The GNH path towards salvation



Sustainable development is not a choice but a necessity for survival. We have over these last few decades debilitated mother earth’s capacity to support life. Stormed by technology and economic greed, driven by gross domestic product, we are now at a crossroad where sustainable development is the need of the hour. Unless we unanimously agree on the same vision to guide us, our society is doomed to fail.

During my summer internship at the GNH commission in Thimphu, Bhutan I discovered that the kingdom of Bhutan was one of the first countries to voice their views on Gross National Happiness as opposed to gross domestic product. They believed GNH to be a more holistic indicator of economic growth and development as compared to GDP.

The term “gross national happiness” was first stated by Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1980s as a casual reply to a journalist’s question. His Majesty King Wangchuck had opened Bhutan to the age of modernization soon after the demise of his father, Jigme Dorji Wangchuk. He used this phrase to emphasize his commitment to build an economy that would be based on Bhutan’s unique Buddhist culture and values.

For The GNH index to become a reality, happiness would have had to be made quantifiable. Therefore the Center for Bhutan Studies, an autonomous government body, spent years to develop various indicators that would become components of the gross national happiness index making it quantitative like the GDP index. The gross domestic product was never intended to be a measure of overall social wellbeing; instead it was intended to be a measure of economic growth. Western economic theory holds that economic growth will enhance social wellbeing. However, the assumption that increase in wealth will lead to increase in happiness is wrong since happiness is an amalgamation of various factors, and these factors are included in the GNH index.

The Bhutanese base their ideology on Buddhist philosophy that the beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. The four pillars of GNH are a manifestation of this philosophy; these pillars stand for the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance respectively

In collaboration with an international group of scholars and researchers the Centre for Bhutan Studies further defined these four pillars with greater specificity into nine different domains (further divided into 72 indicators): health, education, living standards, time use, environmental quality, culture, community vitality, governance, and psychological wellbeing. These domains help to set specific goals for the government. For example, when the GNH commission conducted a survey they found out that a majority of people ticked ‘no’ in a question related to meditation under the domain psychological wellbeing. The result was that the government introduced compulsory meditation in schools, thereby balancing psychological wellbeing with other domains.

Another milestone of GNH is its policy-screening tool. All public policies in Bhutan, irrespective of their origin (except a royal order or declaration of emergency) shall have to go through the GNH screening tool in order to examine the impact of the policy on Bhutan. The policy is passed through 23 indicators and marked on a 4-point scale in each indicator where a score of 1 denotes a negative score, 2 an uncertain score, 3 a neutral score and 4 a positive score. The total score is therefore 92 (23×4) and the neutral passing score is 69 (23×3) and if a policy does not achieve the neutral score it fails and is not introduced. The ministry that develops the policy as well as the GNH commission (for an unbiased opinion) does the marking.

Measurement of social wellbeing and happiness is complex, and although I do not believe that happiness can be measured, the GNH index is a far more universal index than the GDP. In the future sustainable development will be more important than just simple economic growth and the GNH index can help us achieve and assess this form of development. Bhutan a kingdom of just 800,000 people was recently ranked 8th in the world by a ‘satisfaction with life’ survey despite having a relatively low life expectancy, small GDP and a per capita income of just $670. Today, Bhutan has become a guiding example for western countries that are looking transform their economies towards a path of holistic development. I feel that as responsible citizens of the world we have lot to learn from Bhutan.

Article written in 2013 while Author was a High School student.


Author: Vedant Batra

Finance | Economics

McCombs School of Business | College of Liberal Arts | The University of Texas at Austin