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!”

– Dr Saamdu Chetri, Executive Director the GNH Centre Bhutan