In 1972, the fourth King of Bhutan declared that “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product”. This idea has since shaped the nation and was included in the constitution in 2008.
Defining GNH in Bhutan
Bhutan, as a developing country, has designed Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a more holistic measurement of progress and prosperity of a country. Specifically, GNH in Bhutan is based on equitable social development, cultural preservation, conservation of the environment and good governance. This special method of political quantification emphasizes wellbeing over material growth, environmental conservation and sustainability over economic growth.
Some doubt the possibility of creating a nation full of a happy population. However, Bhutan’s minister of education Thakur Singh Powdyel has that “GNH in Bhutan serves as an aspiration, a set of guiding principles through which we are navigating our path towards a sustainable and equitable society”.
Ever since elucidating the ideal of GNH in Bhutan, the government has laid out national policies on the grounds of sustainability. Namely, the country has pledged to remain carbon-neutral and set at least 60 percent of its landmass under forest cover in perpetuity. Moreover, Bhutan prohibited some profit-making commercial activities in forests, like export logging, and also established a monthly pedestrian day that bans all private vehicles from roads.
This visionary model has since demonstrated long-run success both economically and socially. According to the Bhutan Living Standard Survey 2007 Report, the nation successfully met a number of key Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations. Bhutan’s policies halved the number of children wasting or stunted, and the number of people without access to clean drinking water and sanitation. In addition, the nation has experienced strong and stable growth over the past 25 years.
The real growth in 2006-2007 was 8.5 percent and the GDP per capita was $1,313. Likewise, the Human Development Index was improved as well, from 0.325 in 1984 to 0.581 in 1995. This increase was unparalleled among all Least-Developed Countries and shifted Bhutan to the status of a Middle-Income Country. But overall, how effective has it been for Bhutan to lay GNH as the foundation of its national political agenda?
Challenges Remain for Bhutan
Despite its aspirational guiding principles, Bhutan remains one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than 25 percent of its population living on less than $1.25 a day and 70 percent living without electricity. The nation also grapples with rampant violent crime, gang culture and volatile global food prices.
The deep roots of poverty still linger in Bhutan and its people are nowhere near the top rankings of the U.N. Report of Happiness of Countries in 2017, with the ranking of 97. Journalists’ Association of Bhutan executive director Needrup Zangpo told NPR that the outside world “glamorizes Bhutan but overlooks a list of problems besetting the country.”
Bhutan still struggles with socio-economic problems like a widening income gap, youth unemployment and environmental degradation. On top of that, the mysterious reputation of Bhutan being a contented country has attracted many international visitors, which is aggressively encouraged by the government, at the expense of the local environment and culture.
It is difficult to truly quantify happiness, but the wellbeing of the Bhutanese population can indeed be encouraged by simultaneously caring for the environment and the economy.
– Heulwen Leung