A Modern History of Happiness as Economic Policy. History and Criticism of Gross National Happiness

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A Modern History of Happiness as Economic Policy

Author: Deidre Rose, Ph.D., Anthropologist and Sessional Lecturer, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Guelph, Canada.

The History of Gross National Happiness

In what may have been an offhand remark during an interview, the King of Bhutan uttered a phrase that is thought to be the beginning of a new economic concept and policy know as Gross National Happiness (GNH). In its first incarnation, GNH rested upon four key elements: Economic self-reliance; environmental conservation; cultural preservation and promotion; and good governance (Gross National Happiness Commission, 2009).

The philosophy underlying GNH and its relationship to economic development and economic policy has been re-iterated by His Majesty Jigme Kesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the Fifth King of Bhutan (Centre for Bhutan Studies):

Gross National Happiness measures the quality of a country in more holistic way and believes that the beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occurs side by side to complement and reinforce each other.

The core ideas of sustainability, and an approach to economic development and policy that measures more than Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and similar indicators continues to be refined and researched at both the national and international level.

The concept has evolved over the decades, and spread well beyond the borders of the Buddhist Kingdom, gaining international attention and expanding in scope. Today the cornerstones of GNH philosophy have expanded and include indicators such as health, education, job satisfaction, and economic security (Life in the UK Report, 2012).

I will briefly discuss a few of the initiatives that led to the development and popularity of GNH around the world.

Beginning in 2005, an American economist Med Jones at the International Institute of Management published a working paper, a policy white paper and global survey, fostering the development of a Gross National Happiness/Well-being framework for economic policy (IIM, 2006). In the paper, they state, “Mental and emotional well-being of citizens improves their performance and broadens the intellectual, physical and social resources of a nation.” They report that “research shows that happy people have better health habits, lower blood pressure, stronger immune systems and higher endurance levels.” In short, happy people may be more productive over the long-term.

The Global GNW/GNH Survey and the GNW/GNH Index proposed in 2005 have been developed with the aim of measuring Happiness and Well-being across populations in different countries. The key recommendations were to use an integrated decision framework and measurement tool that combines subjective and objective measures and helps governments manage development policies.

The recommendations address six main public policy areas: Government, Economics, Work, Media, Education and Environment. According to the paper, the role of government should shift from managing economic growth to socioeconomic development. American public policy should shift its focus from: “The standard of living to the quality of life; Material possessions to well-being (physical, mental, and material); Unsustainable economic development to sustainable environmental development; Consumerism to investment; Economic-driven education to socioeconomic-driven education.” The proposed econometric framework uses statistical indicators to measure the subjective and objective health of the citizens collective mental, physical, workplace, social, economic, environmental and political wellness (IIM, 2006).

In 2008 GNH became a formal policy of Bhutan as it became part of the constitution (The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan).

Between 2008-2012 the Bhutan GNH Index has been expanded to include nine indicators or areas: psychological well-being, overall health, time allocation, cultural and ecological diversity and resilience, education, and general living standards (Centre for Bhutan Studies). The Bhutan Local GNH Index is similar to the econometric framework of the first scientific (and secular) GNH (GNW) framework and Index published in 2005 (Campbell, 2012: 30).

The Bhutan GNH Index is a locally customized development version developed with the help of Oxford University researchers. The local GNH Index includes the promotion of Buddhist culture incorporating spiritual, karma, and prayer indicators (Centre for Bhutan Studies, 2012).

For more than three decades since the coining of GNH phrase by the fourth king of Bhutan, Western economists and policy makers did not take the philosophy seriously and considered it a clever play on words. It is only after the publication of the first scientific econometric framework in 2005, that GNH came to be viewed as a concrete policy proposal. The publishing of the framework was a turning point that allowed economists to formulate similar policies like the GNH framework inside and outside Bhutan. For example, Alastair Campbell, journalist and strategy director for Prime Minister Tony Blair, called upon the Prime Minister of UK David Cameron and the French President to implement the universal truths of happiness as outlined by the GNH framework of 2005 (Campbell, 2012: 30-31).

In 2007 a European conference, attended by policy makers, development experts, and social justice advocates resulted in a report entitled “GDP and Beyond: Measuring progress in a changing world.” The executive summary of the document acknowledges “a growing political debate on how best to measure societal progress beyond economic and financial indicators such as gross domestic product (GDP). The limitations of GDP as a measure of key societal goals such as well-being and sustainability are widely recognised and are being addressed.

Alternative measurement concepts are being tested and increasingly used for policy-making at regional, national and international levels (European Commission 2013). While not mentioning GNH directly, the report called for including -- in addition to Gross Domestic Product -- environmental and social indicators, reporting on social issues such as economic inequality and social inclusion in the national accounts, and developing a sustainable development scoreboard for European nations.

The recommendations, which are clearly in line with the tenets of GNH, were adopted by the European Parliament in June, 2008 and have resulted in the identification and implementation of concrete actions for measuring progress including the development of a set of instruments to be used in assessing specific indicators that will, in turn, be used to ascertain the “quality of life and well-being.” These include key environmental indicators such as green house gas emissions, economic indicators such as “real disposable income,” and indices on poverty and human development (European Commission, August 2013).

In September, 2009 Nobel Prize winners Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, along with a French scientist, Jean-Paul Fitoussi, led the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (CMEPSP). The research was commissioned in 2008 by President Sarkozy (of the French Republic) to develop a framework for well-being economic policy. The report provided similar recommendations to those of the GNW / GNH paper of 2005. In their executive summary, the authors stated that “the unifying theme of the report, is that the time is ripe for our measurement system to shift emphasis from measuring economic production to measuring people’s well-being͙ Measures of well-being should be put in a context of sustainability. Despite deficiencies in our measures of production, we know much more about them than about well-being” (Stiglitz et al, 2009: 12, emphasis in original). Their well-being framework also included Material living standards (income, consumption and wealth); Health; Education; Personal activities including work, political voice and governance; Social connections and relationships; Environment; and Economic and physical insecurity. They concluded that all these factors shape people’s well-being, and yet many of them are missed by conventional income measures. Objective and subjective dimensions of well-being are both important (Stiglitz et al, 2009: 14).

In 2010, a World Bank initiative was launched, calling for the inclusion of the Gross National Happiness Index (World Bank, 2010).

In 2011, The State of Goa, (India) Golden Jubilee development council in its strategy document (Vision & Strategy 2035), declared the goal of Goa’s government is to become the happiest state in in the world, by 2035. They proposed the use of GNH (GNW) socioeconomic development framework and econometric model.

In 2011 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution (65/309) that recognizes the pursuit of happiness as a basic and necessary aspect of human existence. The resolution further encourages member states to research analytic tools to measure happiness and implement policies toward its furtherance (Ryback, 2012; UN Happiness Resolution).

In 2011, The OECD launched its first Better Life Index based on the CMEPSP report recommendations (also known as Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission, discussed above. (OECD, 2011: 4).

The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (2010) developed an international

Multidimensional Poverty Index that has since influenced the local Bhutan GNH Index of 2012 (Gross National Happiness: 25, 7.4 & 7.5).

In 2012 a “National Well-being Wheel” was introduced in the UK (Self et al, 2012).

In the same year, researchers at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, wrote a report for a US congressman Hansen Clarke asking him to reconsider the economic measures used by the US government and they referenced both the secular Global GNH Proposal and the Local Bhutan GNH Proposal (Beachy and Zorn, 2012: 91[79 in print]).

In 2016 Ohood Al Roumi was appointed as UAE Minister of State for Happiness. As stated in the national newspaper article, the GNH philosophy and the IIM GNH Index and later development international agencies were major influences in this new and innovative government initiative (Hellyer, 2016).

In the same year, the first proposal for happiness and well-being development policy in Africa was introduced by the permanent secretary of Ministry of Health, Dr. Jean Bosco. According the secretary “The growing popularity and the influence of the GNW (Scientific GNH) governance and development framework show that many policy makers and millions of people are becoming more and more conscious of what really matters in terms of actionable public policies and how nothing is more important than mental and physical well -being. GNW can be used at the individual level, at the regional level as well as the national level. All investments of public time, effort, money, and projects should be tested against this integrated multidimensional model instead of the production -based model (GNP) (Bosco, 2016: 13).

Criticism of GNH

Critics of the GNH approach argue that “happiness” is too subjective to accurately measure and defies cross-cultural or global comparison (McCloskey, 2012).

Other critics argue that the original GNH philosophy was meant as a tactic for religious and cultural preservation that resulted in the isolation and poverty of the citizens. They also argue that GNH concept changed and evolved with time through the contribution of international scholars that gave it legitimacy beyond the Kingdom’s border. Although there were proponents of GNH inside and outside Bhutan who wrote papers and gave speeches, the original GNH philosophy is very different from that which was originally promoted by scholars. They argue that it took the Kingdom about three decades, until 2008, for it to include it in its constitution as formal policy. The also argue that in the four pillars of Bhutan’s GNH philosophy, “good governance” and “culture preservation” meant different things in 1970s to Bhutan than to the western world. The country was ruled as a monarchy and the people had their first election only after 2008 (Sengupta, 2007).

The most questionable of these policies was the stripping of the citizenship and expulsion of the Bhutanese families of Nepalese origin and Hindu religion. This was seen by many as a mistranslation of the original GNH philosophy of good governance and to preserve Buddhist values and culture. These policies were seen by many in the western world as a form of ethnic cleansing (Frelick, Human Rights Watch, 2008; Amnesty USA).

It is argued that that western scholars have contributed to the evolution of GNH from an anti- consumerism and anti-western value system into mainstream scientific public policy framework. Regardless of the original meaning of GNH or the past dark-policies of the Kingdom, the young King at the time would have never guessed that he inadvertently coined a phrase, at an airport in India, (Dorji, 2012) that inspired a new movement in socioeconomic policy-making.

From a scientific point of view, anthropologist Noelle Sullivan argues, the links between austerity measures, economic insecurity and poverty, and depression are clear. And, an article in the Harvard Business review reports that precarious work has been linked to health problems including depression and substance abuse. It seems that unhappiness, depression, and economic insecurity can be measured and link economic policy to well-being. These findings seem to support the view that happiness, security, and social inclusion, along with other indicators related to the philosophy of GNH can be as well.

Happiness, it seems, makes good economic sense.


Alkire, Maria and Santos, Maria Emma. 2011. Acute Multidimensional Poverty: A new Index for Developing Countries. Proceedings of the German Economic Development Conference (3). Accessed April 8, 2017.

Amnesty USA. http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/bhutan Beachy, Ben and Justin Zorn. 2012. 21st Century GDP: National Indicators for a New Era. Kennedy School of Government. Cambridge: Harvard University.

Bosco, Jean. 2016. Proposal for Cameroon’s New Socioeconomic Policy Development Framework. Yaoundé. http://gnh.institute/happiness-research-library/Cameroon-Gross- National-Wellbeing.pdf

Campbell, Alastair. 2012. The Happy Depressive: In pursuit of personal and political happiness. Arrow Books.

Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS). Welcome to the Centre for Bhutan Studies Works on Gross National Happiness. http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/ Accessed April 8, 2017.

CIA World Factbook https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world- factbook/geos/bt.html. Accessed April 5, 2017.

Dorji, Tashi. 2012. “The story of a king, a poor country and a rich idea.” Earth Journalism. http://earthjournalism.net/stories/6468

European Commission. ugust 2013. Staff working document on “Progress on the ‘GDP and Beyond’ actions.” http://ec.europa.eu/environment/enveco/pdf/SWD_2013_303.pdf. Retrieved April 5, 2017.

Frelick, Bill. 2008. “Bhutan’s Ethnic Cleansing” New Statesman. https://www.hrw.org/news/2008/02/01/bhutans-ethnic-cleansing

Gross National Happiness Commission. 2009. Tenth Five-Year Plan, 2008-2013. Royal Government of Bhutan. http://www.gnhc.gov.bt/wp- content/uploads/2011/10thplan/TenthPlan_Vol1_Web.pdf. Accessed April 8, 2017.

Hellyer, H . February 11, 2016. “The happiness portfolio is no laughing matter.” The National. http://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/the-happiness-portfolio-is-no-laughing-matter. Accessed April 7, 2017.

International Institute of Management (IIM). 2016 Gross National Happiness/Well-being - A policy white paper. https://www.iim-edu.org/grossnationalhappiness/. Accessed April 8, 2017.

McCloskey, Deirdre, 2012. “Happyism: The Creepy New Economics of Pleasure.” The New Republic.” Pp 16-23.

OECD. 2011. Measuring Well-Being and Progress. Paris. OECD Statistics Directorate.

Pugh, llison J. 2017. “What happens at home when people can’t depend on stable work.”

Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2017/04/what-happens-at-home-when-people-cant- depend-on-stable-work. Accessed April 5, 2017.

Ryback, Timothy W. March 28, 2012. “The U.N. Happiness Project.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/29/opinion/the-un-happiness-project.html. Accessed April 7, 2017.

Self, Abigail, Jennifer Thomas, and Chris Randall. 2012. Measuring National Well-Being: Life in the UK, 2012. Office for National Statistics. http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20160105160709/http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp1 71766_287415.pdf. Accessed April 8, 2017.

Sengupta, Somini. 2007. “Line up and pick a dragon: Bhutan learns to vote.” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/24/world/asia/24bhutan.html

Stiglitz, Joseph E, Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi. 2009. Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress. Paris. Available online from the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress: http://library.bsl.org.au/jspui/bitstream/1/1267/1/Measurement_of_economic_performance_ and_social_progress.pdf.

Sullivan, Noelle. 2017. Neo-liberalism is killing us: Economic stress as a driver of global depression. http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/40064-neoliberalism-is-killing-us- economic-stress-as-a-driver-of-global-depression-and-suicide. Accessed April 5, 2017.

The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan. http://www.nationalcouncil.bt/assets/uploads/files/Constitution%20%20of%20Bhutan%20Engl ish.pdf

UN Happiness Resolution 65/309.

World Bank. 2010. Innovation Policy: A Guide for Developing Countries. World Bank Publications. https://books.google.ca/books?id=wRq3fB9Hwr8C&pg=PA231&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=f alse. Accessed April 8, 2017.

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A Modern History of Happiness as Economic Policy. History and Criticism of Gross National Happiness
University of Guelph
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Gross National Happiness, GNH, Bhutan, economic indicator
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Deidre Rose (Author), 2017, A Modern History of Happiness as Economic Policy. History and Criticism of Gross National Happiness, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/366000


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