Gross National Happiness – Bhutan’s gift to the world


I was reading along in my environmental science textbook this morning, reading about GDP and GPI and ISEW and NEW when I reached this intriguing little snippet:

Withgott and Laposata (2014) state that “In recent years, attempts to measure and pursue happiness (rather than economic output) as the prime goal of national policy are gaining ground” (p. 154).

Okay, I really like this concept. As an American, the words “pursue happiness” have special meaning to me, reflecting one of the visions our founding fathers and mothers had of this nation, and the world. Yes, they forgot to consider the happiness of slaves and Native Americans in the short term, but the seed was planted that would germinate and grow into the beauty that is equality and justice, and the opportunity for all people to pursue happiness (we’re still working on this).

“In 2012, a global conference on this topic [happiness] was hosted by Bhutan, a small Asian nation that has pioneered this approach with its measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH)” (Withgott and Laposata, p. 154).

What is GNH?

A quick Internet search, and Voila! there it was:

The website details its four pillars of GNH: “good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation.”

The “Short GNH Index” available in .pdf form states: “unlike certain concepts of happiness in current western literature, happiness is itself multidimensional – not measured only by subjective well-being, and not focused narrowly on happiness that begins and ends with oneself and is concerned for and with oneself.”

It goes on to explain that an individual can be happy even when circumstances are not optimal. “Different people can be happy in spite of their disparate circumstances and the options for diversity must be wide.”

The GNH contains 9 domains of evaluation:

psychological well-being
time use
community vitality
cultural diversity
ecological resilience
living standard
good governance

Gross National Happiness Roots

Apparently, the concept of happiness as being a national goal is not new. “The 1729 legal code, which dates from the unification of Bhutan, declared that ‘if the Government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.’” Wow! That is powerful.

I notice that the date of this Bhutanese declaration precedes by almost 50 years the Declaration of Independence that contains the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

How does the United States ranks on the GNH Index? USA is 11th. Denmark is first (Koch).

Koch (2012) stated that since the U.S. is the wealthiest nation on Earth, shouldn’t we be the happiest? Good question, and telling. We could infer that wealth obviously does not make a nation happy. That would be simplistic, though, since the wealth in the U.S. is not possessed by the majority of Americans but a small percentage.

Another quick Internet search landed me at the website, founded by a small group of 2008 Annual Gross National Happiness Research Conference attendees (held in Bhutan) who were inspired to see if they could bring the ideas of GNH to the United States. It looks like Vermont hosts the headquarters of the US movement. Their website states, “The state of Vermont declared April 13th (President Jefferson’s birthday) “Pursuit of Happiness Day,” and became the first state to pass legislation enabling development of alternative indicators and to assist in making policy.“

USA Today reporter Wendy Koch wrote an article on the GNH movement: “Is the USA moving toward a ‘happiness index’?” The concept has taken hold and is being taken seriously by local, state and federal agencies. Koch reports: “The practical impact of the panel’s work would be to figure out whether a broader GDP could better guide public policy. For example, if commuters prefer riding the train to fighting traffic in a car, perhaps public transit should be bolstered. Or if patients value pain management more than costlier medical treatments, care considerations could get a second look.”

This points to a citizen-centered approach to government which would be completely different than our corporation-centered current government (at least on the federal level). Most of us would applaud any movement that evaluated the DMV and determined what could be done to make people happier while registering their vehicles or renewing drivers licences. Yes, this would be most welcome.

Government putting its finger on the pulse of citizen happiness, discovering what made its heart grow fonder or happier, would certainly be an improvement to the massive, impersonal, often antagonistic behemoth that most of us deal with every day in one way or another.

I wonder what the GNH of Ferguson, Missouri would be? Or Hartford or New Haven, Connecticut?

How does GNH move beyond a social science experiment to practical application? Go personal.

I really like the concept behind this movement. I like its tenets and its goals. I like that it is non-partisan. I like that it is concerned not only about the happiness of people, but that there is recognition that the happiness of humans is tied directly to the health of our planet. Yes, I really like this movement.

I am going to read through the material on these websites and evaluate my own happiness. And that is where I would go with this concept. Yes, our government agencies should certainly be taking into consideration how their policies impact the well-being of citizens, but ultimately, it is up to individuals to figure out what makes them happy or unhappy (and through political involvement hold politicians accountable for irresponsible policies).

What if Americans did that everywhere and discovered that the rat race does not make them happy and that having the latest gaming system or biggest flat-screen, 3-D television doesn’t really make them happy. What if they discover that walking in the park makes them happier than streaming Netflix for 6 hours straight (this is one of my weaknesses).

I even mentioned to my sons yesterday that I think we might start camping again. Not in Connecticut because the parks are so small (sorry, I’m used to huge Texas and California parks) and policed (yes, policed – we are intruders and they never let us forget that). I live in a beautiful part of the country, and to not go camping in New Hampshire or upstate New York while we are living here seems like a crime. I love camping. Why didn’t I remember that? [Because before Lyme disease I had many small children to supervise with little help — camping is not fun with small children, or it wasn’t for me. And since Lyme disease I wasn’t sure I could handle camping. My kids are big now. No excuses.]

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. We just need to figure out what that really means for each of us personally and as a nation.

Here’s to Gross National Happiness! And let it start with me 🙂


Koch, Wendy (2012). “Is the USA moving toward a ‘happiness index’?”

Withgott and Laposata (2014). Environment: The science behind the stories. Boston: Pearson. Print.

Ura, Alkire, Zangmo, Wangdi (2012). “A Short Guide to Gross National Happiness Index.”


3 responses »

  1. Definately enjoyed that! I have to figure out what makes me happy. Things do temporarily…thats no good. A good friend is a biggie! Fishing is one too. Not shooting…you would think that it would…I think its because of all the damage that can be done. Snifff sweet smell of grass. Nature is huge. To be a christian does the most. Solitude is great. To do with less is kinda making me happier. Independance is huge! My dogs sweet faces. The husband…NO TTTT!!! My happiness comes in tiny spirts. I wish it was continuous…thats the problem…so temporary for me.


    • Happiness should really be renamed contentedness in this context since happiness is such a fleeting feeling. Those feelings of being happy come and go. I guess it is the overall sense of well-being that is being addressed here. Doing with less as long as basic needs are met and there is a decent level of independence is optimal. I struggle with stressing over basic needs which is very stressful. Pursuing happiness is so personal. Being free to do so without excessive control from outside sources is vital. Let freedom ring (so we can all pursue our own happiness).


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