What India can Learn from Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH)

GNH more important than GDPBhutan was the first country Indian Prime Minister Modi visited after assuming office in 2014. There must be something special about Bhutan besides being India’s neighbor. Yes, there is very special reason why informed people go to Bhutan: its development paradigm of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Bhutan pursues holistic happiness, not GDP growth. It is the only country in the world that does not measure its progress in terms of economic expansion measured as GDP growth. Its development model is easily the most sustainable and is the envy of the world. No wonder the UN and global community looks towards it as a role model of sustainable development.

Bhutan’s holistic view of development has the potential to transform humanity’s relationship with nature, restructure economies, change attitudes to food and wealth, and promote caring, altruism, inclusiveness and cooperation.

Global Interest in Bhutan’s GNH

The old model is broken. We need to create a new one… In this time of global challenge, even crisis, business as usual will not do… It is time to recognize that human capital and natural capital are every bit as important as financial capital. It is time to invest in people… Clearly we must unite around a shared vision for the future – a vision for equitable human development, a healthy planet, an enduring economic dynamism. – Ban Ki-moon, UN Secretary General

Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigme Thinley of Bhutan describes today’s economic growth as empty – it is not adding value to human lives. It is a growth just for the sake of growth fueled by greed – insatiable human greed – to accumulate wealth. It is clear that there is no sustainability in chasing ever increasing consumption in the name of progress. Today’s global economic activities are only fueling the global warming and climate change processes which are posing a serious threat to the existence of humanity.

holistic Development 1

The Idea of Gross National Happiness is Spreading Across the World

In 2004, Bhutan held an international seminar on operationalizing Gross National Happiness. It created considerable interest in the global community and motivated them to setup a Gross International Happiness Network. Clearly the influence of Gross National Happiness is no more confined within Bhutan Borders. The concept of Gross National Happiness is now being taken up the United Nations and by various other countries.

The United Nations has been showing special interest in its development model. Here is the chronology of United Nations interest in the holistic development leading to enhanced human happiness.

In December 2009, Bhutan’s commitment to remain Carbon neutral was emphasized at the UNFCCC 15th Session of Conference of Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen in December 2009, through the “Declaration of the Kingdom of Bhutan – The Land of Gross National Happiness to Save our Planet.” Bhutan’s 2010 economic policy also reaffirmed its “green growth” stand.

In July 2011, the UN general Assembly adopted the resolution (65/309) titled “Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development” initiated by Bhutan. This resolution states that:

“Happiness is a fundamental human goal and universal aspiration; that GDP by its nature does not reflect that goal; that unsustainable patterns of production and consumption impede sustainable development; and that a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach is needed to promote sustainability, eradicate poverty, and enhance wellbeing and happiness.”

Adopted by 193 members, it marked the first historical step towards globalizing the concept of gross national happiness (GNH) followed by Bhutan and gave some hope to nations and societies striving for sustainable development.

Following up on the above resolution, in April 2012 Bhutan convened a high level meeting on “Well-being and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” in New York. It brought together over 800 distinguished participants from around the world, indicating the universal recognition that development must be holistic and inclusive and must be focused towards enhancing well-being and happiness of people.

Then in June 2012 the UN declares March 20 to be observed as the International Day of Happiness

In July 2012, Bhutan establishes a Steering Committee and an International Expert Working Group (IEWG) to draft the proposed New Development Paradigm (NDP) to be submitted to the UN for international debate.

In Nov/Dec 2012, Bhutan’s leadership role for environmental protection was recognized at the UN climate summit in Nov/Dec 2012 in Doha, Qatar.

In September 2013, Bhutan submitted its report titled Happiness: Towards A New Development Paradigm to the UN General Assembly. It hopes that the report will influence the UN’s Post-2015 development agenda.

So, what is this gross national happiness (GNH), currently the hottest topic of debate in the international development circles?

Gross National Happiness (GNH)

GNH is a “multi-dimensional development approach that seeks to achieve a harmonious balance between material well-being and the spiritual, emotional and cultural needs of our society.” Founded on the belief that happiness can be achieved by balancing the needs of the body with those of the mind within a peaceful and secure environment, it requires that the purpose of development must be to create enabling conditions through public policy

The idea of GNH was first proposed in 1972 by Bhutan’s former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk. Since then enhancing people’s happiness has been the prime goal of the government. In 1999, the Center for Bhutan Studies (CBS) was established as an autonomous research institute for the purpose of ‘promoting and deepening the understanding of Gross National Happiness (GNH)’. It also helps policymakers define development strategies to promote the GNH.

GNH Pillars and Domains 1The center conceived the idea of quantifying happiness in the form of a Gross National Happiness Index and proposed the four pillars of its GNH approach as the dimensions of the holistic development agenda. These are (1) promotion of environmental conservation, (2) promotion of sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, (3) preservation and promotion of culture and (4) promotion of good governance. These dimensions are inextricably interrelated to produce equitable and sustainable well-being for all.

These pillars (dimensions) are subdivided in the following nine domains (probed by 33 indicators) that are intended to be reviewed and updated to reflect changing social conditions: 1) Psychological well-being, 2) Health, 3) Time use, 4) Education, 5) Cultural diversity and resilience, 6) Good governance, 7) Community vitality, 8) Ecological diversity and resilience and 9) Living standards.

How is GNH different from other Development Models?

The idea of happiness engrossed in GNH is distinct from the western understanding of the term, ‘happiness.‘ The monarch has put it aptly:

“We have now clearly distinguished the ‘happiness’ in GNH from the fleeting, pleasurable ‘feel good’ moods so often associated with that term. We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realizing our innate wisdom and the true and brilliant nature of our own minds”

community and cultureUnlike the other development models, GNH is more comprehensive and has a holistic approach to development by having incorporated the innovative dimensions like Psychological well-being, Community Vitality, Time Use and Cultural Diversity & Resilience otherwise undermined in the other policy making frameworks. So this makes GNH a more realistic measure of progress which ensures a consistent alignment between what an individual aspires from development and what the Government does in the name of development.

The GNH paradigm concludes that economic growth is not an end in itself but rather a means to achieve more important ends – happiness.

Other initiatives, particularly in the West, revolve around plugging the inherent flaws in use of the GDP as a measure of progress. For instance, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) takes into account over 20 things ignored by the GDP. It differentiates economic transactions that add to well-being from those which diminish it. It includes estimates of the economic contribution of various social and environmental factors which the GDP doesn’t see. Analysis of the historical data indicates that the economic growth in the US has been practically stagnant since the 1970s.

The Happy Planet Index (HPI) is another initiative published since 2006 by the New Economics Foundation. It is similar to other quality of life indices, like the UN-developed Human Development Index (HDI), which considers health and education. However, the HPI also highlights the value of natural resources which is a major shortcoming of the GDP.

Other examples include Better Life Index (OECD), Beyond GDP Initiative (EU), and the Canadian Index of Wellbeing.

None of these can be really called holistic because they all revolve around economy and material development. No wonder, the Western mind is uncomfortable dealing with non-material well-being of people; it is more comfortable with material quantification in absolute numbers. Ironically, by nature human well-being and happiness is a complex subject that can’t be described adequately in simple monetary numbers.

GNH Initiatives Outside Bhutan

For Bhutan, the GNH Commission has identified the nine domains which form the GNH framework, as the core elements that would ultimately determine the happiness of the Bhutanese people by creating enabling conditions around them (multidimensional approach). Likewise other countries could identify their own ‘domains’ and develop indicators for happiness accordingly based on their culture context, social fabric etc; therefore the GNH ‘framework’ can be easily adopted in other countries.

For instance, Mexico has developed Genuine Progress Index (GPI) based on the same approach (www.atlantic.org) and other countries like the Canada, United Kingdom, France, Brazil, and Croatia have added measures of citizen happiness to their official national statistics. The U.S. government is also considering adopting some measure of people’s happiness as well.

What can India do with GNH Framework?

well being sIndia being a country with spiritual roots where people still adore beauty of mind rather than muscle power, the non-material dimensions of GNH – Psychological well-being, Community Vitality, Time Use and Cultural Diversity & Resilience – have a direct relevance. After all well-being and happiness are subjective experience; material facilities and surroundings may only create a conducive environment to enjoy satisfaction and happiness. In fact, all material development must promote some mental/emotional experience of enhanced well-being – else they are useless. Observation from around the world suggests that opportunities for wellbeing, life satisfaction and happiness are greatly enhanced when people:

  • Live in safe neighborhoods where they can trust their neighbors rather than in high crime areas where they are afraid to come out on the streets at night;
  • Have ample economic (job) security to provide the necessities of life to their families rather than live in poverty with the constant stress and uncertainty of acquiring food, shelter and clothing;
  • Are healthy rather than physically or mentally sick or disabled;
  • Have clean air to breathe, safe water to drink, green spaces for recre­ation, and healthy natural resources rather than live as “environmental refugees” in a world of depleted and degraded resources;
  • Are knowledgeable rather than ignorant;
  • Have strong social networks and a sense of belonging to culture, community and nature;
  • Have sufficient leisure time to indulge in yoga and meditation for good mental/physical health;
  • Have freedom to participate in the political and democratic processes;
  • Have good, efficient, accountable and transparent government.

The GNH paradigm can provide the necessary conditions to enable people to pursue their potential far beyond the material acquisitiveness of the current (GDP growth) paradigm.

India must seriously consider putting into practice a framework similar to Bhutan’s GNH ideology. Fortunately, today India has a dynamic leadership of Modi which has the capacity to make things happen. All it has to do is to get rid of the follow-West mindset nurtured by the brown British of Congress Party since 1947.

Exploring Further

Redefining Development: From Mere “GDP Growth” to Holistic Development
Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNP):  A Sane Idea That Could Change The World
Poverty is Multidimensional, So should be Development

About Goodpal

I am a firm believer in healthy people (mind and body both), healthy societies and healthy environment. Please feel free to comment, share and broadcast your views -- I like rational and intellectual discussions. Thanks for stopping by. Have a Good Day!
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