Gross national happiness

Gross National HappinessJigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth Dragon King of Bhutan, knew a thing or two about people engagement.

Shortly after he took the reins in 1972, he introduced the philosophy of ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) as an alternative to GDP, the traditional international measure of economic prosperity. He felt strongly that the success of his nation should be based on the happiness of its people, rather than the depth of its pockets.

GNH would align the Bhutanese culture more closely to Buddhist spiritual values, ensuring that any proposed development activity would be measured in terms of its likely impact on the happiness of its people.

A noble idea, but surely a pipe dream?

Well, the Centre for Bhutan Studies didn’t think so, creating a purpose-built GNH survey tool that would help determine the most beneficial initiatives for local communities, so people could live in conditions that offered the best possible opportunities for happiness.

If you’re looking for evidence of how seriously Bhutan takes GNH, look no further than the proposal for it to become a member of the World Trade Organisation, which was rejected after it failed to pass GNH standards.

GNH grew legs on an international stage, too. Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, as head of the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, handed down a 2009 report that identified GDP as a poor measure of well-being, and found that countries should therefore also measure a range of quality-of-life indicators relating to personal happiness.

In line with the findings of the Stiglitz report, Bhutan is currently in the process of becoming the world’s first country to create a set of GNH accounts that will allow for the proper accounting of both economic factors, as well as those relating to happiness and wellbeing.

The good news about GNH? So far, it works.

In 2007, Bhutan ranked eighth out of 178 countries in Subjective Well-Being, a metric that has been used by many psychologists since 1997. Notably, it was the only country in the top 20 “happiest” countries with a very low GDP. However, Bhutan performed well on that front too; in the following year, Bhutan recorded the world’s fastest GDP growth, almost doubling that of neighbouring India.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck had a pretty useful CV; he oversaw Bhutan’s United Nations membership, he strengthened ties with neighbouring India, and he prepared his nation to become a modern democracy, which was formalised in 2006, the final year of his reign.

But the fourth Dragon King of the tiny Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom will perhaps best be remembered for putting the happiness and wellbeing of his people above all else.


Image credit: fritz16 /