The fourth Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Sinye Wangchuck coined the term “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) in 1972. He put through a proposition that Gross National Product (GNP) was an insufficient measurement of the development of a country. GNP and GDP (Gross Domestic Product) were deemed as metrics that over-emphasized on production, consumption and therefore, material wealth. GDP did not take into account the people’s well-being and happiness level.

To understand GNH, one needs to have a basic understanding of the concept of happiness. In the secular sense, happiness is reliant on a person’s experiences; past and present. However, in the last century, happiness is often associated with external factors largely dependent on material wealth. The driving factor behind this is the movement of urbanization in the last century which has undeniably detached individuals from their communities, families and nature. However, the level of happiness one derives from material wealth is finite, unlike happiness derived from internal stimuli such as contentment and well-being.

The concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) thus provides a guiding principle behind policy-making to ensure there is a balance between both material and non-material factors. GNH philosophy emphasis on harmonious living, conservation of the environment and the protection of sacred traditions and culture.

The fourth King made sure GNH was the DNA of policymaking by incorporating it in the Constitution of Bhutan which was passed two years after he stepped down from the throne. All the policies implemented in Bhutan were done so with GNH in mind.

4 Pillars of GNH

Today, GNH is well known for having the foundation of four pillars:

Conservation of the Environment

The country’s constitution states that Bhutan must maintain at least 60% of the country under forest cover at all times. Currently, 72% of Bhutan is forested and more than a third of the country is under protection. One of the reasons apart from maintaining the balance of their ecological system is also the challenges their fragile mountain terrain poses to the community. Over foresting will pose the dangers of landslides in any monsoons or erratic weather.

This commitment is however often at the sacrifice of economic development. The government decided against exporting timber to India despite it being a lucrative business as the government wanted to keep in view the long term impact of this business on its ecology, and not focus on the short term gains.

Its efforts are not in vain as the kingdom boasts a pristine environment and breathtaking views, earning its nickname as the “Last Shangri-La”.

Equitable and Sustainable Development

At the heart of Bhutan’s policies is to create an equitable and sustainable development that allows its people to enjoy a higher standard of health care, education, and social services. One of the focuses of this pillar is to ensure that the benefits of development was made available to all, regardless of where they lived or who they were.

Good Governance

The fourth King was far-sighted and understood that a country can only benefit from a democratic government. He first started the process of decentralizing his power in 1998 when he created the role of Prime Minister. The Bhutanese questioned the necessity of this move as Bhutan under his reign had enjoyed peace and progress. But the Fourth King explained that power centralized on one person might be a successful regime in this generation, but not so in future generations. His move was unprecedented as history proved that democracy often comes at the cost of bloodshed and protest.

Preservation of Culture

With urbanization and the decoupling of individuals from their communities, comes the inevitable loss of culture and tradition. The Bhutanese make a concerted effort to preserve them. Their distinct architecture, traditional rituals, cultural events and traditional dress are all part of the Bhutanese way of life.

9 Domains of GNH

The four pillars act as the foundation for the guiding principle of GNH and further distilled into nine domains:

  • Living Standards
  • Education
  • Health
  • Environment
  • Community Vitality
  • Time-Use
  • Psychological Well-Being
  • Good Governance
  • Cultural Resilience and Promotion