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Gross National Happiness


Gross National Happiness (GNH) was first conceived in the 1970s by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan (3). It proposes that sustainable development should give equal importance to holistic measures of economic progress and the non-economic aspects of human livelihood. The basic need of healthy living in human life extends past the physical boundaries. This logic is used in the participation in political decision making to measure progress towards satisfying basic human needs.

Context within NORA

GNH directly contributes to participation in collective and economic decision making processes through creating a system of measuring happiness rather than production in a nine-indicator framework. This collective participation leads to efforts of sustainability in areas of needs, organizational forms, and resources.

The 9 indicators that are measured are

  • Psychological Well-Being,
  • Health,
  • Education,
  • Cultural Diversity and Resilience,
  • Good Governance,
  • Community Vitality,
  • Ecological diversity and Resilience,
  • Living Standards, and
  • Time Use.

These are then measured under sub-indicators that try to assess all aspects of each indicator or domain. 


The GNH index strives to measure and account for basic human needs in various ways. The  indicators that are measured are broken down into aspect of human needs such as health. 

GNH emphasizes Health access and mental health as 2 separate indicators in the GNH index. Physical as well as Mental health are measured on separate but fluid scales (excel sheet)

Health needs are assessed through a national survey/index where health is measured through measures of self reported physical and mental health. If these questions are measured at above 66% overall, then the health measurement of that specific area is considered adequate or happy. The survey also inquires about disabilities, mental and physical, to assess where health centers or clinics would be beneficial in the effort to create a sustainable healthy lifestyle. (3) 

The needs for participation in collective political and economic decision making, as well as opportunities to learn are measured under the indicators of Good Governance and Education. The government of Bhutan is assessed by the people through measures such as job creation, fighting corruption, reducing wealth disparity, and providing education. These are all measures of the government's performance. The government is also measured on services they provide to the people such as health, electricity, quality of water and waste disposal. The government of Bhutan is incentivized to follow the GNH index to help create a happier and sustainable life for its people.

Opportunities to learn is a need that the GNH has helped address, creating abundance in multiple areas. Education is weighed as an equal indicator for happiness within the GNH Index. It is measured on levels of general knowledge, values, and access to schooling. Literacy in Bhutan, since the installation of GNH, has nearly doubled (source). Also nearly 99 percent of Bhutanese children are enrolled in schools. 

Time use is measured within the GNH index as a need for the contemplative and relaxing time used to think and enjoy life. The GNH measures time use on a basis of working hours vs. sleeping hours. Time use is important as people need to be able to freely spend time thinking and enjoying life to be considered or measured as happy. Eight hours are allotted for work and sleep. 

Organizational Forms

The GNH helps with sustaining the needs and resources of the people of Bhutan. The organizational forms of community solidarity and natural resource management are somewhat covered within the GNH index. The GNH index is institutionalized by the government, so businesses and communities are encouraged to follow the program for the benefit of everyone. Community vitality is measured within the GNH index that tries to quantify how much a person trusts their neighbors, or to what extent people feel that they belong within their community. 

Ecological diversity and resilience is measured within the GNH index as a way to reduce pollution within the lives of the Bhutanese people. The citizens rate their environmental "cleanliness" through different measures of air, water, and noise pollution in rural and urban environments. 


Certain resources are measured within the 9 domains' sub indicators that strive to create clean and sustainable supplies for the Bhutanese. Air quality is assessed within the GNH index through questions asking whether or not the air pollution is an issue in a specific area (Urban and Rural). Water quality is measured along similar questions. The government then assess which areas need help with resource management if measurements are below the 66% passing standard.

Land resources that are assessed revolve around the GNH index's domain of Ecological diversity and resilience. Most Bhutanese rely on subsistence farming in rural areas which calls for assessing appropriate amounts of land and food for farmers. Most land in Bhutan is forest at nearly 72 percent. The nature preservation laws are incredibly strict due to the Buddhist undertones of land aesthetics. Many forests are preserved and owned by the government, which has set a very high standard with regards to preservation that 60 percent of the forests will never be touched by commercial loggers. Having large forested areas can create issues in transportation and assessment of such resources in rural areas especially. Soil erosion, landslides, and floods are of main concern in land preservation.

Living things either plant, animal, domesticated or wild, are mostly used in rural areas that are assessed through levels of diversity and population. Domesticated animals are mainly used for labor within the farming communities in the highlands, but animal life is also assessed in the wild. Surveyors include questions in the GNH index that assess how much wildlife interferes with a rural worker's crop or livestock. Animals are seen as a large part of a healthy environment in Bhutan as a labor force, and maintenance of a large, healthy ecosystem. 

Some intangible resources such as values and knowledge are placed within certain sub-indicators revolving around values and spirituality. Values of the people are assessed in the domain of Cultural diversity and resilience through a code of ethics known as Driglam Namzha. This is also connected in the spiritual sense to a largely Buddhist community that strives to preserve tradition within culture in an ever modernizing world. 


GNH as an attempt to create greater abundance

Understanding current patterns of abundance and scarcity by means of the GNH's nine indicators is expected to affect government policy in areas such as environmental/cultural preservation, education, health care, and the participation of collective ideas. All of these factors play a large role in Bhutanese society in creating a sustainable GNH level but contain their shares of strengths and weaknesses. 

‚ÄčThe GNH index was instituted in the 1970s as an alternative way to measure economic development in a holistic manner. This new approach to economic development is rooted within the Buddhist culture that defines 'happiness' as something broader than the definition implied by neo-classical economics. This approach measures 'progress' on a scale of human well-being with the belief that this index of happiness is a better measure than a monetary value, such as GDP. In this type of culture money cannot define happiness, so this measure of economic progress could be beneficial to a largely traditional society that is attempting to modernize, but also to societies that have realized the limitations of purely monetary measures and that are looking for something else. While income is assessed within the Living Standards domain, self reported, or subjective, answers in the index are weighted lower than objective answers, generating more attention towards basic human needs. The purpose of GNH as a new measure of economic development is to create a readily accessible measure of the well-being of its people, as well as informing government policymakers as to what needs attention. 

Basic Approach

The GNH measures 9 domains, that are equally weighted, listed as Psychological Well-Being, Health, Education, Good Governance, Community Vitality, Ecological Diversity and Resilience, Cultural diversity and Resilience, Living Standards, and Time Use. These 9 indicators are then broken down into 33 sub indicators which are measured objectively, and subjectively through a national survey. Objective answers are weighted higher than subjective ones mainly on the basis that they are measured on scales. Subjective answers are seen as important, but not on the same level. The data collected are then analyzed to assess what are the priority issues to address.

In 2010 Bhutan released a national survey to measure the country's progress/happiness in terms of all 9 indicators in each province. The data collected remains slim, but 7,142 respondents completed the survey. This is a small portion of the entire country, but the survey proves helpful in many ways. Quantitative data is collected on fields ranging from household income, to whether or not one owns a color television. The data is helpful for the implementation of government policies and services. To review all 33 sub indicators, as well as how each is specifically measured, refer to the first link in the attached files section. The excel sheet lays out how each sub indicator is measured, with combinations of objective and subjective questions meant to be filled out by the entirety of the population. 

Measuring Happiness

GNH as a government policy is highly debated throughout the world. Quantifying a condition such as happiness can be incredibly difficult, but the use of GNH as an indicator for progress and development has proven to be helpful. Furthermore, not even trying to measure happiness in a meaningful way, which is the method of almost all governments in the world, simply assumes that economic growth contributes to the ultimate aim of increasing human happiness, without ever putting that assumption to the test. This is a thoroughly unscientific approach, and Bhutan is breaking ground in trying to answer a question ignored by almost all other governments.

The GNH index can be seen as helpful as a general measure for assessing the sustainability of a 'happy' nation. The 2010 survey conducted only reached a small percentage of the population, but the data compiled proved to show that only 41 percent of the people surveyed met the standard level of happiness (Christ). Since more than half of people were considered unhappy, the Bhutanese government assesses which areas do not meet certain standards and need to be improved. Within the GNH index it states that when one domain does not meet the standard, it can only be improved upon, which in turn provokes government agencies and corporations to increase happiness in any area they can. Increasing this happiness is seen as a push towards a higher level of GNH for the country as a whole. 

An example of a successful assessment of happiness within Bhutan lies within their health care system. Health access has been a top priority in the recent affairs of the Bhutanese government. The access to healthcare has been improved so much that outlying rural areas now have less than an hour's drive to a clinic. The general health of the nation improves through the assessment of the domains of health and mental health, with the government opening clinics in areas of need. This successful measure of rural areas having a tougher time accessing proper healthcare proved to be beneficial to the GNH of the country. Successfully measuring and assessing each domain in rural areas has been incredibly difficult due to the poor transportation routes, as well as little electricity (Glover). The policy as a whole is very new, and has changed rapidly with modernization. Though the GNH index shows that only a small portion of people are happy, it does show where improvement is needed. Bhutan measured itself as below the 66% standard, but the information collected has proven helpful in successfully improving the lives of the general population through self-reflection and assessment of creating a greater sense of happiness for the community as a whole (Tashi). 

Improvements and Success

The strengths and weaknesses of the GNH index revolve around the assessment and improvement of happiness in areas surrounding health, education, environmental preservation, and good governance. The developmental aspects in these areas of the GNH have been generally improved and accepted by the Bhutanese. 

Health is one of the nine domains of the GNH where improvements have been made overall. Success in creating abundance in health care access has improved in rural areas especially. The government has placed clinics in various rural areas due to data collected that showed the health indicator not being met. Issues in mental and physical health were common in rural areas due to transportation issues and lack of electricity. This issue is then compounded when rural clinics have inferior technology to adequately treat physical as well as mental health issues. Overall the GNH reform around health has been beneficial. Over 90% of the population now has some form of access to healthcare. Infant mortality rates are basically nonexistent (Glover). These improvements brings a greater happiness and security for the need of Health that can lead to improvements in mental health as well. 

Improvements have extended to the education system where the government has assessed how to improve GNH through educational programs and traditional learning environments. Green programs have created curricula revolving around eco-literacy, cultural history, and non traditional methods of assessment. Since the introduction of these programs, over 99% of children have been enrolled in some type of school (Miller). Creating an easily accessible schooling system improves upon GNH by creating a knowledgeable generation that is the future of Bhutan. Some areas of improvement have shown in general mental health of students. Bells were replaced with traditional Buddhist chimes, and daily meditation has been added to help students mature emotionally and spiritually along with learning the types of knowledge commonly studied in schools to improve their society and to increase GNH in both areas (Kelley).  

Educating the public has also proven beneficial within policies revolving around environmental preservation. Commercial logging laws are strict, leaving only 4 percent of forests being logged for timber. 73 percent of Bhutan is intact forest which is higher than the government standard of 60 percent.  Techniques such as logging along narrow strips have been implemented to preserve tree cover for wildlife and land aesthetics (Zurick). The GNH, as well as Bhutanese culture, revolve around environmental preservation creating clean sources of drinking water, clean air, and ecological diversity to promote sustainability and happiness. Rural people enjoy the scenic lands, but complain when it comes to constraints on agricultural land use. Many forests impede growth of pastures and crops that hinder economic development of farmers. Not much land is appropriated to agriculture even though many Bhutanese still farm for a living. Land scarcity conflicts with preservation policies, especially when rural farming communities grow to the borders of government protected lands. Rural farmers also have issues with non degradable waste disposal. Limited access to proper waste management facilities can hinder the creation of a clean environment (Elizabeth).

The government is bound to the measures of GNH to create abundance in happiness for its people. Government policies are assessed in the GNH by the people to help develop ideas how the government can improve. This type of active participation helps policy reform ensue where it is needed. The Bhutanese government can improve GNH in any of the nine domains. A secure government can lead to a happy society in which one's government adheres to the general needs of the people through a communal effort to resolve issues in creating happiness. Implementing health care access and education reform have contributed to happiness, but resistance to new and diverse cultural ideas can impede the government's improvements in certain aspects including job creation, wealth disparity, or even cultural relevance (Priesner). With an ever modernizing world, the cultural expansion of the west has crept into Bhutan. Making Government implementation even more important when it must analyze itself if the people show to be happier with certain western influences. 

These instances of creating abundance in happiness can be measured as successful in some areas. Like any national policy GNH strives to create a better life for its people. Government implementation plays the largest role in fixing many weaknesses involved with scarcity of needs within Bhutan. Rural scarcity lies at the heart of where improvements need to be made. Improving transportation to developing rural areas has improved dramatically since GNH was installed, but scarcity always arises. Rural data collection must be improved upon first and foremost for the government to successfully assess where improvements the nine domains are needed most. GNH has made this possible by measuring a quality of life that strives to create happy people. The government of Bhutan must be willing to adhere to what its citizens have to say to help create abundance in happiness as well as minimizing scarcity.


Links and Stories

Gross National Happiness (official site)

Kelly, Annie, and S. G. Subbuswamy. December 2, 2012. Gross National Happiness in Bhutan: The Big Idea from a Tiny State That Could Change the World. The Observer. Guardian News and Media.

Local Futures – International Society for Ecology and Culture. The Economics of Happiness (Film)



Allison, Elizabeth. (2008) "The Dark Side of Light:Managing Non-Biodegradable, Wastes in Bhutan's rural Areas". Mountain Research and Development, Vol. 28, pp. 205-209


CHRIST, C. (2012). Happy Talk in Bhutan. National Geographic Traveler, 29(6), 34


Center for Bhutan Studies


Glover, S., Dema, R., Yangzon, P., Sonam, K., & Gleghorn, C. (2006). A review of health and access to health information in Bhutan. Health Information & Libraries Journal, 23(4), 290-293. 


Miller, J. P. (2010). Educating for Gross National Happiness. Encounter, 23(1), 52-54

Priesner, Stefan. "Gross National Happiness: Bhutan's Vision of Development and its Challenges." (1999): 24-52.

Tashi, K. P., Prakke, D., & Chettri, S. (1999). Gross National Happiness: Concepts for the Debate.

Zurick, D. (2006). GROSS NATIONAL HAPPINESS AND ENVIRONMENTAL STATUS IN BHUTAN. Geographical Review,96(4), 657-681


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