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Gross National Happiness

/ 01:57 AM November 28, 2015

Thimpu, Bhutan, 11/26/15. Gross National Happiness (GNH) is the brand name of the Kingdom of Bhutan for its official national objective. The term is so distinct from Gross National Product (GNP) that it emphasizes that BHUTAN DOES NOT CARE ABOUT GNP. Unlike every other country in the world, what Bhutan wants is very different from GNP, and it is not shy about saying so.

The GNH concept was authored in the 1970s by the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuk. Its four “pillars” are good governance, sustainable socioeconomic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. By the time Bhutanese children are 10 years old, they have learned the pillars, or principles, of GNH in school.

Since my research specialty is measurement of the quality of life, I knew of GNH early on, and have always been interested in how Bhutan would measure it. But I found the papers on GNH presented in the past two decades at scientific meetings so empty of numbers that I got the impression that Bhutan was unable to proceed from the conceptual to the empirical.


The Gross National Happiness Index. This week, together with the great pleasure of visiting Bhutan for the first time—for the “Economic Freedom as a Way to Happiness” conference in Thimpu, organized by QED Group Bhutan, Economic Freedom Network Asia, and Friedrich Naumann Foundation—I have learned of the first two GNH Index numbers for Bhutan, done by the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research (CBSGR).


For 2015, the Bhutan GNH Index is 0.756, on a scale from 0 to 1. It had increased by 1.8 percent from the 2010 GNH Index of 0.743. These are not simple proportions of people who say they are personally happy.

The national GNH Index is an aggregate of individual GNHs. In 2010 and 2015, large surveys (with samples of over 7,000) were conducted on multiple indicators for what are now called the nine domains of GNH. The nine domains, with their number of inner indicators in parentheses, are: psychological wellbeing (4), health (4), time use (2), education (4), cultural diversity and resilience (4), community vitality (4), good governance (4), ecological diversity and resilience (4), and living standards (3).


The index for the domain of psychological wellbeing, for instance, is a weighted average of indicators of life-satisfaction (weight 1/3), positive emotion (weight 1/6), negative emotion (weight 1/6), and spirituality (weight 1/3). Every indicator is scaled from 0 to 1. Then the nine domain-indexes are aggregated with equal weights.

Many of these survey-based indicators are, of course, the self-evaluations of the respondents. They fall under the heading of subjective wellbeing, but are objectively measurable nevertheless. The best rejoinder to those who doubt the figures is to challenge them to independently replicate the surveys, and compare outcomes.

People who get aggregate scores from 0.77 to 1.00 are called “deeply happy.” In 2015, these were 8.4 percent of Bhutanese.

Those in the range of 0.66 to 0.76 are called “extensively happy.” These were 38.0 percent.

The goal is for all Bhutanese to be either extensively or deeply happy. The proportion extensively + deeply happy is 43.4 percent as of 2015, up from 40.9 percent in 2010.

Those with 0.50 to 0.65 are called “narrowly happy.” These were 47.9 percent—thus “narrow happiness” is the mode (i.e., the most common situation)—among the Bhutanese.

Those at zero to 0.49 are called “unhappy.” These were 8.8 percent. Thus, reaching at least the halfway mark on an indicator is, in general, what separates “happy” from “unhappy” people, in official research.

Analysis of GNH changes over time. The practical value of an indicator lies in helping to identify and understand instances of progress (and regress).

According to the CBSGR report, some increases in GNH in 2010-2015 were broadly equalizing—more among women than men; more among elders than youth; more among those without formal education; more among farmers than nonfarmers. On the other hand, GNH grew more in urban areas than in rural areas, which is less equalizing.

Increases in GNH were driven by improved living standards and service delivery, better health, and participation in cultural festivals.

However, in some cases there were setbacks. This was most noticeable in psychological wellbeing (over time, more anger and frustration, and less spirituality), community vitality (a lower sense of belonging), and cultural diversity. Such changes came to light because the data-gathering was comprehensive.

The CBSGR says: “The GNH Index findings paint an intricate and textured picture of the lives of Bhutanese, tracing them with much greater care and curiosity than GDP or any other existing index. [It] provides a self-portrait of a society in flux, and offers Bhutanese the opportunity to reflect on the directions society is moving, and make wise and determined adjustments.”

The adoption of GNH does not mean that Bhutan wants to be happier than other countries. Bhutan simply wants to improve its happiness, in certain dimensions meaningful to it, over time. It does not impose these dimensions on other nations. As tiny as it may be—with a population less than eight-tenths of one percent of the Philippine population, on a land area 10 percent that of the Philippines, averaging 8,000 feet above sea level—Bhutan is unique in officially articulating, and now scientifically gauging, the kind of future that it wants.

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TAGS: Bhutan, Gross National Happiness, Gross National Product, happiness

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