How Happy Is Bhutan, Really? Gross National Happiness Unpacked

Mandy/CC BY 2.0

If you haven't already read, in the run-up to the Rio+20 environmental conference (the event roughly six weeks away now) the UN has been highlighting the importance of moving beyond GDP as the end-all-be-all measurement of national progress. Towards that it's highlighting the World Happiness Report, with the research done by the folks at Columbia University's Earth Institute.

Hidden away at the end of that report (the entirety of which is worth reading, for those of the appropriately wonky inclination), is a case study of Bhutan and its development of the Gross National Happiness metric.

Here at TreeHugger we've mentioned this many times, in cataloguing all the better and greener ways of measuring the economy than GDP, and GNH has a certain cache within the green movement and social justice movement more broadly. But I imagine for every hundred people who know that Bhutan has been prioritizing national happiness more highly than national product, perhaps only one actually knows how they've been calculating this.

So here we go, the quick version. The full case study is available on the report link above, starting on page 108. (Appropriate enough, if likely coincidentally, considering the significance of the number 108 within Buddhism.)

The concept of national happiness being supremely important has a long history in Bhutan, at least back to the legal code of 1729, which says "if the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist." Gross National Happiness, phrased such, is much newer, dating to the early 1970s and statements by the Fourth King of Bhutan. As an actual index, and not just a policy notion, GNH is newer still. The first pre-pilot index being conducted in 2006, followed by a 2008 national survey, and then followed by the 2010 GNH Index, the subject of the case study here.

As far as how GNH is defined, the report says that though there is no single definition, the most widely used definition is:


Gross National Happiness measures the quality of a country in a more holistic way and believes that the beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occurs side by side to complement and reinforce each other.

A decent notion for sure, and one which hints at just one of the differences between GNH and some other Western-based studies of happiness.

Included in Bhutan's national measurement of happiness is that spiritual component, community and cultural involvement, and concern for nature.

As Bhutan's prime minister puts it, GNH attempts to get at a deeper level of happiness than "the fleeting, pleasurable 'feel good' moods so often associated with the term."

All told, there are 33 indicators included in GNH, covering a lot of ground, but given different weights. These include measures of: Psychological wellbeing, living standards, education, health, ecological diversity and resilience, good governance, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, and community vitality.

Since we've covered plenty of Western studies on life satisfaction and happiness before, let's just look at those things Bhutan includes that others often exclude.

Spirituality is measure on four factors: Self-supported spirituality level, how much they consider karma, how much they pray, and how often they meditate. 53% of the population of Bhutan in 2010 have reached an "adequate" level here.

Underneath the Culture category, Bhutan considers people's Artisan Skills—consisting of thirteen different traditional handicraft skills (such as weaving, painting, blacksmithing, carpentry) and whether people have attained skill with any of them. A person passes the sufficiency threshold if they have one of the traditional skills. 62% of Bhutanese meet the sufficiency, with the most common skills being masonry, carpentry, or textile weaving.

In Time Use, Sleeping Hours are considered. With eight hours being considered sufficient sleep, 66.7% of Bhutanese are consistently well rested.

In Ecological Diversity and Resilience, Pollution, Environmental responsibility, Wildlife, and Urban use are the sub-categories. Pollution is measured on subjective concern about pollution (69% think things are alright). Environmental responsibility tries to gauge people's concern for the environment (84.4% pass the "highly responsible" threshold). Wildlife looks at not, as you might guess, concern for wildlife, but how much people feel like animals are damaging crops (57.9% are not inconvenienced by crop damage). Urban use tries to gauge how well people are dealing with issues of urban life such as traffic congestion, urban sprawl, pedestrian conditions (84.4% feel the situation is well handled, though the report notes this is skewed because anyone not living in a city is defaulted to hitting the sufficiency).

So what's the tally? How happy is Bhutan? As of 2010, 41% of Bhutanese are identified as happy, with the rest of the population hitting sufficient levels of satisfaction in 57% of the surveyed categories.

In other words, there's definite room for improvement.

(A lot of room for improvement, I imagine, for Bhutan's under-publicized refugee problem with its Hindu minority. Again, nowhere is perfect, even if there is much good intent involved.)

All told, however, Bhutan is on to something in terms of developing a truly holistic measurement for development. Bhutan's specific measurement may not be directly portable to other nations, but with local-specific tweaks, Gross National Happiness is a beacon marking where we should be heading.

Tags: Consumerism | Developing Nations | Economics | longreads | United Nations

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