A History of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a Developmental Philosophy in Bhutan

In the 1970s, under His Majesty the 5th King’s rule in Bhutan, “Gross National Happiness (GNH) emerged as a development philosophy that shapes government policies and programs” (Bhutan’s 2015 Gross National Happiness Index). Bhutan, a country in South Asia that recently transitioned from being an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, includes GNH in governmental decisions.

The idea actually derived from Bhutan’s previous king, whose catchphrase was: ‘GNH is more important than GDP;’ however, GNH was not institutionalized until the latter king’s rule. It was created because the 4th King of Bhutan, “concluded that GDP was neither an equitable nor a meaningful measurement for human happiness, nor should it be the primary focus for governance; and thus, the philosophy of Gross National Happiness was born” (GNH Centre Bhutan).

Gross National Happiness is calculated and measured using means such as: interviews, surveys, charts, and concluding statistics. GNH has nine domains, which, according to the index’s website, are equally weighted within the context of Bhutanese happiness:

  1. psychological well-being (life satisfaction, positive/negative emotion),
  2. health (self-reported health status, number of healthy days, disability, mental health),
  3. time use (work and sleep),
  4. education (literacy, schooling, knowledge, value),
  5. cultural diversity and resilience (artisan skills, cultural participation, speak native language, code of conduct),
  6. community vitality (donation time & money, safety, community relationship, family),
  7. good governance (political participation, services, governance performance, fundamental rights),
  8. ecological diversity and resilience (wildlife damage, urban issues, responsibility to environment, ecological issues),
  9. living standards (income, assets, housing). In addition to this, GNH and Bhutan’s development progress has political, economic, cultural, and environmental pillars.

According to the Centre for Bhutan Studies, the process for determining Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness is, “to survey 7153 Bhutanese in every Dzongkhag of Bhutan. From that, analysts create a GNH score for each person, which gives the percentage of the 9 domains in which they enjoy sufficiency. The height of the bars show the weight of each indicator. The national GNH Index draws on every person’s portrait to give the national measure” (GNH Centre Bhutan) Keep in mind, however, that “every person” means only the people who were interviewed; this does not mean that every civilian in Bhutan was included in this measure survey.

The Centre then explains, “the purposes of the index are: Setting an alternative framework of development, providing indicators to sectors to guide development, allocating resources in accordance with targets and GNH screening tools, measuring people’s happiness and well-being, measuring progress over time, and comparing progress across the country” (GNH Centre Bhutan). Goals and ways to reach those goals are clearly stated for Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness.

The GNH Commission, The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research, and The GNH Centre Bhutan are Bhutan’s official GNH organizations. The GNH Commission is essentially, “the Government of Bhutan’s Planning Commission. It is charged with ensuring that GNH is mainstreamed into government planning, policy making and implementation. It uses tools such as the ‘GNH Screening Tool’ for assessing the suitability of all new government policies” (GNH Centre Bhutan).

The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research produces the bi-annual GNH survey, undertakes research and development, and creates academic publications and hosts conferences/events. The GNH Centre Bhutan is a local NGO that “delivers experiential learning and educational programs designed to explore, demonstrate and encourage applied GNH in individual and community life” (GNH Centre Bhutan). These organizations are local and only applicable to Bhutan’s GNH.

An obscurity of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness is the fact that not every civilian in Bhutan is interviewed and taken into account in the GNH interviews and surveys.

According to the GNH’s website summary, “To carry out the survey, 66 university graduates were trained to conduct the interviews. Between January and May 2015, under the supervision of CBS, six survey teams travelled all over the country. They knocked on the homes of 8,871 Bhutanese people living in all 20 districts of Bhutan. Bhutan’s 2015 GNH survey covers 7153 people aged 15 to 96 – 81% of the people visited” (Bhutan’s 2015 Gross National Happiness Index). This means that only 7153 people, age 15-96 were interviewed out of every Bhutanese civilian. The fact that not every civilian in Bhutan was interviewed for GNH statistical gatherings means that the concluding findings are not exact, but, instead, are more so an estimate.

In my opinion, Gross National Happiness most clearly reflects The Development Project paradigm. According to the Gross National Happiness Centre of Bhutan’s website, GNH is a holistic and sustainable approach to development which aims to strike a balance between material and non-material values, prioritizing the happiness and well-being of humans and all life. The objective of GNH is to achieve a balanced form of development encompassing a range of domains, each of which makes a vital contribution to our happiness.

In this sense, development is strictly catered around GNH; the project’s statistics heavily influence policy-makers’ decisions and reformations each year. Policies and methods are ever-changing in an attempt to have more positive GNH results for the upcoming year. An example of this is when, in 1999, the government allowed Bhutanese civilians to own televisions. Previously, televisions were banned. However, they were introduced in hopes of contributing positive results in the country’s Gross National Happiness. His Majesty the Fifth King Jigme Kjesar Namgyel Wanghuck is quoted on GNH’s website as stating, “What GNH is will never change but how we achieve it will change” (Bhutan’s 2015 Gross National Happiness Index).

Gross National Happiness illustrates development through it being a process where social change occurs through which societies are transformed over long periods. This is shown in that GNH’s numbers influence Bhutan’s government and, therefore, Bhutan’s policies and programs are ever-improving with time. According to Gross National Happiness Bhutan’s website, Bhutan’s GNH screening tool is used by the GNH Commission to assess and review all draft policies, programs and projects through a GNH lens. Whilst it is not the determining factor for ultimately approving and endorsing policy, it highlights specific recommendations and feedback to review the policy within the scope of the 9 domains of GNH.

GNH also illustrates development in that it has a vision, is a process, and endures progress. Bhutan’s vision is improved happiness among its civilians. GNH is a process which involves steps, goals, and time. GNH progresses yearly as new charts show each year’s happiness projections. Development is deeply imbedded in the GNH measure.

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness does coexist, as well, with Dependency Theory’s characteristics. It strives to be self-reliant as well as is local (in this case, meaning within Bhutan’s borders). Bhutan is only invested in associating its GNH “among its citizens” (Bhutan’s 2015 Gross National Happiness Index). As much as this is true, however, GNH is partnered with global associations such as Global Wellingbeing and GNH Lab as “a unique opportunity for leaders across a range of sectors around the world to explore key challenges in the field of innovating beyond GDP, to approach the deep seated roots of these challenges and develop new responses and solutions” (GNH Centre Bhutan). Where there is an emphasis on ‘locality,’ there are also foreign influences.

A post-development critique of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness might voice that, even though the GNH charts and statistics are implemented into Bhutan’s programs, government, and reform, it will not help Bhutan because it is still trying to reform the same system. A post-development thinker would recommend throwing the system out all-together and beginning fresh. A post-development thinker would agree with certain aspects of GNH, however, in that it is ‘localized,’ focuses on the people in addition to focusing on the state, and it could arguably be a “right-sized” project.

A post-development thinker may say that a project being country-expansive is still too big, though, and that ‘local’ should equate to smaller means. This thinker may advise GNH to exist at a community-based size and no larger. This would ensure that everyone is interviewed and has a voice in GNH’s statistics, instead of only a certain percentage of the country’s civilians having a say.

Gross National Happiness is useful for Bhutan to understand the civilian’s wants and needs, as well as where they are in terms of ‘being happy.’ The nine sectors seem to cover the majority of a civilian’s average life. It is also useful in that GNH ensures that civilian happiness is at the forefront of governmental decisions. The Gross National Happiness Centre Bhutan’s website states.

It is the role of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission to undertake screening on all government bills being developed before they are submitted to the Cabinet… The private sector is also not immune to GNH screening. It is not possible to start a new business without a license and before this is granted the business proposal needs to be put through a GNH screening process.

The measure seems to be at the best interest of the people, and that is useful in itself. However, with every useful asset come lacking ones as well.

On the other hand, there are few legitimate programs that are associated with Bhutan’s GNH. The measure is implemented into day-to-day lifestyles and governmental decisions instead of permeating within temporary programs. For example, there is ‘a journey’ (as the Bhutanese call it) that exists, called the GNH Journey program. According to GNH Centre Bhutan’s website, this program “offers a unique opportunity to experience GNH principles in daily life and to reflect on how to implement these principles in our own context in a practical way; [it] offers an inspirational and motivational experience that can transform participants deeply” (GNH Centre Bhutan).

In reading the program’s details, it seems to simply be a shoe- in into what living in a GNH environment feels like; Bhutan’s programs are structured around the goal of gradually getting others to become comfortable with GNH – almost like walking into a structured museum and calling it home. The GNH Journey and other similar programs hosted by GNH Centre Bhutan appear to be orientation sessions into GNH than anything else. I wonder, how heavily influenced is the government by GNH?

Are all of governmental decisions influenced by GNH, or only a number? Does GNH have a corrupted side to it? And if so, does this corruption tie into, or influence, Bhutan’s government and reform? I feel that, in order for this index to be its best, it needs to be more convincing. This idea sounds very similar to programs that the World Bank has tried – but what sounds good on paper does not always pan out as beautifully in real life.

In addition, I wonder if GNH actually focuses on and improves Bhutan’s major struggles, such as unemployment, poverty, corruption, etc. And who, exactly, establishes the standards to happiness – and is that really possible? I also inquire whether or not diversity (listed number five on the nine domains) is truly protected with GNH. In line with that, are individual rights respected?

Bhutan has a harsh history of ‘ethnic cleansing,’ after all; this essentially means that, “The [Bhutanese] government enacted discriminatory citizenship laws directed against ethnic Nepalis, that stripped about one-sixth of the population of their citizenship and paved the way for their expulsion” (Frelick). Today, even, “about 108,000 of these stateless Bhutanese are living in seven refugee camps in Nepal. The Bhutanese authorities have not allowed a single refugee to return” (Frelick). Considering Bhutan’s anti-diversity history, I don’t see GNH addressing these issues. So is diversity listed as a domain but not genuinely paid attention to?

Although Bhutan’s National Happiness measure sounds fulfilling first-hand, I am still left unconvinced and with questions. I will not be satisfied with the measure until my questions are answered.

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