Bhutan Happy: Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an indicator of progress

Have you heard about the country of Bhutan, and their focus on Gross National Happiness or G.N.H. over G.D.P. (Gross Domestic Products)?

Photo of Paro Dzong above — the centre of civil and religious authority in the Paro valley in western Bhutan. Photo by Jean-Marie Hullot via Wikepedia Commons

Bhutan — officially the Kingdom of Bhutan –is a land-locked country at the eastern end of the Himalayas, with a population of 738,267 (World Bank Data 2011).  It is bordered to the south, east and west by the country of India, and to the north by the country of China.

Map Source – U.S. Department of State

Bhutan is a small nation with big ideals.  For a population comparison, there are more residents in the U.S. city of San Francisco, California — population 812, 816 — than the entire country of Bhutan.

Late sunset view  — city of San Francisco, California.  Photo

Despite Bhutan’s small size, are they doing something right, and do they have ideas and ideals that we should all consider?

One has to be curious about a country, whose leaders consider the happiness of its people, as the guiding principle when making policies and decisions for its people.

Here is an example, from an Earth Island Journal article by John de Graaf and Laura Musikanski:

The Bhutanese conviction that happiness should take priority over economic growth has led to some perhaps radical decisions. When Bhutan’s government was deciding whether to join the World Trade Organization, it considered how such a step would impact the country’s happiness. Government officials determined that membership (which is coveted by many countries) would result in a net loss of well-being. The country decided not to join the WTO – at least for now.

And the idea is catching on!  More from the article, in the section, Happiness Is Catching

Since Bhutan’s pioneering effort to better measure well-being, the idea has spread around the world. In the United States, efforts to measure sustainability more holistically began in 1991, when Sustainable Seattle developed the world’s first regional indicators of well-being. Today, more than 350 community organizations in the United States alone have developed some kind of well-being or sustainability indicators. Local governments in Brazil, Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom are also beginning to measure happiness.

In July, the idea that GDP is an insufficient gauge of progress reached the highest level of global governance when the United Nations General Assembly invited member countries to “pursue … additional measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness.”

Earlier this year, I posted this chart from the Economist, for my article Who’s Happy Now.  Post excerpt:

Here is a surprising chart on happiness and GDP, from the Economist.

Well, actually, it may not be that surprising.  Happiness — and most of us know this instinctively anyway — is not related to wealth.  Poor and middle-income countries were the happiest!

The top 3 on the chart are among the most populated countries in the world (Indonesia ranks #4, India #2 and Brazil is #5 in world population).  Indonesia and India also rank among the poorest countries in the world, based on per capita income.

Chart Source: The Economist. DESPITE the economic gloom, the world is happier than it was before the financial crisis set in (according to a recent poll from Ipsos which surveyed 19,000 adults in 24 countries). 77% of respondents describe themselves as “happy”, three percentage points higher than in 2007. Those countries who report themselves as being the happiest tend to be in poor and middle-income countries, while the gloomiest are in rich countries (the figures for Italy and Spain were 13% and 11%).

For more on this topic, please read The Pursuit of Happiness:  A New Measure of Societal Progress Can Help Save the Planet – and Us, an article by John deGraaf and Laura Musikanski, from Earth Island Journal (News of the World Environment).  Excerpt:

Growing Backwards

In the past 30 years, our Gross Domestic Product has doubled. During that same time, some other important figures have also increased: the number of threatened species, the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, the rates of diabetes and heart disease.

Meanwhile, almost all the income gained from the GDP growth went to the richest one percent of Americans, creating the widest income gap in the industrial world.

Many of us instinctively feel that disconnect between a growing economy and decreasing quality of life. Some statistics tell us we’re not alone in that feeling. According to polls taken by the National Opinion Research Center, about one-third of Americans described themselves as “very happy” in the 1950s; the percentage remains the same today. More troubling is that clinical depression is three to ten times more common today than two generations ago…

…Yes, we have more stuff than we did 30 years ago, but we are working longer hours than we did then and carry frightening levels of personal debt…

…In his Italian bestseller, Manifesto for Happiness, University of Siena economist Stefano Bartolini compares happiness data around the world and concludes that America is “the example not to follow.”

Bartolini says Americans are caught in a vicious cycle. Our consumption habits demand more debt and longer work hours, reducing our social connections, a central foundation of happiness.

To compensate for the feelings of loneliness, we then buy more stuff, seeking friendship through products. This consumption treadmill is reflected in faster economic growth than in Europe, but it exacerbates Americans’ social disconnection and the deterioration of our environmental commons.

Bartolini argues that the US’s rapid economic growth is more a matter of the inefficiency of the American economy in meeting our actual needs than it is an indicator of dynamism. In short, GDP obscures more than it reveals. The numbers give us a sense that we are wealthy; in fact, we are impoverished when it comes to the things we value most.  Read the complete article, here…

Related links:

The Centre for Bhutan Studies – Gross National Happiness

The Local Nomad: It’s a Costco Life (or how possessions can crush you)

Lola Jane’s: On the “burden of civilization’s excess”…

6 thoughts on “Bhutan Happy: Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an indicator of progress

    • Thank you, Jean. A vacation to Bhutan sounds interesting.

      You have to admire their decisions and not to jump in to the WTO — and to grow and “develop” in their own way, all with happiness in mind.

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