The Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has been heavily criticized for its limitations in measuring economic performance. As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, has pointed out: “when you have growing inequality in society you can have GDP going up, as it has been in the United States, but most people are getting worse off. And not just poverty is going up, but the median income, meaning 50% or more of people are getting worse off”. In other words, it is not able to accurately measure well-being. As a result, an entirely new discussion around how to measure sustainable development has arisen.

This became precedent for the recent IE transformational journey to the country of Bhutan. 15 students of International Relations set out for a two-week trip to learn about a fascinating new way of thinking about development, namely, the Gross National Happiness (GNH).

The rationale behind the GNH is surprisingly simple: the duty of the government is ultimately to keep its people happy and improve their well-being. However, it could only take a vision of a young and progressive king Jigme Singye Wangchuk, the 4th Dragon King of Bhutan, to transform this idea to a philosophy for development and later into a part of the constitution itself.

King Wangchuk recognized the negative effects, such as increased inequality and a depletion of common-pool resources, that other developing countries, like Bhutan, experienced when taking a purely economic growth strategy. In 1979, at the meagre age of 24, the King made the first ever mention of the GNH during an interview with the Financial Times. Since then, the Bhutanese government used this vision as a tool for development. But it was not until 1998, that the prime minister Jigme Y. Thinley openly shared the philosophy with the world. At that point, it was simply an idea that seemed rather idealistic and intangible to many.

“When you have growing inequality in society you can have GDP going up, as it has been in the United States, but most people are getting worse off. And not just poverty is going up, but the median income, meaning 50% or more of people are getting worse off”.

Tiger’s Nest Monastery

While it rapidly gained popularity, Bhutanese officials still had not found an answer to the question of how to appropriately measure happiness. The process of turning the GNH into something quantifiable started in 2005. This resulted in the establishment of 9 different domains (with 33 different indicators and over 100 sub-indicators) that were viewed as integral component to happiness. Some of the domains were quite straightforward such as health, education, and good governance, while others were more unconventional domains, measuring things such as cultural diversity, psychological wellbeing and community vitality.Arguably the most famous attraction in Bhutan, the Tigers Nest monastery embodies the spirituality within Bhutan. Spirituality also is an important indicator of the GNH index.

To measure these domains, a nationwide survey has been issued every 5 years to a portion of randomly selected citizens. A 5-year interval is used so that the key findings are in line with in the 5-year plans of the country. The result of each GNH report plays a decisive role in which direction each five-year plan takes.

Today, the effects of the GNH have been nothing less than a success story for the developing country. For example, the domain of good governance outlines indicators such as political participation and fundamental rights as important contributors to happiness.

Since the king believed so strongly in the GNH of Bhutan, in 2006, one year after the establishment of the GNH index, he voluntarily handed over the sovereignty to his people. Two years later, first Bhutanese democratic elections were held and marked the beginning a new era for the East-Asian country.

Archery – the Bhutanese national sport.

Archery is the national sport of Bhutan. It has remained an integral part of their culture and relates to another important indicator of the GNH, cultural participation.

A 5-year interval is used so that the key findings are in line with in the 5-year plans of the country.

Another example has been the domain known as ecological diversity, which highlights indicators such as ecological issues and wildlife damage as sources of unhappiness. As a result, Bhutan leads in ecological diversity, having more than 70% forest cover and being the only carbon neutral country in the world.

Although Bhutan has been indeed a fairy-tale country, some misconceptions should be cleared up. Firstly, Bhutan is not the happiest country in the world. They are simply the first to use  GNH as a policy device and a philosophy for development. Secondly, they do care about GDP (as their economy has grown six-fold since the start of this century), but not at the expense of the happiness of its citizens. Thirdly, the GNH is by no means absolute or complete. It is rather a work in progress that should be reinterpreted for every country.

The GNH has served Bhutan not only as a measurement tool for happiness, but as a standard for development, a policy shaper and most importantly as an identity. It has put them on the map and made them distinct, which for a country sandwiched between two global giants has been extremely vital to avoid the fate of its previously-existing neighbors, Sikkim and Tibet.