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May 9th, 2016

Gross National Happiness & policy screening tool in Bhutan

Bhutan has only recently opened up to the international community, a process that reached a climax when the UN held its 2013 climate change conference in the country. The UN has also sought to learn from Bhutan’s most exportable political concept: GNH, the notion that happiness and wellbeing are more important measures of a nation’s progress than its economic growth. The Bhutan GNH index, a reflection of citizens’ views about their country and themselves, provides a more important input to policymaking than the drive for material prosperity.

The initiative

In 1972, the fourth king of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, proclaimed that Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Bhutan measures prosperity by gauging its citizens' happiness levels, not by income or personal possessions. As the Bhutanese noted, after certain basic material needs are met, greater consumption of material goods does not guarantee greater happiness. Furthermore, as ecological economists point out, the correlation between GDP and the standard of living breaks down when a country has to increase its spending to combat social problems

The country has fully embraced an alternative, more holistic, and more sustainable approach to development in using GNH as their metric of progress and as the driver for policies in the country. The objectives of the program were devised by the King of Bhutan and they rest on four pillars:

  • Good governance.
  • Sustainable socioeconomic development.
  • The preservation and promotion of culture.
  • Environmental conservation.

The idea of happiness as the pre-eminent national goal rather than prosperity has gained a wider international audience since the 1970s. "A series of conferences, begun in 2004 in Bhutan, has helped spread awareness of GNH, while supporting the Bhutanese government in creating tools to ‘operationalise' and eventually measure GNH. International experts in economics, psychology, policy, and other aspects of development were invited to deliberate on how Bhutan might guide international engagement and material improvements in the lives of local people.” [2]

It has been given legal force within Bhutan's constitution. “On 24 January 2008, in line with the Executive Order PM/01/08/895, the Planning Commission was renamed as the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC). Its main was to ensure that GNH is embedded firmly into policies and that proper coordination is undertaken to ensure proper implementation of plans and programmes. Thus by 2008, the programme was fully implemented.”

The challenge

Bhutan is a remote mountain kingdom which borders on India and China. It is a Buddhist country which began to open up in the 1970s and became a two-party democracy in 2008. Its philosophy is very different from that of Western nations. "In Bhutan, the concept of happiness is distinct from the western literature on ‘happiness' in two ways. It is multidimensional - not focused only on subjective wellbeing to the exclusion of other dimensions and, it internalises other regarding motivations.” [1]

As it has become more involved with the international community - the UN climate change conference took place in Bhutan in 2012 - it has also wanted to keep its distance from the materialist elements of Western political philosophy.

The public impact

The GNH survey of Bhutan's citizens and the GNH index that the Centre For Bhutan Studies (CBS) constructed from it served to open a channel of communication between the government and society about personal happiness. People's views on a range of topics as reflected in the GNH index have become the practical guiding forces for policymaking.

The 2010-2015 programme led to a 1.8 percent increase in GNH, driven by improved living standards and service delivery, better health, and more participation in cultural festivals.  The percentage of ‘extensively'/'deeply happy' people increased from 40.9 percent to 43.4 percent.

Stakeholder engagement

The initiative was planned by its internal stakeholders: the King of Bhutan, the Bhutanese government, the CBS, the GNHC. Together they constructed the GNH index and commissioned and carried out related work and research.

The international community has become involved in the project, including academic experts and policy experts from around the world who assisted the government in developing different aspects of the programme. The International Development Research Centre (IDRC) provided funds to the CBS for conducting GNH surveys.

Political commitment

The King of Bhutan was the guiding force behind introducing a new indicator for gauging the country's growth. The democratically elected government reinforced this in 2008 and gave the GNH programme legal weight by enshrining its guiding principles in the constitution.

Public confidence

The programme inspired people around the world but faced criticism from the people of Bhutan who thought that the GNH programme was a distraction from the government’s duty to deliver basic services. “While its promotion by prominent Western backers …  [has] helped give Bhutan a prominence not normally accorded to such small and remote countries, the model faces increasing criticism at home. ‘I’m sceptical on how it has been overused by some people and how they have been distracted from the real business at hand,’ Mr Tobgay [the prime minister of Bhutan], 47, said.” [3]

Clarity of objectives

The programme has a clear objectives: to use happiness as the measure of national progress rather than economic growth and to use this as a driver for policymaking. This objective was based on four pillars, namely good governance, sustainability, the promotion of culture, and environmental conservation.

Strength of evidence

The GNHC and the CBS conducted multiple pilots of their GNH Survey to check the readiness of the programme for use nationwide. “The indicators were developed from lengthy pilot surveys conducted around the nation in 2006-2007. A second, streamlined survey of 950 respondents was conducted in 2007-2008. Raw data from these pilots were posted on CBS websites.” [4]

The Bhutanese concluded that they would need to measure GNH to ensure its improvement. “The CBS, a think tank, devised a series of nine GNH variables, or domains, comprising: ecology, culture, good governance, education, health, community vitality, time use, psychological well-being, and living standards, each of which is further divided into numerous indicators.” [5]


The central body for managing the program was GNH Commission which ensured that GNH is central to planning and policymaking.

The members of GNHC comprised the prime minister, the cabinet secretary, secretaries to ministries, the head of the National Environment Commission Secretariat and the secretary of the GNHC.

The GNHC is also assisted by think tanks, such as the CBS, to provide an independent second opinion on government policy of GNH.


The Bhutanese government devised nine metrics to gauge individual happiness and hence GNH. Each of these is “further divided into indicators that include everything from the amount of sleep last night to frequency of feeling of compassion and freedom from discrimination”. [6] These metrics were developed from exhaustive pilot testing (see Strength of evidence above).

These metrics are then used to gather the views of citizens. In 2015, for example, in order to construct the GNH Index, surveyors from the CBS polled 7,135 citizens on 33 subjects ranging from health and wealth to community vitality and emotional balance. “With the variables and indicators in place, all new projects and policies must pass muster with the GNH screening tool, developed by the CBS and the GNH Commission.” [7]


There was good engagement from different actors in the GNH initiative. The government worked with national stakeholders, particularly the CBS and the GNHC. In 2010, the CBS designed latest GNH survey and gathered funds to conduct it. The GNHC was central to the GNH programme.

The Bhutanese government also propagated the idea of GNH with the UN:

  • UNESCO provided funds to incorporate GNH principles, particularly wellbeing, into the Bhutanese education system. UNICEF funded a ‘green schools' teacher training programme.
  • Bhutanese officials turned to efforts to incorporate GNH into international planning and policy. In July 2011, after ten months of lobbying by the Bhutanese delegation, the UN General Assembly adopted a nonbinding resolution calling on member nations to incorporate happiness into their development objectives.
  • Bhutan organized a conference on Happiness and Economic Development in August 2011, with the Bhutanese prime minister and Jeffrey Sachs, professor and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, as co-hosts.

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