The idea of Gross National Happiness


To the Editor:

Nestled in the high Himalayas and wedged between two Asian giants, China to the north and India to the south, is the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan, with an area of 38,394 square kilometers and a population of 762,939 (National Statistical Bureau, 2014). Bhutan has adopted a unique development philosophy. In 1972, the king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, first advanced the visionary statement that Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross Domestic Product (GDP). The words of a king, according to ancient Bhutanese wisdom, are “heavier than the mountains, more precious than gold,” and this phraseology was picked up within the government circle and by scholars. As a concept, GNH is not new. It is the expression of a system of values describing a strong and viable existence that has evolved over the centuries. In presenting it as an inspiration for modernization, Jigme Singye Wangchuck offers a refreshing alternative to a global development paradigm fast becoming irrelevant.

Since then, GNH has had deep roots in Bhutan, and is a core element of all strategic development plans, policies, and programs. Any project that fails the GNH Policy Screening Tool is not readily accepted, and must be harmonized with the GNH principles (RGoB, 2013). It was clear to Bhutan that in the pursuit of material comfort, too many countries had lost their cultural identity, their spirituality, and had upset the ecological balance through environmental degradation, and that from a Buddhist viewpoint, material wealth had resulted in widespread spiritual poverty.

GNH is not about the concept of happiness. It is a guiding principle for change, and it sets the quality of aspirations for development or progress as conceived deep in the folds of the Himalayas, in a kingdom that has been shrouded in mystery for centuries. GNH is a reasoned and pragmatic attempt to find a wholesome and stable course for change in today’s increasingly turbulent world. For the people of Bhutan, it is a Buddhist-inspired path to a nation’s growth by ensuring individual and collective happiness. GNH is “development guided by human values” (Wangchuk, 2009). The philosophy of GNH is underpinned in a long philosophical tradition that recognises the integrated nature of happiness and well-being, and it does not draw on any Western influences (Priesner, 2004; Planning Commission, 1999). 

Happiness as the goal of GNH is an aspiration of every human, but it can also be considered as a measure of social progress (World Happiness Report, 2013). The cornerstone of GNH as a development philosophy is the visionary emphasis that it places on well-being and happiness at the center of societal development. The essence is that “happiness” must be the goal of GNH, and that it is the responsibility of the government to create enabling conditions for citizens to pursue happiness (Thinley, 2005). It was under the wise and dynamic leadership of His Majesty the Fourth King that Bhutan charted a unique path to development and modernization called GNH (Ministry of Education, 2010). 

GNH does not challenge the concept of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the traditionally accepted measure of societal happiness. It merely questions the prevailing norm of using GDP alone as a measure of societal progress, and it articulates an understanding of development that incorporates multiple and interrelated social, political, economic, cultural, and environmental dimensions. GDP is increasingly subject to criticism as a measure, because of its primary focus on wealth creation. 

Experiences from developed countries have indicated that too much emphasis on GDP has failed to bring universal happiness among their citizens (Dixon, 2004; Easterlin, 2003). Increasingly, scholars from a wide range of disciplines believe that the traditional economic approach to development has failed to adequately measure the progress of a nation, resulting in diminished happiness and well-being (Bracho, 2004; Braun, 2009; Edahiro and Oda, 2008) and that a new, holistic development paradigm is needed that would overcome the inadequacies of GDP. 

Too much emphasis on GDP has heightened human greed, which has resulted in unsustainable growth with little or no regard for the needs of the future generations (Sherab, 2013). This is why Bhutan’s GNH approach to development is increasingly considered as an alternative approach to progress (Braun, 2009). Given that one of the foremost aspirations of humans is to lead a happy life, happiness should be one measure of social progress (World Happiness Report, 2012). GNH does not discard economic development, as economic vision is critical — but happiness must take precedence over economic prosperity as a national aspiration; GNH is not against change, but propounds control of change at a manageable pace and with the right priorities (Dorji, 2004).


Sonam Tobgye, Ph.D.
Vineyard Haven

Tobgye is a senior researcher for the Garrison Institute in the U.S.