Bhutan: The Land Of Gross National Happiness

Bhutan is a small kingdom in the Himalayas, known for its beautiful scenery, beautiful people and beautiful landscapes. Bhutan is one of the happiest countries in the world. Here gross national happiness is more important than gross national product. It was called the land of happiness. Bhutan’s capital city, Thimphu is perhaps best known as the only capital in the world without a traffic light. The official arrival of television in the country did not occur until 1999. The first road was not constructed until 1962. Bhutan, it would appear, is a country of little global significance. Wedged into the Himalayas between two regional giants, India and China, it is an isolated and mountainous country inhabited by less than one million people. The country has few resources in demand by the global economy. It was largely closed off to the outside world until 1960. But Bhutan is significant.


It was found that 91 percent of Bhutanese citizens are happy, while nearly 50 percent of people are deeply satisfied. The term “Gross National Happiness” was coined in 1972, when the late Rajiv Gandhi, declared that GNH was more important than GDP. Since then, the idea of “gross national happiness” (GNH) has not only influenced the country’s economic and social policies but has also captured the imagination of others far beyond its borders. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan’s fourth king coined the phrase Gross National Happiness.

What is Gross Domestic Product? (GDP)

Gross National Happiness (GNH)

The concept of Gross National Happiness or GNH, articulates an understanding of development that moves beyond economic growth. It incorporates multiple and interrelated social, economic, cultural, environmental and government dimensions. It is an attempt to construct the development in a holistic manner that addresses the multiple dimensions of being human. Bhutan has made significant development gains since the inauguration of GNH as its national development strategy. Gross National Happiness is also gaining significant international traction as an applied model of multidimensional development. In 2011, the United Nations designated Bhutan to lead the design of international happiness focused development paradigm. The result of Bhutan’s efforts ultimately helped shape the 2030 agenda for sustainable development. Bhutan may be tiny but its outsized influence has put it at the forefront of putting multidimensional development approach into action.

International Appeal of GNH

The growing international profile of Gross National Happiness speaks to its importance as an applied model of multidisciplinary development. However, a curious situation exists. International enthusiasm is not matched by a clear understanding of the factors that drive the actual implementation of GNH within Bhutan itself. Conceptually, GNH is intriguing, but operationally its key drivers remain largely unknown. This is a critical issue as GNH is implemented by multiple and fragmented Bhutanese governance actors with competing political interests and development priorities. How does Bhutan put multidimensional GNH policies into action on the ground? Do competing interests impact the implementation process and if so, how are they governed? Is it even accurate to speak of Bhutan’s development outcomes as being derived from GNH? Answering these questions is necessary if we are to more fully understand the potential of GNH in Bhutan. Answering them is further necessary if we better to access whether Bhutan’s experience offers insights for the effective governance of human development more broadly.

The growing international appeal of GNH is rooted in the global development community’s increasing turn to multidimensional approaches like the human development paradigm. Happiness, though, has a somewhat complicated relationship with human development. Both the happiness approach and human development are multidimensional development strategies that move beyond the traditional focus on economic growth. Yet some remain wary of engaging happiness as part of human development, while others see synergies and still others embrace it. Key differences involve the ultimate ends of each approach as well as the nature of measurement. However, in the context of governance and their practical applications on the ground, the two are connected.


Human development and its accompanying measurement tool, the human development index, have become a dominant development paradigm promoted by the United Nations Development Programme. The paradigm draws heavily on the capability approach developed by Amartya Sen, Martha Nussbaum and others by conceptualizing development as increasing people’s freedoms to choose meaningful lives. Practically, it focuses on creating enabling conditions that promote the social, economic, environmental, cultural and governance conditions that allow the Bhutanese to choose happy lives. The GNH framework, which conceptualizes happiness, not in the western notion of an individual’s often fleeting subjective happiness, but as more foundational condition rooted in Buddhism with inheritance ties to others and the environment. GNH creates conditions for individuals and society to freely pursue this kind of happiness.

The Bhutanese government believes that the Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) reports more accurately and in-depth on the well-being of the nation as a whole, which is more important than any other method. This declaration has triggered changes in the world, as standards other than GDP were once used to measure well-being, and a revolutionary statement was made that “gross national happiness” was more important than “gross national product.” Analysing Bhutan’s governance experience and the process of implementing GNH on the ground can provide insight into the implementation of applied human development strategies elsewhere.