Gross National Happiness, The New Way to Govern


Money doesn't buy happiness is a phrase most people have heard at some point or another, but ask a person off the street what would make them happiest and the answer would probably be 'more cash', 'more money', or maybe 'winning the lottery'. 

TIME Magazine's article 'Here’s How Winning the Lottery Makes You Miserable' suggests the opposite to be true, and yet people still go to great lengths get rich in hopes they'll be better off because of it.  Globalized nations do much of the same.

Since the mid-1930's, most nations have used a statistical figure called the GNP, Gross National Product, to evaluate a country's economic prosperity. This figure denotes the value of all the goods a country has produced, and it's how the government can monitor economic progress - or lack thereof.

Using the GNP to evaluate progress means that the success or failure of a particular country would depend upon it's economic prosperity. The country as a whole (government, citizens, and corporations included) must work together to foster that prosperity and further the wealth of the nation. The idea is that with a greater distribution of riches, big spenders can saturate the domestic markets with new purchases. The economy booms, and everyone rejoices.


In a perfect world, a stronger economy would make everyone happier, but this is not a perfect world.

An emphasis on economic success oftentimes results in unequal distributions of wealth. Bigger corporate entities and large government institutions are typically the ones who benefit most, and the poor stay poor, a reality which has been well-explored by Reuters

What if, instead of measuring GNP, a country determines their prosperity by measuring the collective happiness of their citizens?

This is what Bhutan has decided to do.  After the 2008 transition from monarchy to democracy, the new Bhutanese government decided they'd make their people, not their production, the priority. Gross National Product and Gross Domestic Product still exist as a way to evaluate economic growth, but rather than using the production of goods to measure their country's success, Bhutan looks at a different set of figures: GNH. Gross National Happiness.

What Is the Gross National Happiness Index?


"Since the foundation of Bhutan, spirituality and compassion have been integrated with governance. Furthermore, this integration has occurred at both the personal and the institutional level. This report opens by tracing the history of this imaginative integration, which was crystallized by His Majesty the Fourth King into the idea of GNH."

In the same way GNP describes the collective value of goods produced, Gross National Happiness describes the collective happiness of the population by using an index.

  1.  The government begins with survey. Citizens answer a series of questions relating to specific aspects of their lives, things like "Education", "Leisure", and "Income".
  2. After collecting the surveys and performing a series of analyses, Bhutanese statisticians create an index to compare the categories. Lower scores on a certain category means lower satisfaction in that area.  
  3. Low scores in a given category isolate an area which might be negatively impacting the national happiness levels. For example, if  "Access to Clean Drinking Water" scores lowest of all categories, the government can improve access to clean drinking water, and therefore raise the overall happiness of the nation. 

GNH is not a solution in and of itself.

It does not fix problems. It does, however, give the Bhutanese an idea of where their country's strengths and weaknesses lie. They can bolster the goods, fix the bads, and then the process repeats.

In a Gross National Product model of governance, people might end up richer in material wealth. 

However, by using GNH to understand the state of the nation, a government can create a system wherein people end up wealthier in health and happiness itself. 

Does the Gross National Happiness Index Work?


This Gross National Happiness index can only work if the government actually decides to act on the information they collect.

Simply discovering how access to clean water is a national problem doesn't really fix the problem itself. They need public policies, then implementation of these policies, before anything changes.

This was a major concern at the start of the project. Critics doubted that Bhutan would actually be able to create legislation in response to their GNH results.


However, the outcome has been much more positive than expected. Bhutan was once one of the poorest nations on the planet, especially when the GNH index was created, with 70% of the population living without electricity and nearly 200,000 surviving on less than $1.25 per day. 
By 2010, Bhutan had managed to reduce the percentage of individuals in poverty to 4%. This is in stark contrast to the rest of South Asia, which fell only to 30%.

It's unclear whether the improvements in national happiness are solely due to the Bhutanese government acting on the GNH index.
If the index didn't at least have an effect, it didn't hurt anything. 

There's a long way yet to go. Bhutan is still facing significant social and environmental difficulties, some of which are out of the government's direct control, but with the GNH index, they can begin to make incremental changes which push happiness in the right direction.

Why is GNH Such an Important Concept?


GNH is not a method of governance conjured up in a void. Bhutan is a Buddhist nation, and as such, their policies are intended improve the lives of the people and well being of their country as a whole.  

By creating a happiness index, Bhutan highlights the deficits in most modern social systems.

Big contemporary democracies push for economic prosperity and global influence. The United States itself, a last of the world superpowers, operates off a system of Corporate-Democratic Capitalism. Though a booming economy might provide the finances needed for bigger projects, wealthier people, and population growth, it does not necessarily contribute to the happiness of individual members in the society. 

GNH is so important, now more than ever, because it proves that there's another way for a nation to prosper: not with material wealth, but by changing the lives of its citizens for the better.

At the end of the day, it doesn't matter how rich or how prosperous a nation is if the people are miserable, or worse, dead. Bhutan is showing the world that there's another, maybe even a better, way to govern.