from the outside world.  Jigme Singye Wangchuk would change all of this.  He would give Bhutan a constitution, pave the way for democratic elections, and end Bhutan’s isolation from the world.  On March 24, 2008, Bhutan held its first democratic elections by order of the king, effectively ending the absolute monarchy established by Wangchuk’s great grandfather in 1907.(3)  In western history where we have a tendency to romanticize bloody revolutions and Julius Caesars, it’s not surprising that a monarch giving up power to the people at the height of his popularity is difficult to conceive.  The 4th King of Bhutan should probably be remembered for this peaceful transition to democracy or for ending Bhutan’s decades of isolation.  But to the outside world, he will likely be remembered for a comment he made soon after becoming king.  While Jigme Singye Wangchuk was determined to end Bhutan’s isolation from the rest of the world, he was worried about what that might mean for Bhutan’s culture and society, long protected from external influences.  In 1972, as a king at the age of 20, he delcared that “Gross National Happiness was more important than Gross National Product”.  He coined the term, “Gross National Happiness” and put it into the public sphere.  Because he was a king, the notion quickly became policy.  Bhutan became known as the country that rejected GDP in favor of “national happiness”.  But they had a problem.  There was no recognized method for measuring Gross National Happiness.  It took them 30 years to come up with a way to measure “happiness” at a national level.  Finally, in 2008, Bhutan measured Gross National Happiness for the first time, 36 years after the 4th King’s speech coining the term.


So what is Gross National Happiness and how is it measured?  At it’s core, Gross National Happiness (GNH) is an index just like Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  But GNH is a lot more complicated to calculate.  As described by the Center for Royal Bhutan Studies, “The Gross National Happiness Index is generated to reflect the happiness and general wellbeing of the Bhutanese population more accurately and profoundly than a monetary measure.”(2)  But herein lies one of the most important challenges to GNH.  Money is a fairly simple, objective item to measure.  How do you measure happiness of a society when different things make different people happy?  You have to start with a definition of happiness.  It’s important to point out that “happiness” as used in GNH is not the temporary emotion of happiness that we might associate with being in a good mood.  Happiness in GNH terms is a measure of a person’s overall well-being and more importantly, the conditions that enable a person’s well-being.   Bhutan’s GNH index is comprised of nine different domains of human-well being:  1) Psychological wellbeing, 2) Health, 3) Time use, 4) Education, 5) Cultural diversity and resilience, 6) Good governance, 7) Community vitality,  8) Ecological diversity and resilience, and 9) Living standard.  The fact that Bhutan’s measure of happiness includes domains such as psychological wellbeing, time use, and ecological diversity demonstrates how the country’s Buddhist values are injected into the process.  Each of the 9 domains is broken into a set of two to four indicators which are correlated to carefully planned survey questions.  Most of the survey questions are objective.  They ask about things like family income and doctor visits in the past year.  But other questions are subjective, especially those asking about mental health.  For months, trained survey administrators from the GNH commission travel around Bhutan interviewing thousands of people from every district in the country.  The interviews are done in person and take hours to complete.  For each domain being surveyed, the government sets a sufficiency threshold.  Basically, if a person meets or exceeds that threshold, they are considered “sufficient” in that domain.  The survey questions aims to determine an individual’s level of “sufficiency” each domain relative to the threshold.  The government considers a citizen “happy” if they have achieved sufficiency in at least six of the nine domains.  This idea of a sufficiency threshold is one of the most critical and controversial ideas within Gross National Happiness and is something I will come back to later.

When you see how GNH is calculated, it starts to feel more like an academic research project and less like an enlightened economic indicator.  This is unsurprising since Bhutan worked with leading academics in psychology and development economics to develop the GNH measurement tool.  The final GNH Index is based on a methodology created by Sabina Alkire and James Foster out of Oxford University.  Alkire and Foster developed a statistical method for measuring poverty across multiple dimensions, rather than just income and wealth.  According to the Alkire-Foster method,  the mountains of survey data that Bhutan collects is turned into an index of happiness according to a simple equation:  GNH = 1 – HA.  “H” represents the percentage of people who are NOT HAPPY (have not achieved sufficiency in six of the nine domains).  “A” represents the average proportion of domains in which the NOT HAPPY people have failed to achieve sufficiency (or in other words, the intensity of their unhappiness).


In 2010, the Gross National Happiness of Bhutan was 0.743.(1)  Even knowing how it is calculated, it’s hard to see what that number means.  It is NOT the percentage of people in Bhutan who are happy, like many mistakenly assume.   It can’t be compared to GNH against other countries because Bhutan is the only one who has the index.  Despite those drawbacks, there are clear benefits to the methodology by which GNH is determined.  The government doesn’t just have GNH for the country, but they have GNH for different regions and for different demographic groups.  They can look at what groups of people lack sufficiency in what domains.  For policy-makers and NGO’s looking at the problem of developing Bhutan, the mountains of data from the GNH measure is a dream come true.  But, the index is time-consuming and complicated to calculate so it can only be measured once every few years.  And because it’s so complicated, the few average Bhutanese citizens that we talked to about Gross National Happiness didn’t really understand it beyond the focus on happiness rather than money (which most of them seemed to support).

All these drawbacks make Gross National Happiness controversial, even within Bhutan.  In 2013, the newly democratically elected prime minister of Bhutan criticized Gross National Happiness as a potential distraction from “the business at hand” of good governance and socio-economic development.  And conservative economists from around the world have called GNH an empty slogan.  In 2004, The Economist magazine printed a lengthy refutation of Gross National Happiness, going as far as to call it “cover for repressive and racist policies.”(4)  The Economist article, written prior to Bhutan’s first democratic elections, is right in many respects.  We spoke to another tourist couple who found Bhutan to be oppressive.  Aspects of Bhutan’s policies can seem repressive to the casual observer.  Citizens are required to wear traditional dress in certain public sites.  Cel phones and the internet were only recently allowed into the country.  Homes have to be built a certain way.  There is ongoing tension between ethnic Bhutanese and the Nepali and Indian immigrants who come into the country to do the jobs the Bhutanese don’t want to do themselves.   What The Economist articulates and which our own experience confirmed is that Bhutan is not Shangri-La.  But that is a criticism of Bhutan, the developing country.  Most of these articles fail to objectively analyze the the effects of Gross National Happiness as a policy.


The question of whether GNH is a good policy is complicated.  To answer that question, one has to start by looking at where Bhutan’s government makes different choices because of GNH than a government focused on growing GDP alone.  A perfect example of this deviation is Bhutan’s environmental policy towards its forests.  Over 70% of Bhutan is covered in forest.  The forests offer enormous economic potential for commercial logging, but commercial logging has been banned in Bhutan since 1979.(1)  Under the king, Bhutan passed a law requiring that 60% of the country’s forest must always be protected.  Even Bhutanese citizens are only permitted to cut down trees from small concessions given to each village.  If Bhutan was trying to grow GDP as fast as possible, the forests of Bhutan would have been opened up long ago just like middle eastern countries did with the oil under their sands.  But under GNH, the forests remain protected because environmental sustainability is counted as one of the key pillars of national happiness.  So it is reasonable to conclude that Bhutan’s economic growth has suffered as a result of GNH.  But the statistics tell a different story.  For the last three years, Bhutan’s economy has grown over 9% per year, faster than both China and India (World Bank Statistics 2010 – 2012).  GDP per capita has grown by almost 50%.  The growth has been fueled by increased tourism revenue and the export of hydropower electricity to India.  Not exactly a well diversified economy, but still growing rapidly.  There is another side to this growth story. China achieved 8-9% GDP growth over the past decade by extracting and burning natural resources at an unprecedented rate, tripling its emissions of carbon dioxide per person (just for reference, China’s emits 5.7 metric tons per person which is still 1/3 of the 17 metric tons per person emitted in the U.S.).  Bhutan’s economy has technically grown faster than China’s in recent years.  But while it’s economy has, its emissions of carbon dioxide have stayed stable at about 0.6 metric tons per person.  In fact, because of all those trees protected by the government, Bhutan as a country is a net carbon sink, meaning they absorb all the carbon dioxide they produce and some of the carbon dioxide produced by the rest of us.

Could Bhutan have grown its economy faster by opening up their valuable forests to logging?  Probably.  And many growth-oriented  economists would likely applaud the move.  But would it have been in the best interests of Bhutan?  That question is both more difficult and more important to answer.  It is here that Gross National Happiness aims to shift the decision-making framework away from simply economic growth and towards something much more holistic, the happiness and well-being of its people.  What would have happened over the last 10 years if China had followed a Gross National Happiness type philosophy?  Would as many people have been brought out of poverty?  Probably not.  But would we have heard as many stories about human rights violations in factories?  And would people in Beijing still be able to see the sunset rather than having to watch it on a big screen television?


There is one question that I repeatedly received after visiting Bhutan.  Were the Bhutanese people happier?  The truth is I don’t know.  Bhutan is not without its problems.  Inequality is on the rise and is clearly visible.  The data from the Gross National Happiness surveys show a growing divide between urban rich and rural farmers.  Large percentages of the population live in poverty with livelihoods based on subsistence farming.  And as mobile phones and the internet take root with young people, the impacts on Bhutanese culture that the 4th King was so concerned about are inevitable.  That being said, even the poor farmers we passed in the shadow of Jhomolhari mountain, seemed to have the essentials of life covered.  Their kids walked an hour down the trail to a well-built school.  The communities we met were exceptionally strong.  Despite the poverty rate within the country, we never saw a single beggar.  And unlike the noise, trash, and air pollution that you take for granted when you visit New Delhi, Kathmandu, or Shanghai, the skies and streets of Thimphu and Paro are clean. The Buddhist influence remains strong restraining materialism within Bhutan’s culture.  On top of all of that, the Bhutanese people still love their king.  It is now the 5th King, the son of Jigme Singy Wangchuk.   He is a monarch with greatly reduced powers but every home and business we passed feature a picture of the king and queen with pride.  Is this an endorsement of Gross National Happiness?  Does this mean that the Bhutanese are happier?  It’s impossible to say from a two week tour of the country.  So I looked to see if others had answered that question.

The field of what I jokingly call “happy-nomics” has been studied for decades and is now receiving growing attention.  In 2012, the United Nations held the first global meeting on happiness and well-being, chaired by the Prime Minster of Bhutan.  Last year, they produced the 2013 World Happiness Report based on Gallup data from the previous three years.  Denmark was ranked as the happiest country.  The Scandanavian countries and Switzerland rounded out the top 5.  The U.S. ranked 17th, just behind Mexico.   Canada was 6th.  For reasons I have yet to figure out, Bhutan was left out of both the 2012 and the 2013 report.  The only data I could find was a 2007 paper by Adrian G. White at the University of Leicester.  In a paper gauging the subjective well-being of countries, Bhutan came in 8th and was the only country with a low GDP to be ranked in the top 20.


Gross National Happiness was nothing like what I imagined it would be.  It was not a key to happiness that western countries could use to unlock the peace and tranquility of Bhutan.  However, the ideas behind Gross National Happiness offer a direct challenge to our western assumptions about consumption and economic growth.  The challenge was best exemplified for me in one of the assumptions used to calculate GNH.  It was a small assumption but it has profound philosophical implications.  It is the notion of “sufficiency”.  When the researchers in Bhutan survey someone, they are looking to see if that person is “sufficient” in that domain relative to a sufficiency-cutoff that the Government of Bhutan has established based on prevailing conditions.  For example, say that the researchers are asking a single person about their annual income.  Before the study, the Government of Bhutan would have established a sufficiency-cutoff for annual income at some level.  Let’s assume they set that level to $60,000 per year.  What this means is that if you’re a single person and your income is $60,000 per year, you’ve achieved “sufficiency” in income.  Now, as I mentioned before, there are many other questions and domains that they still have to ask you about, but in the area of how much money you make, the Government of Bhutan says that you’re making enough to be happy.  If you make more $60,000 per year, you’re not counted as being more happy, and more importantly, you aren’t considered to be adding to the Gross National Happiness of the country by making more.  You’re sufficient and that is all.  To our American sensitivities, this simple idea seems outlandish.  We are raised on the mantra that more is always better, especially when the more is money.  In 1974, a USC professor named Richard Easterlin published an article that seemed to show that more money did not necessarily mean more happiness.  Easterlin’s data showed that while incomes in the United States rose steadily in the decades after World War II, there was no noticeable rise in reported life satisfaction.(6)  In other words, once you had enough to meet basic needs, more money did not make you more happy. The so-called “Easterlin Paradox” became a lightning rod.  Pro-growth economists responded angrily to the idea that money didn’t improve human welfare.  The debate still rages  In May, 2013, researchers from the University of Michigan published a new study that seemed to disprove the Easterlin Paradox. (7)  Every year, new economic studies are published, some refuting and some reinforcing Easterlin’s thesis.  I wonder if in looking at macroeconomic data, we aren’t looking in the wrong place.


The notion of “sufficiency” is the core  of the debate around money and happiness.  Is there a point after which we are sufficient?  Is this a question for economics research or for philosophy?  Studies like that conducted at the University of Michigan will tell us with data that more money can buy more happiness.  But there is something in that idea that feels less like truth about society and more like the diagnosis of a sickness.  It seems absurd to measure the progress of our civilization by how many cars we buy.  But somewhere along the way, that is exactly what happened.  We take on more and more debt.  We burn every resource we can find.  We shrug our shoulders at rising inequality.  It’s all OK because the news tells us enthusiastically that the Dow crossed 15,000 and that the economy grew 2% last quarter.  So things must be getting better.  We’re buying more so we should be happy.  It’s the opposite of the moderation we are taught when we are young.  Philosophers, teachers, and parents tell us to find contentment in what we have, to focus on the things that matter most: our friends, our families, and our communities. I tried to think if something like Gross National Happiness would ever work in the U.S.  It would require a massive cultural change because we would have to consider the of sufficiency in our consumption.  It is a hard question to as in the U.S. because it feels un-American.  But for those of us who spend our days staring at how our current consumerism is steadily degrading the earth and the climate that we depend on, we feel like we are already decades late in talking about the way we judge consumption.  Gross National Happiness in Bhutan quietly tackles the issue head-on.  It asks the question, “Even if it makes us richer, does it make us happier?  Does it make us more secure?  Is it worth the cost to our environment or to our culture or to our community?”  In the end, Gross National Happiness can’t teach us how to be happier.  But I believe it can inspire us to start asking the right questions.  That in itself would be a victory.

1.  Ura, Karma, Alkire, Sabina, Zangmo, Tshoki, Wangdi, Karma.  An Extensive Analysis of GNH Index.  The Center for Bhutan Studies,  May 2012

2.  “Gross National Happiness Index explained in Detail”, The Center for Bhutan Studies, 2010

3.  Wikipedia Editors.  20 Jan. 2014. “History of Bhutan.” Wikipedia. Retreived 20 Jan. 2014.

4.  “The Pursuit of Happiness – Bhutan”. (16 December, 2004). The Economist

5.  Gates, Sara. “World Happiness Report 2013 Ranks Happiest Countries Around Globe.” The Huffington Post., 09 Sept. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.

6.  Easterlin (1974). Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot? Some Empirical Evidence. In Paul A. David and Melvin W. Reder, eds., Nations and Households in Economic Growth: Essays in Honor of Moses Abramovitz, New York: Academic Press, Inc.

7.  “Daily Chart: Money Can Buy Happiness.” The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 2 May 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2014.


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