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How is Gross National Happiness measured in Bhutan?

15 November 2015 18:39 , Jasper Bergink
I’ve already written about the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) a lot. But attending the international GNH conference in Paro, Bhutan, I have improved my understanding of what GNH really means. In a couple of blog posts, I want to outline the methodology, the 2015 survey findings, and the actual use of GNH as a policy tool.

Let’s start with the methodological part here. It’s a bit more technical exercise, but at least it helps to understand what we are really talking about when referring to GNH and where the numbers come from. If you’re interested in the results for 2015, be patient for a couple of days.

The nine domains and 33 indicators of GNH

GNH has been devised by Bhutan as an alternative indicator for GDP as a tool to measure progress or development. The level of GNH for an individual and for Bhutan as a country are determined through measures in nine domains. The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH research’s nine domains (see picture below) are all based on well-being research determining their link to well-being and happiness.

The nine domains of GNH. Source: Provisional findings of 2015 GNH Survey
The nine domains of GNH. Source: Provisional findings of 2015 GNH Survey, p. 11
All domains are weighted equally, or at 1/9. For most domains, there are four underlying variables. Each of the 33 variables is tested through one or more questions within the 1,5 hour personal interview. For instance:

the domain education is measured via asking respondents about the variables literacy, schooling, knowledge about certain areas, and values.
Living standards are measured through the indicators household income, assets, and housing.
The psychological well-being measure consists of life satisfaction, positive emotions, negative emotions, and spirituality.
The weights of the various variables in a domain are unequal. The different weights are based on scientific reliability and validity. In general, subjective (or personal) indicators have been given lower weights than objective (or factual) indicators.

How do all these answers result in a GNH score for an individual and for the country as a whole?

It’s not just a simple average. As statisticians say,

When your head is in the oven and your feet in the freezer, your average temperature is normal
In happiness, averages don’t count: e.g. a excessively low level of positive emotions cannot be countered by an extremely high level of household income.

Sufficiency targets

For this reason, within each indicator, a ‘sufficiency target’ is set to reduce the impact of outlier answers. A person is considered ‘happy’ under this indicator when the ‘sufficiency’ level is achieved. For example, sufficiency targets are set as follows:

‘Six years education’ for the indicator ‘schooling’ in the domain education
A monthly income level of 23.127 Ngultrum (about €325) for the indicator ‘household income’ in the domain living standards.
For the indicator ‘life satisfaction’ in the domain psychological well-being, a score of 19 out of 25 points on five questions related to satisfaction with health, occupation, standard of living, family, and work-life balance.
Thresholds to be ‘extensively’, ‘deeply’, or ‘narrowly’ happy

Based on all answers for the 33 indicators, it can be determined on how many indicators a person is sufficient, and a judgement is given how happy a person is. These thresholds are as follows:

Sufficiency in 77%-100% of the weighted 33 indicators: deeply happy
Sufficiency in 66%-76%: extensively happy
Sufficiency in 50%-65%: narrowly happy
Sufficiency in 0%-49%: unhappy or ‘not-yet-happy’
Of course these cut-off limits are arbitrary. If we want to express the GNH or happiness in a number, I would consider the first two categories as happy, and the lower two as unhappy. But in one Bhutanese newspaper, I’ve read an article grouping the first three under ‘happy’, hence resulting in a headline stating that more than 90% of Bhutanese are happy.

How valid are these figures?

Within happiness research, there is a continuous discussion on the reliability, validity, and overall usefulness of indicators to measure happiness, well-being, life satisfaction, and quality of life. An important part of these is the distinction between objective and subjective indicators.

For instance, a subjective indicator like ‘life satisfaction’ asks people to rate their overall level of life satisfaction. Of course people throughout cultures and with different personalities would assess their levels differently. A certain level of happiness could be expressed as an 8 by one person and as a 7 of another person. In addition, the bias might differ from country to country. For instance, one could theorise that people in Bhutan aware of the concept of GNH could be under pressure to answer with a high number, increasing the average.

To some extent, the use of objective criteria – like the number of years of schooling – avoids these problems. But again, there are problems with objective criteria. Most importantly, they assume that the researcher can reliably determine what qualify of life is for a respondent. What if a person has had only five years of schooling, but is still satisfied with this? Ultimately, there is no way around this dilemma, and it is one of the reasons for criticism of alternative indicators.

It’s the trend, not the headline figure, that counts

Happiness, though, is not an exact science. Parties deal differently with this reality. The Centre for Bhutan Studies (and also, the OECD), has considered that the best way is to use objective indicators where available, and subjective indicators where necessary. As researcher Tshoki Zangmo explained me, the CBS feels that a balance is needed as they’re both important to determine GNH.

When you dig deep into these, every choice has methodological and practical limitations. Every measure for happiness or well-being is imperfect, arbitrary and subject to criticism. Of course the same can be said for the GDP measures that happiness indicators aim to provide an alternative for!

Also, the trends within the nine different domains and constituent indicators are probably more relevant for the policy than the ultimate outcome in numbers. For instance, a finding that psychological well-being is decreasing, that might be a lot more useful input to public policy than the conclusion that overall GNH is 0.756.

The present article is based on the methodology of the GNH index 2015 and some separate questions to CBS researcher Tshoki Zangmo.

The conference tent, with the stage in the front, seen from my seat among a group of local high school students.
Four Pillars and Nine Domains
The intuitive guiding principle of Gross National Happiness led to a practical conceptualization of the concept. The foundation is made of four pillars:

Good Governance
Good Governance is a considered a pillar for happiness because it determines the conditions in which Bhutanese thrive. While policies and programs that are developed in Bhutan are generally inline with the values of GNH, there is also a number of tools and processes employed to ensure the values are indeed embedded in social policy.

Sustainable Socio-economic Development
A thriving GNH economy must value social and economic contributions of households and families, free time and leisure given the roles of these factors in Happiness.

Preservation and Promotion of Culture
Happiness is believed to be contributed to by the preserving the Bhutanese culture. Developing cultural resilience, which can be understood as the culture’s capacity to maintain and develop cultural identity, knowledge and practices, and able to overcome challenges and difficulties from other norms and ideals.

Environmental Conservation
Environmental Conservation is considered a key contribution to GNH because in addition to providing critical services such as water and energy, the environment is believed to contribute to aesthetic and other stimulus that can be directly healing to people who enjoy vivid colours and light, untainted breeze and silence in nature’s sound.

The four pillars are further elaborated into nine domains, which articulate the different elements of GNH in detail and form the basis of GNH measurement, indices and screening tools.

Living standards
Community Vitality
Psychological well-being
Good Governance
Cultural resilience and promotion
These 9 domains, clearly demonstrate that from the perspective of GNH, many inter-related factors are considered to be important in creating the conditions for happiness. For example, GNH counts the importance of material security as one of these – and assessing whether people enjoy sufficient and equitable living standards, is included in the GNH survey. Similarly, the happiness of human beings is not seen as separate from the wellbeing of other life forms, and ecological diversity and resilience are included in the measure of GNH. The balance between material and non-material development, and the multi-dimensional and interdependent nature of GNH are key features that distinguish GNH from GDP as a measure of a country’s progress.

In accordance with these nine domains, Bhutan has developed 38 sub-indexes, 72 indicators and 151 variables that are used to define and analyze the happiness of the Bhutanese people

For detailed and substantial information regarding the GNH Index please visit The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research or read the Short Guide to GNH Index

What is GNH?
Four Pillars and Nine Domains
GNH Today
The Story of GNH
The Story of GNH
“Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product”

– His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King of Bhutan
King Jigme Singye WangchuckWith his famous declaration in the 1970s, the former King of Bhutan challenged conventional, narrow and materialistic notions of human progress. He realized and declared that the existing development paradigm – GNP (or GDP) – did not consider the ultimate goal of every human being: happiness.

Old Wisdom for a Modern Age!

Perhaps inspired by age-old wisdom in the ancient Kingdom of Bhutan, the fourth King concluded that GDP was neither an equitable nor a meaningful measurement for human happiness, nor should it be the primary focus for governance; and thus the philosophy of Gross National Happiness: GNH is born.

Since that time this pioneering vision of GNH has guided Bhutan’s development and policy formation. Unique among the community of nations, it is a balanced ‘middle path’ in which equitable socio-economic development is integrated with environmental conservation, cultural promotion and good governance.

For over 2 decades as Bhutan remained largely isolated from the world, GNH remained largely an intuitive insight and guiding light. It reminded the government and people alike that material progress was not the only, and not even, the most important contributor to well-being. As Bhutan increasingly engaged with the global community, joining international organizations, substantial efforts were made to define, explain and even measure GNH. Indices were created, measurements were recorded and screening tools for government policy were created, and the second phase in the development of GNH saw its practical implementation in government become a living reality.

The Folly of the GDP obsession!

The folly of an obsession with GDP, as a measure of economic activity which does not distinguish between those activities that increase a nation’s wealth and those that deplete its natural resources or result in poor health or widening social inequalities is so clearly evident. If the forests of Bhutan were logged for profit, GDP would increase; if Bhutanese citizens picked up modern living habits adversely affecting their health, investments in health care systems would be made and GDP would increase; and if environmental considerations were not taken into account during growth and development, investments to deal with landslides, road damages and flooding would be needed, and GDP would increase. All of these actions could negatively affect the lives of the Bhutanese people yet paradoxically would contribute to an increase in GDP.

“Our Gross National Product…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising…special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder…It measures everything, in short….…except that which makes life worthwhile.”

-Robert f. Kennedy 1968

“Development is too important to be left solely to financial ministries and economic measures“

– Joseph Stiglitz

“First the economy separated itself from ecology…then it separated itself from society…[through] the artificial measure of growth [that is] GDP“

-Vandana Shiva

“GNP has long been the yardstick by which economies and politicians have been measured. Yet it fails to take into account the social and environmental costs of so-called progress. We need a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental wellbeing are indivisible.”

-H.E. Mr. Ban Ki-moon
An increasing wave of eminent economists, environmentalists, psychologists, religious and political leaders in the wake of global social, financial and environmental crises, are deeply concerned about how our current GDP-based development paradigm is failing to serve the wellbeing of people or the planet. With many of these experts and leaders gathering at the United Nations in 2012 to learn more about Bhutan’s experience of GNH the call for a new path is growing.

Yet even as the global community looks on, explores and engages with interest in Bhutan’s experience of GNH, the nation’s leaders have responded with humility.

“Although the GNH model has indeed, served us well…we do not claim that it is the best option. It has its limitations. We see it as a dynamic design that must be constantly enriched and improved with the help of people from all walks of life who bring with them immense experience and knowledge with a shared inspiration to create a better world. In this regard, we are most heartened by the interest the world has taken in our development approach.”

– HRH Princess Kezang Choden Wangchuck, President of the GNH Centre Bhutan
GNH: The next phase – development for all

Enshrined in the Constitution of 2008 the role of GNH is firmly established now at the heart of the nation and government.

“…if the Government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.”

– Legal Code of Bhutan 1729
As the present King, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck has said:

“Today GNH has come to mean so many things to so many people, but to me it signifies simply – development with values. Thus for my nation today GNH is the bridge between the fundamental values of kindness, equality and humanity and the necessary pursuit of economic growth. GNH acts as our National Conscience guiding us towards making wise decisions for a better future.”
We are beginning to embark on a new phase in the evolution of GNH, with many Bhutanese and international citizens wondering what this concept – which until now has seemed fairly abstract and remote – might mean in their everyday lives. What would constitute a GNH living practice, how would a GNH way of life look? And then what could this mean for our families, our communities, our schools, governments and businesses? With these questions and challenges in mind, the dream and vision of a GNH Centre is born.

“The GNH Centre will be a place where all walks of life can come and live GNH in practice, living in harmony with nature, with families and communities serving others, discovering one’s innate human values… living applied GNH!”