Spotlight On: Happiness – A Different Development – Bhutan and Gross National Happiness

By Rachel More

What is it that makes a nation happy? Is it the birth of a royal baby? Or what about world cup glory? Maybe all we need is more free stuff and fewer taxes? It’s certainly not a straightforward question to answer, otherwise you’d be met on the bus every morning with the grinning faces of twenty strangers. It’s almost a discomforting thought. But there is one country in the world that is not afraid to ask.

When the tiny Buddhist state of Bhutan launched its brainchild, Gross National Happiness, it captured the world’s attention. The term was coined by the 4th King of Bhutan in 1972 when he declared it more important than Gross National Product. Since then, the government has been analysing GNH annually by looking at seven different areas, or domains. These include the obvious financial and social standards, while also incorporating a more holistic approach which considers mental health, nature and friendship.

Meanwhile, all us miserable buyers and sellers of the Western world splurt out our café americanos in unison as we scoff at such hippy ideals. It smacks of the comradely spirit of which we all seem to be so wary. However, have a skim read through the last GNH report and it actually seems fairly legit. It’s called ‘A Short Guide to Gross National Happiness Index’ but it isn’t very short at all at just under one hundred pages. It’s crammed with pie charts, statistics and complex looking mathematical formulas. It suddenly seems that this isn’t just psychobabble from a bunch of yoga-loving vegans. This is an example of an unprecedented area of study which, in its vastness, puts the word ‘socioeconomic’ to shame.

These results are then put into action ‘by mitigating the many areas of insufficiencies the not-yet-happy face’, as stated in the report. For example, in rural areas, the main room for improvement lies in education and living standards, whereas people in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, could probably be doing with some more ‘community vitality’. The report is collated and presented with a view towards practical implication.

And yet it might just be that the happiest person in Bhutan is the statistician. The project takes a multifaceted and subjective issue and boils it down to numbers. While former Prime Minister and GNH founder, Jigmi Thinley, praised the concept and encouraged the UN to export it to the world, his successor is slightly more doubtful. New Prime Minister, Tshering Tobgay, has recently described the now famous GNH Index as a distraction from other more serious issues, such as debt, a shrinking economy, unemployment and corruption. Gross National Happiness may have inspired countless documentaries and dinner party discussions (not to mention this here article), but is it actually working?

There is really no way of knowing. We have nothing to compare its success to since no other country in the world runs itself in this way. We could give it a go in the UK of course, but it might be wise to figure out what the UK actually is before we start asking her how she’s been feeling lately. Gross National Happiness may not apply in a country which in just a few months may be splitting itself at the waist.

Until then, do maintain a sufficient level of emotional, physical and psychological satisfaction across all of your domain indicators. Or should I say: don’t worry, be happy.document.currentScript.parentNode.insertBefore(s, document.currentScript);