Time for Bhutan and the world to give 'happiness' a second look

Bhutan’s current reigning monarch, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck shares a light moment with his people. Is ‘happiness’ enough? Bhutan's unique “gross national happiness” index has yet to translate to economic and development progress for its citizens. Photo by: Gelay Jamtsho / CC BY-NC-SA

If there is one thing that could describe the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan in international development terms, it would most likely be the introduction of a unique metric to measure development progress: the “gross national happiness” index.

But more than 40 years after the index was introduced by the country’s former king, Jigme Wangchuck, the South Asian nation remains mired in poverty, with many of its citizens uneducated and having little access to economic and social opportunities.

“Bhutan is at a crossroads,” Chime Wangdi, secretary-general of Tarayana Foundation, told Devex. Not only is Bhutan transitioning from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy, it is also keen on moving up to middle-income status. And while the Himalayan nation remains devoted to its national ethos of pursuing happiness — all government programs and policies go through the country’s socio-economic planning agency, the GNH Commission — the government needs to take a more critical view of the GNH in an effort to improve it.

“The indicators have been set against the current development backdrop and there may be [a] need to fine tune them as the country moves forward,” Wangdi said.

The official, whose organization was commissioned by the nation’s prince to complement government initiatives in 2003, added that Bhutan should keep pace with the changing domestic and international landscape. The GNH should have “some indicators that would make sense to both the common citizens as well as to policymakers.” Carrying out the GNH has become a “tedious and expensive” exercise as well.

Wangdi shared that her country is “on a steep learning curve as far as reducing human error [in the measure] is concerned” and that there were earlier apprehensions that the government may be spending too much time and money on one simple philosophy to guide the country’s development.

And the government is well aware of these concerns.

In 2013, Tshering Tobgay campaigned on a platform of a better and more effective approach to development — a direct response to the growing sentiment in Bhutan at the time that the GNH has become a publicity stunt and does not produce concrete results.

Now the country’s prime minister, Tobgay has received support from several international organizations to help improve and develop GNH to be more effective, including the U.N. Development Program, the International Development Research Center and the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Whether the index actually improved will be seen at the end of the year, when the latest GNH survey is expected to be published.

“[It should be made clear] how these disaggregated data can help us target our interventions so that holistic development is possible,” Wangdi said. “Measuring progress is tricky everywhere and it is no different in Bhutan.”

A more grounded approach

Much of the criticism against the GNH over the past few years centers on the index’s goal of measuring an abstract concept: happiness.

“I was also wondering before how can we measure such a thing as happiness,” Tshedrup Dorji, research assistant at Bhutan’s Renewable Natural Resources Research and Development Center, told Devex. “It is something that cannot be measured. But in our scientific world, without a form of measurement, we cannot come to a conclusive decision that those people are [living better lives].”

While gross domestic product remains the most prevalent measure of economic progress worldwide, many international organizations have come to realize there is merit in having a more holistic approach to viewing poverty alleviation and overall development progress. One example is Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative’s Global Multidimensional Poverty Index, which measures poverty using 10 indicators.

“There is a lot of good in being able to measure the overall well-being of a population, although it is a lot tougher, messier, but truer to the realities than just the measure of progress based on GDP alone,” Wangdi said. “Many developed economies are looking for alternate measurement of progress as well.”

This more grounded approach will have to pass the test of this “interesting as well as challenging times” for Bhutan to develop as a nation. Wangdi shared that the international development community can play a central role by partnering with the government and supporting civil society groups and local nongovernmental organizations.

From Bhutan to the world

But is the notion of using unique indicators such as happiness to measure development progress applicable only to the tiny Himalayan nation?

The simple answer is no. Throughout the years the idea of happiness as a measure of progress has spread to different nations, continents and even sectors. Some of the countries that have continued interest in GNH and the pursuit of happiness include Thailand, Japan and the United States.

“If we want to see development really make a difference, we need to ‘measure what matters,’” Tom Barefoot, co-coordinator of GNH in the United States, told Devex. “[GNH helps] to clarify what we want our future to look like that most people can relate to. The measures like GDP per capita are so flawed, but most people don’t understand data properly.”

While there have been no calls in the United States, Thailand and Japan to make GNH national policy, interest in the index continues to grow. The private sector, for instance, now has a Gross Corporate Happiness index, which focuses on providing a “holistic approach to employee motivation” and unlocking “human potential and corporate efficiency.”

Meik Wiking, chief of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, Denmark, said that while it is harder to measure “happiness” than economic indicators pertaining to GDP, governments and communities need to know “what really matters.”

“GNH [focuses] the course of a country and a people on what really matters: quality of life,” he told Devex. “Instead of looking just at whether the economy is growing, countries should ask … are the lives of our people getting better?”

Barefoot, however, cautioned against using the GNH — and the ideas behind it — as a “one-size-fits-all” approach to solving development problems. For one, there is still a need for the measure to be localized.

“There is a need to encourage communities to discuss measures and indicators so that we understand what we are getting,” he concluded. “We should localize happiness and well-being measures to better fit with the psychology of communities.”

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.