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Bhutan: The Gross Happiness Index


As the world breaks out of lockdown and assesses the emotional and economic wreckage, give a thought to Bhutan.

This tiny, picturesque country wedged between India and China is forging a response to Covid-19 through the lens of their Gross National Happiness Index.

Bhutan is the first country in the world to adopt the Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI) as a means of measuring the well being of its population.

This is not a propaganda piece. 

Firstly, it should be noted that not all motivations in Bhutan's story are pristine. The country has a heavy record of human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing.

Over 100,000 ethnic Nepalese have been expelled from the country because of their Hindu faith. 

Secondly, the country itself ranks 95th out of 156 countries on the World Happiness Report. They are measuring happiness, but are they managing it? AIDS, tuberculosis and poverty are all prevalent within the Kingdom.

In 1972 the country was experiencing grinding poverty and some of the highest infant mortality and illiteracy rates in the world. A legacy of the country's isolation throughout previous generations.

With King Jigme Singye Wangchuck's ascension to the throne came some blue sky thinking, and the GNHI was born. Rooted in the fundamentals of Buddhism, it would guide government policy for the next 40 years. 

So why is their constitutionally enshrined Gross National Happiness Index important? Bhutan remains the only country in the world that uses the GNHI to inform decision making and state policy.

What is inside the GNHI?

The GNHI removes the relentless pressure of economic growth from the national conversation and focuses on a more holistic approach to measure the happiness of its people. The four main pillars of the GNHI are listed below.

1) sustainable, equitable economic development
2) environmental conservation
3) preservation and promotion of culture
4) good governance


These pillars are linked to Buddhism and the middle path which aligns happiness and contentment with a balanced approach to life.

We can drill down into 9 different domains which under which a citizens happiness can be assessed. These domains can then be weighted against each other.

1) psychological well being
2) health
3) use of time
4) education
5) cultural diversity 
6) good governance
7) community vitality
8) ecological diversity
9) living standards


These domains can balance out a GNHI score, or in the case of an extreme example, knock it out of kilter. For example, a person who is time poor but objectively well off may contribute a lower score than some who is less wealthy but has more time to spend with family and friends.

By having a spiritual grounding in the assessments, the GNHI gives a more accurate picture of Bhutanese life. Questions specific to prayer life are part of the survey which originally took several hours to complete. 

To date the Gross National Happiness Commission has conducted three different surveys, 2008, 2010 and 2015 and the system has been applied around the world by different municipal and state regions. 

Ireland and the GNHI

How would such a system of assessment apply to Ireland?

With the hangover from the Celtic Tiger being chased down by the Covid-19 crisis, it is clear that we have no clear means of assessment beyond the blunt economic tools of GDP, employment figures and income statements. 

GDP outputs are distorted by industries like aircraft leasing, which book their global revenues in Ireland but provide relatively little employment.

In a modern country it is damning that people feel they can never purchase a home or at the very least pay rent that is not over half their salary. 

The adoption of a GNHI system could shift the conversation to a more rounded place where all the considerations of life are discussed, not just purely economic factors.

Such a survey would reveal the root outcomes of the economic inequality and the misreporting of economic data.

GNHI could transform the Irish political system, creating a positive feedback loop from the people to the political institutions and the leadership with in the civil service.

Accurate reporting of Irish life would put pressure on the state to do more for the overall contentment of the country.

The Future of Bhutan (& GNHI)

So what next for Bhutan? The country clearly has its issues, but it has stuck with the GNHI, an index that is now being adopted regionally across the world.

They are the first to officially recognise that once GDP is stabilised and a population's basic needs are catered for, there are many other aspects of life that contribute to contentment. 

For many, GNH is a tool for learning, not a weapon of reform. The end destination is not objectively important.

The GNH is simply a measurement of happiness that can indicate the well-being of a nation, even if the pioneer of the original indicator is a mid-table player. 

Covid-19 emphasised the interconnectedness of a globalised world. The flow of goods and services, the freedom of movement, the ability to entertain a shared future, all essential to our lives.

The old metrics no longer suffice to explain where we stand in the world. It would be fascinating to see the aggressively faithless west adopt an index founded upon the main tenets of an eastern religion in a tiny kingdom wedged within the Himalayas.

Strange times indeed.

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