Gross National Happiness

Updated: Jun 22, 2020

A Big Idea from a Tiny Country: The Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan.



Since 1971, Bhutan has rejected GDP as the only way to measure progress. In its place, it has championed a new approach to development, which measures prosperity through formal principles of gross national happiness (GNH) and the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of its citizens and natural environment.


The belief that wellbeing should take preference over material growth has, sadly, remained a global oddity. In a world frequently beset by collapsing financial systems, inequality and wide-scale environmental destruction, why isn't this tiny Buddhist state's approach attracting more interest and its holistic principles being adopted elsewhere? In the post-covid-19 world, when we look ahead, afresh, to what global citizens want and need, shouldn't we all shout a bit louder and tell our leaders that we need to incorporate GNH as part of our collective approach to the future?


"It's easy to mine the land and fish the seas and get rich," says Thakur Singh Powdyel, Bhutan's former minister of education. "Yet we believe you cannot have a prosperous nation in the long run that does not conserve its natural environment or take care of the wellbeing of its people, which is being borne out by what is happening to the outside world."


Powdyel believes the world has misinterpreted Bhutan's quest. "People always ask how can you possibly have a nation of happy people? But this is missing the point," he says. "GNH is an aspiration, a set of guiding principles through which we are navigating our path towards a sustainable and equitable society. We believe the world needs to do the same before it is too late."


Bhutan's principles have been set in policy through the gross national happiness index, based on equitable social development, cultural preservation, conservation of the environment and promotion of good governance.


The Himalayan Kingdom adopted a 'top down' and 'bottom up' approach to ensuring GNH became deeply integrated in to their communities. For example, 10 years ago the principles of Gross National Happiness were integrated into the education system.


Alongside maths and science, children are taught basic agricultural techniques and environmental protection. A new national waste management programme ensures that every piece of material used at the school is recycled. The infusion of GNH into education has also meant daily meditation sessions and soothing traditional music replacing the clang of the school bell.


"An education doesn't just mean getting good grades, it means preparing them to be good people," says Choki Dukpa, headteacher of a primary school in Thimphu. "This next generation is going to face a very scary world as their environment changes and social pressures increase. We need to prepare them for this."


"The idea of being green does not just mean the environment, it is a philosophy for life," says Dukpa.


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