Gross National Happiness: Bring It Home To Roost

The 5th International conference on Gross National Happiness (GNH) ended on 24th November, 2009. It was held in Iguacu, Brazil and was attended by about a thousand participants from several countries of the world represented by all cross sections of societies.

According to the Center for Bhutan Studies, the aim of the fifth GNH conference was to bring together policy makers, civil society, intellectuals and academics and explore issues pertaining to development.

Happy Faces From Bhutan. Image by Flickr user laihiu and used under a Creative Commons license

Happy Faces From Bhutan. Image by Flickr user laihiu and used under a creative commons license

Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the 4th King of Bhutan first coined the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) when he was barely in his 20’s. As King of a small and poor country, he sought the unconventional path to development by focusing on the quality and happiness of his people rather than GDP/GNP as the ultimate goal.

The first conference was held in Bhutan in 2004, the second one in Nova Scotia, Canada in 2005, the third in Thailand in 2007, and the fourth was in Bhutan in 2008.

The 4 pillars of GNH include socio-economic development, preservation of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and establishment of good governance. And these include many indicators like psychological well being, health, education, living standards etc.

The premise of such a philosophy is more or less embedded in E. F Schumacher’s 1973 revolutionary book, “Small is Beautiful; Economics as if People Mattered,” and something he called “Buddhist Economics.”

But as the world tries to grasp onto the idea of whether GNH can work or whether it is just a fuzzy notion, Bhutan – the country where the concept first originated – has been asking whether GNH has run ahead of itself.

The debate started when the Bhutanese Prime Minister returned from the conference last week and said that GNH has spread so fast that it is being taken more seriously in places other than Bhutan, its country of origin, and that the country is falling behind.

The leader of the opposition in Bhutanese parliament, Tshering Tobgay, avidly retorted on his blog:

“Very good. Our government now understands what the common man has long known: namely that, to increase happiness levels, we need is less talk and more action.”

Invisible, a reader, commented on his post:

“I strongly disagree with our Lyonchhen and say that, “Bhutan is not lagging behind in GNH.” Bhutanese Society is GNH Society. GNH is in our “values” and in our “thinking.”

And Tangba, another reader, commented:

“The fact is GNH was there since long time back and all the civilized nations had been implementing it for centuries. The only difference is that they didn’t call it GNH as we do. They called it by other collective names: quality education, good health care, clean environment, nature and wildlife conservation, preservation of culture and traditions, strong economy, freedom of speech, corruption free administration, human rights and so on. Then why are we making a big fuss about it?”

Meanwhile Rubiks at Kuzu-Bhutan Weblog begged to differ:

Some people may ask, “why all this fuss against GNH now?” Well! I say this – it has become incredibly difficult to have a meaningful debate about anything without someone dragging the term “GNH” into it…I am tired of this cliché.

…I know I am living in a real world and not some fairy tale world. In order to measure happiness, we need to have a very clear understanding about happiness. Happiness is a state of mind, which is not constant. Philosophers have been trying to define “mind” for centuries, yet they are still left with the same fundamental question – what is mind? Happiness is a subjective entity hence to measure it objectively is just a fallacy.

Awakened fellow, a commenter on the above post, countered:

“Nobody says that Bhutan has achieved GNH. We all accept that there is much to strive for even to reach near GNH. But that doesn't mean that GNH is crap.

GNH is a broad idea. It is a guide and inspiration – not a rule, solution or a prescription. Yes, we have many problems and we are far from GNH. But, even just having GNH as our guide, and striving for it is a big thing.”

But Unagi agreed in another post on Kuzu-Bhutan Weblog:

“GNH does not mean having a Land Cruiser and living in a comfortable Duplex and getting a degree from the U.S. BUT what is GNH is the fact that every one is happy because they have the basic NEEDS.

GNH is a mutual benefit philosophy and you should share the unhappiness of those fellow citizens who are apparently NOT happy because their children are walking for hours to get to school, because they don't have enough food to survive and they definitely cannot worry about a Land Cruiser, believe me.
GNH is beautiful, I accept that but what I'm saying is…for GNH money is essential and for GNH to be ACHIEVED, resources need to be SHARED equally among everyone. Not some owning Land Cruisers and other not even being able to afford taxis. That is when MONEY comes into play for happiness.”

Some bloggers like Sonam Tshering argued that giving GNH a formal platform had, instead, made it worse for the commoner:

“In 2004, the Centre for Bhutan Studies for the first time organized an international conference on Operationalizing of Gross National Happiness. Subsequently, the centre organized similar international conferences in Canada, Thailand and this year is Brazil. Since then, the concept of GNH has grown beyond the comprehension of the common people.

Now the question that remains is how it can be applied in the ground realities of the common people. The concept has grown too high, most common people today feel that GNH is only for the experts and high level officials.”

The Bhutanese Prime Minister put the onus on the individuals to make it happen:

“It [a government] must try to create the right conditions, but the individual himself and herself must pursue happiness.”

As the debate rages on, it seems – at least – that they inadvertently agreed one thing: that Bhutan needed to work on GNH at home, rather than letting international academics seek definition and run away with the idea. So far, however, Bhutan has been pretty successful in selling it. This summer the President of France Nicolas Sarkozy also wanted to measure his country’s economic progress through GNH (the proposal was later rejected). Now the challenge remains to bring the concept home to roost.


  • Sonam – the origins of GNH go much beyond Schumacher’s 1973 masterpiece “Small is Beautiful”. If you read Smith, Veblen, Mill and others including Keynes, you will see that they discuss happiness or some semblance of happiness.

    GNH is a complex concept but the issue is very fundamental. Like many things, GNH is neither black or white while most of us immediately camp ourselves in a “Yes” and a “No” groups. GNH has shades of grey and we need to be able to understand this and deal with the ambiguities. Many Bhutanese (myself included) like to believe that my shade is the correct interpretation.

    The good thing about the Brazil trip is that it has generated a lot of debate as I write in my blog. I hope we make some progress in coming to a common understanding because any vision/philosophy with few followers eventually wither and disappear.

  • M.V.Sankaran

    After a perusal of the post on ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) and the comments thereunder, I am moved to add a few observations of my own. It is a fact that from time immemorial, mankind has sought happiness in ‘material possessions’ *(called ‘artha’ in Sanskrit) because without material acquisitions we would be vulnerable to the inclemencies of the weather, the dangers posed by natural disasters and the fundamental needs of our physical being. It is another story that over the centuries with the advancement of our knowledge of the physical world and the rapid strides taken by science and technology, particularly in the developed western world, material needs have increased manifold and ‘superfluous’ needs are often projected by the advertising media as ‘real’ needs. Mankind has since time immemorial also sought ‘sensory satisfaction’ *(called ‘kama’ in Sanskrit) because with out satisfaction of our sensory organs, that is, our powers of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touch, besides the mind (comprising cognition, volition and emotion,as per western tenets), there can be no real happiness in this world. ‘Pleasures of the senses’ may be distinguishable from the concept of ‘happiness’ by the learned, but without doubt they are conducive to our happiness. However, over the centuries of living in societies, as the natural tendency is one of gregariousness, mankind has found that it is essential to observe certain norms in society *(called ‘dharma’ in Sanskrit) in our quest for ‘material acquisitions’ and ‘sensory satisfactions’. Otherwise there would be anarchy, conflict and chaos in society leading to much misery. Hence, any attempt at arriving at ‘GNH’ has to take into account the ‘value system’ of a particular society given its state of development and the degree of ‘adherence’ to those values by the members and institutions of that society. In other words, the cultural traditions of a given society and adherence thereto by its members cannot be ignored in any evaluation of ‘GNH’ of that society. In other words, happiness is not just a state of mind; it is the state of the society as well.

  • what a nice article, really enjoyed the insights into this subject.Especially since Europe ist still in the early stages of dicussing such a framework.

  • […] 07-12-09 Gross National Happiness: Bring It Home To Roost […]

  • The concept of Gross National Happiness can only save the humanity from its peril. This can not be achieved through democratic from framework which is rotten and corrupted. For tis to achieve, we have to go in for Intellocratic form of government wherein intellect of the nation rules the country.

  • Pem

    A family in rural Bhutan will be most happy if they can get three square meals a day. How many people in Bhutan are living below poverty line . How can a person with empty stomach be happy, isn’t GNH all about happiness??? GNH is only for rich people, GNH is bullshit. Don’t make something out of nothing. When the word Gross is used one should be able to measure happiness, how can you measure happiness,I can’t believe how stupid people can be.

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