Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index

The phrase ‘gross national happiness’ was first coined by the 4th King of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in 1972 when he declared, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” The concept implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notions of progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing.

Since then the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has influenced Bhutan’s economic and social policy, and also captured the imagination of others far beyond its borders. In creating the Gross National Happiness Index, Bhutan sought to create a measurement tool that would be useful for policymaking and create policy incentives for the government, NGOs and businesses of Bhutan to increase GNH.

The GNH Index includes both traditional areas of socio-economic concern such as living standards, health and education and less traditional aspects of culture and psychological wellbeing. It is a holistic reflection of the general wellbeing of the Bhutanese population rather than a subjective psychological ranking of ‘happiness’ alone.

Construction of the GNH Index

The GNH Index includes nine domains

  1. Psychological wellbeing
  2. Health
  3. Education
  4. Time use
  5. Cultural diversity and resilience
  6. Good governance
  7. Community vitality
  8. Ecological diversity and resilience
  9. Living standards

The GNH Index is decomposable by any demographic characteristic, meaning it can be broken down by population group, for example, to show the composition of GNH among men and among women, or by district, and by dimension, for example to show which group is lacking in education. The indicators and domains aim to emphasize different aspects of wellbeing, and different ways of meeting underlying human needs.

The Government of Bhutan’s Centre for Bhutan Studies revised and released an updated GNH index in 2011. There are 33 indicators in the 9 domains above and the Index seeks to measure the nation’s wellbeing directly by starting with each person’s achievements in each indicator. The GNH index is based on the Alkire Foster methodology of multidimensional measurement, which has been adapted for this purpose. It identifies four groups of people – unhappy, narrowly happy, extensively happy, and deeply happy. The analysis explores the happiness people enjoy already, then focuses on how policies can increase happiness and sufficiency among the unhappy and narrowly happy people.

Bhutan and the UN Resolution on Happiness and Development

In 2011, the UN unanimously adopted a General Assembly resolution, introduced by Bhutan with support from 68 member states, calling for a “holistic approach to development” aimed at promoting sustainable happiness and wellbeing. This was followed in April 2012 by a UN High-Level Meeting on “Happiness and Wellbeing: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” designed to bring world leaders, experts and civil society and spiritual leaders together to develop a new economic paradigm based on sustainability and wellbeing. This builds on the Government of Bhutan’s pioneering work to develop the GNH Index.

Composition of the GNH Index

The Gross National Happiness Index is a single number index developed from the 33 indicators categorized under nine domains. The Centre for Bhutan Studies constructed the GNH Index using robust multidimensional methodology known as Alkire Foster method.

The concept of GNH has often been explained by its four pillars; good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. The four pillars have been further classified into nine domains in order to create widespread understanding of GNH and to reflect the holistic range of GNH values.

The nine domains are equally weighted because each domain is considered to be equal in terms of its intrinsic importance as a component of GNH.

The 33 indicators are statistically reliable, are normatively important, and are easily understood by large audiences. Within each domain, two to four indicators were selected that seemed likely to remain informative across time, had high response rates, and were relatively uncorrelated. Within each domain, the objective indicators are given higher weights while the subjective and self-reported indicators are assigned far lighter weights.

The 2011 GNH index identifies four groups of people. For policy purposes it identifies ‘happiness’ as comprising sufficient achievements in 66% of the weighted indicators, whichever domains they come from. This corresponds to the groups who are identified as ‘extensively’ and ‘deeply’ happy.

Full details of the indicators and survey questions can be found on the Gross National Happiness website.

What kind of results does the GNH Index give?

People who have achieved sufficiency in less than 50% are ‘unhappy’, and they comprise 10.4% of the population. A total of 48.7% of people have sufficiency in 50-65% of domains and are called ‘narrowly happy’. A group of 32.6%, called ‘extensively happy’, have achieved sufficiency in 66-76% – in between 6 and 7 domains. And in the last group, 8.3% of people are identified as ‘deeply happy’ because they enjoy sufficiency in 77% or more of weighted indicators – which is the equivalent of 7 or more of the nine domains.

Employing a variant of the Alkire Foster method, the GNH generates three types of results; headcount, intensity and the overall GNH index. Headcount refers to the percentage of Bhutanese people who are happy, while intensity is the average number of domains in which not-yet-happy people are happy.

The Index, the headcount, and intensity are all ‘decomposable’, meaning they can be broken down by population group, for example, to show the composition of GNH among men and among women, or by district, and by dimension, for example to show which group is lacking in education.

In order to have one overall index, the GNH cut off was set at 66% of the variables, which is the middle cutoff used above. People are considered happy when they have sufficiency in 66% of the (weighted) indicators or more – that is, when they were identified as extensively happy or deeply happy.  The GNH Index value for 2010 is 0.737. It shows us that 40.8% of people in Bhutan have achieved such happiness, and the remaining 59% – who are narrowly happy or unhappy – still enjoy sufficiency in 57% (not 66% as required by the index) of the domains on average.

Impact on policy

The GNH index supports policy-making within Bhutan. Policy selection tools are used to review the potential effects of proposed policies on GNH and the results of the GNH index will be tracked over time to evaluate interventions. This ‘GNH Policy Lens’ requires that the policy consequences on all relevant dimensions be considered prior to implementation. In addition, project screening tools are to be implemented in nearly twenty project areas, including agriculture, forestry, trade and manufacturing, media and information, youths, as well as projects that focus on each of the nine dimensions. The stated goal is that all government projects and policies work together to maximize GNH.

Relationship with other happiness measures

The GNH measure has been designed to fulfil various criteria which are needed for an official national measure of happiness that is also relevant to national and district policy. It aims to reflect the happiness and general wellbeing of the Bhutanese population more accurately and profoundly than a monetary measure.

A measure of Gross National Happiness might be presumed to comprise a single psychological question on happiness such as “Taking all things together, would you say you are: Very happy, Rather happy, Not very happy, or Not at all happy.” However, this is not the case here. The objectives of Bhutan, and the Buddhist understandings of happiness, are much broader than those that are referred to as ‘happiness’ in the Western literature. Under the title of happiness in GNH comes a range of domains of human wellbeing including traditional areas of social concern such as living standards, health, and education, while some are less traditional, such as time use, psychological well-being, culture, community vitality, and environmental diversity.

More information on Bhutan’s GNH Index