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Bhutan: What is Gross Domestic Happiness?

| Words by Rachel McCombie

We take a look at Bhutan’s unique approach to measuring its own prosperity.

Can money ever make you happy? Most people have an opinion on the answer to this question, and the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is pretty clear about its stance on it. As a nation, Bhutan measures prosperity not by Gross Domestic Product - the traditional measure of a country’s wealth - but by a revolutionary new metric known as “Gross Domestic Happiness”.

Gross Domestic Happiness - also known as Gross National Happiness - is a measure of quality of life and social progress, and, as GrossDomesticHappiness.com puts it, “The essence of the philosophy of Gross National Happiness is the peace and happiness of our people and the security and sovereignty of the nation.” Bhutan - which has an official Gross Domestic Happiness Commission - is the only country to use this as a formal indicator of prosperity.

Who coined the term ‘Gross Domestic Happiness’?

Gross Domestic Happiness (GDH) is the result of an offhand remark made by the fourth Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in 1972. His use of a term that he thought up on the spot came to be taken much more seriously, and thus this new metric was born. It certainly makes sense, for a country whose culture is based on Buddhist values, for prosperity to be measured using a spiritual indicator rather than the production of goods and services. Bhutan is one of the world’s poorest countries, but this measure of prosperity takes into account that money isn’t everything.

How exactly does one measure happiness?

Happiness is not something that can easily be quantified, and it means different things to different people. But some of the things that contribute to it can be measured, and are generally agreed to result in a greater sense of well-being. This could include things like low infant mortality rates, low levels of consumer debt, environmental factors such as pollution or noise, health (mental and physical), job satisfaction, crime rates and so on. These factors are measured using statistical analysis of quantifiable metrics, along with surveys that people are asked to fill in. This produces a total average per capita, which can be used in place of Gross Domestic Product as a measure of prosperity.

A better measure of prosperity?

So is GDH a better way of measuring a country’s prosperity than GDP, and should more countries be using it? It’s perhaps the aspirational element of this measure that makes it something that we should take seriously: it’s not just about recording the status quo. It’s about Bhutan’s people striving together to achieve social equality and environmental sustainability. With nearly 100% of Bhutanese children enrolled at a primary school, the principles of GDH can be instilled in children from an early age; alongside traditional subjects, they are taught environmental responsibility and meditation, the latter promoting individual well-being.

The idea is that this produces adults who have been brought up to be good people - and that in turn surely increases national happiness. It’s something that other countries - particularly those in the western world - could potentially learn a lot from, and it would certainly be interesting to see whether GDH correlates with GDP. Whether or not it will remain an appropriate metric for Bhutan in the face of issues such as climate change - to which Bhutan’s mountainous terrain is particularly susceptible - remains to be seen; and one could argue that GDH is more to do with Bhutan’s monarchy trying to divert attention away from its national poverty. It’s hard to take exception to the theory, though: if money really can’t buy happiness, and happiness is what we’re ultimately striving for, then national well-being is a metric to which we should all be paying closer attention.

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