Bhutan’s Philosophy of “Gross National Happiness”

October 3rd, 2010 by Nick Jacobs Leave a reply »

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
—Albert Einstein

At a recent conference I had the opportunity to learn about the Himalayan nation of Bhutan. Most of us had not heard of this country, but we should have, because they have done something that is reminiscent of the Broadway Musical “Camelot,” or possibly “Brigadoon.” Their King introduced a philosophy of living that is intended to shape all of the government’s activities. According to Mr. Kuenga Tshering, Director of the National Statistics Bureau of Bhutan, Gross National Happiness (GNH) was promulgated as Bhutan’s philosophy of economic and social development by the Fourth King of Bhutan as soon as he came to the throne in 1972.

The reason I’m writing about this is because I believe it is an amazing idea, a wonderful goal, and a step toward embracing  idealism.  Many of you have heard my thoughts on change, and know that I do not believe that there is only one route to follow on this journey through life.

Takstan Monastery, Bhutan (image credit:

Takstan Monastery, Bhutan (image credit:

The Bhutanese philosophy of “living” refers to a set of social and economic interventions that evaluate societal change in terms of the collective happiness of people.  Further, these measures are also applied to the creation of policies that are aimed at that objective. Premised on the belief that all human beings aspire to happiness in one way or another, the concept promotes collective happiness of the society as the ultimate goal of development.  Now that would be a political platform!

The philosophy of Gross National Happiness considers economic growth as one of the means towards achieving happiness, but it also offers a holistic paradigm within which the mind receives equal attention. While GNH recognizes the importance of individual happiness, it emphasizes that happiness must be realized as a collective or societal goal and not be defined as an individualized or competitive good.

The philosophy should also not cause misery to future generations, other societies, or to other  beings, and it is important to the government of Bhutan that the efforts of this philosophy be distributed evenly across all sections of  the society.

They work at strengthening the institutions of family and community; the spirit of voluntarism, tolerance and cooperation; the virtues of compassion, altruism, honor and dignity, all of whose active promotion may be a contributing factor to Bhutan’s low crime rate.

Culture also provides a framework where an individual’s or society’s psychological and emotional needs are addressed. By preserving local, regional, and national festivals, the government attends to these needs and provides a forum for maintaining social networks and promoting the conviviality of public culture.

His Majesty, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan

His Majesty, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan

Bhutan treasures the extended family network as the most sustainable form of social safety net. Aware of the possibilities of family disintegration or nuclearization, the government makes conscious efforts to revive and nourish the traditions and practices that bond families and keep communities resilient and thriving.

Their environmental policy is predicated on the perspective that human beings and nature not only live symbiotically but are inseparable from each other. According to this perspective, nature is a partner in existence; a provider of sustenance, comfort and beauty.

Environmental preservation, therefore, is a way of life in Bhutan. Currently, 72% of the country’s area is under forest cover, 26% of the area is declared as protected areas, and the state has decreed to maintain 60% of its area under forest cover for all times to come. Environmental cost is an essential ingredient of evaluating new development projects in  Bhutan.

Finally, Bhutan launched parliamentary democracy 2008, becoming the youngest democratic country in the world. All this was initiated by the country’s leader – His Majesty, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, thus fostering people’s capacity to make choices.

Well, we have generally been making choices as a country for some time now that generally do not embrace nature, family, our fellow man, or the environment.  On a recent boat trip up the Caloosahatchee River, I expressed a dream, namely that mankind would embrace a philosophy of “National Happiness.”

Now wouldn’t that ROCK?

Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. — Albert Einstein

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  1. Nick, an inspiring post — even by your high, outside-the-box standards.

    A couple of personal observations: First, that so much of American culture’s definitions of “success” and happiness are deeply influenced by a specifically Calvinist religious tradition. I think it’s vitally important to realize that this is not necessarily synonymous with Christian values as such, but rather a peculiar, and, some would say, pernicious distortion of them. (This in no way minimizes the contributions of our national “Protestant work ethic,” however, to the extraordinary history of American prosperity and innovation.)

    Conversely, the original Catholic Christian tradition teaches the transcendence of the family and community, as well as the infinite value and dignity of every individual human life. It vigorously embraces the natural law aspects of the free market (and condemns socialism), while recognizing the higher ultimate good of human personhood over individual, material gain.

    Second, it’s intriguing that this highly progressive (in the best, non-ideological use of the word) vision for health and well-being comes from a kingdom ruled by a monarchy – until the king’s self-imposed abdication in 2008, making Bhutan the world’s youngest democracy.

    I think the takeaway here is that brilliant innovation in health, as in every other area of human endeavor, is often both profoundly simple, yet counter-intuitive to us as “enlightened” Westerners. Rather, excellence is where you find it. Period. We should be open to recognize and embrace the best aspects of it, wherever we find it, free of the shackles of pre-conceived, excessively materialistic and utilitarian notions of human value and well-being.

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