Salient Features of Gross National Happiness

This paper was written for an International Conference on Buddhism in the Age of Consumerism, 1-3 December 2008, Bangkok, Thailand.

Bhutan and Thailand share Buddhism and a common history of never been colonized, in addition to enlightened monarchs or dharma kings. It is no surprise that ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH) in Bhutan and ‘Sufficiency Economy’ in Thailand originated from their respective kings, not philosophers or social scientists. Both these concepts are fast becoming alternative paradigms to mainstream development models.

“Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product” is a short statement with asymmetric significance not only for Bhutan but also for the world. It is important to understand the contexts in which the statement was made. Bhutan’s isolation from the world formally ended after the start of the five-year development plan in 1961. There were many cases of the failures of development to bring real improvement of living conditions in Asian and African countries that had just come out of the colonial yokes, and had embraced development while the destruction to the local environment, society, culture, and religions became all apparent.

The fourth king has been the source of philosophy, concepts and policies of development for nearly three decades (Thinley 1999). He has led the country, sometimes through turbulent times, to the 21st century. GNH is the greatest gift any monarch could ever give to his subjects. There will be many similar philosophies or concepts like GNH in the world. The difference between other concepts and GNH is that the former is confined to individuals and institutions at best whereas GNH is the state policy in Bhutan.

The Wangchuck dynasty was elected by the representatives of the people of Bhutan in 1907 when monarchies elsewhere were being dethroned. Where 253 years old ecclesiocracy failed, the monarchy succeeded in bringing much needed peace, political stability and prosperity to the people. In Bhutan monarchs have been the biggest agents of change. Their wide-ranging economic, social, political and legal reforms have brought real change to the people’s lives. For example, the drafting of the Constitution and introduction of a parliamentary democracy in Bhutan are the direct results neither of anti-colonial struggle nor of mass movement against absolute monarch (Kinga 2008). It is a gift from an enlightened monarch to his people. When similar countries in the Himalayas and elsewhere had lost their sovereignty or nation/-state-hood to big powers or neighbours, our successive monarchs have been able to strengthen the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Bhutan. Most important of all, the king is the patron of Buddhism. Thus, monarchy enjoys nation-wide legitimacy and popularity. The people’s loyalty to the king is matched by the king’s benevolence and commitment to increase the wellbeing of his subjects.

What is GNH?

The meaning of GNH can be inferred from the fourth king’s speeches, decrees, proclamations, policies and development programmes and projects, which all had the happiness of the people as the ultimate ends. The Bhutanese always have had happiness; articulation of GNH concept was neither accidental, nor was happiness as the goal of the state. ‘A Buddhist equivalent of a ‘Social Contract’ declared in Bhutan in 1675 said that happiness of sentient beings and teachings of the Buddha were mutually dependent (Ardussi 2004: 11).

The fourth king did not develop an elaborate theory of GNH, so the individual general understanding of GNH differs according to their backgrounds and orientations. That there is no one definition is not its weakness but strength. GNH is about inclusion. A meaning is lost the moment a definition is attached to anything. Something is always excluded. GNH’s potential for diverse conceptualizations, interpretations, and appropriations would have been lost, if it were not for equally competing theories that are being developed around the concept, similar to hundreds of commentaries written by the Buddha’s disciples on his teachings. A singular unifying theme of course should be maximizing happiness.

GNH is a holistic development philosophy. It balances physical and spiritual wellbeing of the people. It values both objective and subjective measures of development. GNH, as a critique of conventional measures of progress, offers an alternative development paradigm with happiness as the ultimate goal. It is about the responsibility of the state and the government to create the right environment for citizens to pursue what they value as well as about citizens’ responsibility towards maximizing collective (gross) happiness, not individual happiness at the cost of others. It is a value for integration by individuals as a national conscience and embodied in individual actions. Above all, GNH is about engaging change and globalization, not rejecting or avoiding them.

Salient Features

Let me present some salient features of GNH which are all related to one another.

Ends, not Means

The conventional development often mistakes ends for means and means for ends. In GNH, means and ends are clearly separate. Everything else is a means towards achieving one ultimate end, which is happiness.

Holistic, not Fragmented

GNH is a holistic concept that considers all dimensions of development as equally important. It is about meeting holistic needs of human beings such as psychological, emotional, spiritual, physical, social, and environmental. GNH is about breaking narrow walls built around sectors in government or economy that result in fragmentation of life. GNH ensures that development in one sector does not end up as costs in another sector by aligning sector rules or by having one macro-goal to all sectors.

Objective as Well as Objective Dimensions

The current measures of development (GDP) account only quantifiable dimensions and largely neglect those unquantifiable components that cannot be exchanged for money. GNH values and accounts for objective, quantifiable and subjective, non-quantifiable dimensions of development.

Spiritualism as Well as Materialism

GNH is about balancing the spiritual and material aspects of development of both within and outside institutions and individuals. In Bhutan, this balance is epitomized by the dual system of governance (chosid), the foundation of the first Bhutanese state founded in the 17th century, whose legacies are the present social, cultural, political and religious structures and institutions. It tries to harmonize inner skills of happiness with outer circumstances.

Economic as Well as all Forms of Capitals

GNH stands for preservation and renewal of a holistic range of wealth or capital (Ura 2008). The general meaning of the word ‘wealth’ conveys the meanings of only material and tangible things. All forms of capitals (economic, natural, social, human, cultural, and spiritual) are valued and measured in GNH. The increase of this whole range of capitals actually measures the genuine progress of societies. So GNH preserves, develops and accounts these resources in pursuit of collective happiness in a holistic way.

Collective, Not Only Individual

GNH is about collective happiness, not individual happiness in that GNH looks into society’s welfare to benefit individuals indirectly. The role of the state is to provide all necessary conditions for pursuing individual happiness. Happiness is not a product to be delivered to individuals like any other social services at every doorstep. Collective happiness can be addressed directly through public policies in which happiness is an explicit goal. Society cannot obtain happiness if individuals compete for it at all costs irresponsibly in a zero-sum game (Thinley 1999). In competition, one man’s profit is another man’s loss. Happiness can be realized as a societal goal, not by individuals competing for it like any other competitive good (Ura 2011). Happiness is far too important also to be left to individual effort and search, without collective or government endeavor. GNH is about amassing collective merit (sonam) that will go wrong the moment people think individually.

Inter-dependence, Not Isolation

Just as globalization is founded on the premise of global interconnection, GNH is premised on a Buddhist principle of interdependence, according to which all phenomena do not exist independently but only interdependently on other phenomena or only by depending on their parts. All members of the ecological community are bound together and interconnected in a vast, intricate network of interdependencies and humans are merely one particular strand in this web (Capra 1996). The Bhutanese understanding of ecology includes the invisible world of spirits as a part of an interdependent whole. Most important of all, the interdependence in GNH includes the relations among people for creating sustainable communities.

Equity, Not Equality

The existence of inequity in Bhutan is clear from a common Bhutanese folk song, one may be equal in human births but not in merits. GNH is more than an egalitarian or democratic value in that it sees different individuals or societies differently depending on their circumstances and contexts. The value of equality will be fair if only all people are endowed with equal birth, capabilities and opportunities, and there are no social and economic injustices. But we know that the world and life is not fair. GNH state is a social welfare state. It is the responsibility of the state or the government to identify vulnerable members of society or areas of the country and initiate special policy interventions. In GNH it is important to give differential treatments for correcting inequities and disparities.

Long Term, Not Short-term Vision

To implement GNH is to suffer short-term pain for a long-term gain. Bhutan for example has been denying itself the benefits of earning revenue through export of timber and mass tourism. The benefits of GNH policies and projects will not be seen after one or two electoral cycles, but only after 30 or 50 years depending on the nature of policies and projects. This makes GNH highly incompatible with party politics when the politician’s vision could be no longer than one electoral cycle.

Maximization, Not Realization

GNH is the ideal for approximation, not for realization. Just as there is no end to pursuing GDP, there will be no end to pursuing happiness. GNH is a target towards which all state or society targets its development plans, programmes and projects.

Measurement and Indicators

Beginning 1998, GNH has been officially propagated through what is popularly known as four pillars. These are the government’s four policy priority areas for the development through five years plans: equitable and sustainable socio-economic development; environmental conservation; preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance. Centre for Bhutan Studies has enriched and expanded these four pillars into nine domains in its effort to measure GNH systematically through national surveys, and develop GNH index and tools for selecting public policies and projects based on key indicators of GNH. The nine domains are living standard, ecological diversity and resilience, culture diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, time use, health, education, and psychological well being.

The good governance exercise of 2005 asked the Centre for Bhutan Studies to develop GNH Index, which will be Bhutan Development Index, or a benchmark for pursuing holistic developmental goals and to serve as indicators for guiding development priorities in terms of resource allocations in the 10th and subsequent plans. The national survey of 2007-2008 was preceded by a pilot survey in 2007. The questionnaires deal with nine domains of GNH. The direct outcomes of the survey are GNH index, GNH indicators and GNH policy and project selection tools.

Selection Tools

Good indicators are useless if they are not used for informing public policies. The Centre has developed tools for selecting pro-GNH policies and projects for integrating GNH indicators into planning, policies and projects. These tools provide a systematic appraisal of the potential effects of proposed policies and projects on GNH of the population based on key determinants of GNH identified by the national survey. The tools will require the government ministries and sectors to consider all relevant GNH dimensions while formulating the public policies and projects so that the negative impacts are minimized, and, consequently, support a holistic approach to policy development and project implementation. It will also force sectors to acknowledge potential negative impacts of their policies and projects and penalize them accordingly.

Once implemented by different ministries and sectors, the policy and project selection tools will not only break the narrow sector walls, but force sectors to acknowledge unintended negative consequences of their policies and projects on GNH. The tools have been designed to select those policies and projects which will enhance GNH, and filter those that don’t. These tools will assess the impact of development policies and projects on GNH. Until now, most development plans have been sector-centric and fail to look beyond their sectoral goals and targets either willfully or unknowingly so long as the sectoral goals have been achieved. These tools will force sectors to consider relevant dimensions of GNH right from formulation of the policy and project and help support holistic development approaches.

Any public policy must pass GNH policy indicators such as equity, security, material, pollution, biodiversity, nature, learning, productivity, family, spiritualism, recreation, social support, health, stress, information, participation, corruption, justice, and rights. Project selection tools have been developed to test any project that will be implemented by different sectors.


To operationalize GNH, the fifth king established a new “institutional mandala of GNH” (Ura 2008) by reconstituting the Planning Commission as GNH Commission in January 2008. This new institutional structure is the apex strategic body that will define the structures and processes of decision-making unique to a GNH state. It combines the functions of Planning Commission and Committees of Secretaries, and streamlines GNH into plans and policies. This will also result in greater efficiency and better coordination as the government functions as one body treading the same path towards a common goal. The commission is being chaired by the prime minister with all government secretaries as members.

At the ministry level, GNH Committee comprises the secretary as chairman with the directors as members. GNH committees will also be formed at district and county (gewog) level.

These institutions and processes will forge stronger and clearer links between concepts of GNH and their application to policy and programme formulation, and help shape the nature of political economy, legal foundation, health and education systems.


GNH has been nurtured under the direct patronage of the fourth king until 2008. One common question that comes to every body’s mind, including the Bhutanese, is how the new government elected through a popular vote receives GNH. Will GNH and democracy tread the same path? If the manifestoes of both political parties and party campaigns are predictors of the support to GNH, then GNH will continue to be the guiding philosophy of Bhutan. Candidates of Member of Parliament from 47 constituencies have popularized GNH among the common people orally, often presenting it in terms of bringing physical development. Bhutan’s historic experiment with party politics has been truly historic in terms of two political parties sharing one ideology. In Druk Phuensum Tshogpa manifesto ‘GNH’ is mentioned eight times while ‘happiness’ appears nine times, compared to four for ‘GNH’ and six for ‘happiness’ in People’s Democratic Party manifesto. Manifestoes of both parties have been based on Gross National Happiness and have adopted Gross National Happiness as their vision. People’s Democratic Party has brought GNH into a level of mission (“Transform the ideals of Gross National Happiness into everyday reality for every Bhutanese”) (People’s Democratic Party 2008), while Druk Phuensum Tshogpa has elevated it to a vision (“A sovereign and prosperous nation of enlightened citizens committed to the pursuit of Gross National Happiness through growth with equity and justice, encompassing economic self-reliance, social harmony, environmental integrity and political justice.” (Druk Phuensum Tshogpa 2007). The disqualified third party, Bhutan People United Party (BPUP) had achieved the philosophy of Gross National Happiness for the benefit and welfare of the Bhutanese people as its vision.

Before 2007, rural Bhutan would not have heard much about GNH philosophy although it would have been a part of their value. Most people must have heard of GNH for the first time during the election campaign. The role of GNH on the election outcome is yet to be studied. If GNH was one of the reasons for Druk Phuensum Tshogpa’s victory, it is because Druk Phuensum Tshogpa more than its rival PDP ran on GNH platform with its slogan, “In Pursuit of Gross National Happiness” while People’s Democratic Party has “Well Being for Everyone” as its party slogan. Moreover, Druk Phuensum Tshogpa manifesto is based around four pillars of GNH. Bhutan’s parliamentary democracy can be a different experience because of GNH.

The fifth king has repeatedly proclaimed that realizing his father’s vision of Gross National Happiness will be his one important goal of his reign. In his coronation address to the nation, the fifth king said, “we must always remember that … ultimately without peace, security and happiness we have nothing. That is the essence of the philosophy of Gross National Happiness. Our most important goal is the peace and happiness of our people and the security and sovereignty of the nation.”


Ardussi, John. 2004. “Formation of the State of Bhutan (’brug gzhung) in the 17th Century and its Tibetan Antecedents.” Journal of Bhutan Studies 11: 10-32.

Capra, Frijof. 1996. The Web of Life – A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter. London: Flamingo.

Druk Phuensum Tshogpa. 2007. Manifesto of Druk Phuensum Tshogpa: In Pursuit of Gross National Happiness. Thimphu: DPT, 2007.

Kinga, Sonam. 2008. “Bhutan: Transition to Democracy.” South Asia Journal – Quarterly Magazine of South Asia Journalists & Scholars, ed. Imtiaz Alam. April-June.

People’s Democratic Party. 2008. The People’s Democratic Party Manifesto 2008: Well Being for Everyone. Thimphu: PDP.

Thinley, Jigmi Y. 1999. “Values and Development: ‘Gross National Happiness.’” In Gross National Happiness: A Set of Discussion Papers, eds. Sonam Kinga, Karma Galay, Phuntsho Rapten and Adam Pain. Thimphu: Centre for Bhutan Studies (12-23).

Ura, Karma 2008, “Understanding the Development Philosophy of Gross National Happiness.” Interview by Bhutan Broadcasting Service.

Ura, Karma. 2011. “Explanation of GNH Index.” Assessed 20 April 2011.

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