Gross National Happiness

Happy woman carrying a basket in Bhutan

Keren Su / Getty Images 

The Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) is an alternate way (different than Gross Domestic Product, for example) to measure a country's progress. Instead of solely measuring economic indicators like GDP, GNH includes the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health of people and the environment as its key factors.

According to the Center for Bhutan Studies, the Gross National Happiness Index "implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notions of progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of well-being" (GNH Index). In order to do this, the GNH consists of a number index that is derived from the ranking of 33 indicators that are a part of nine different domains in a society. The domains include factors such as psychological well-being, health, and education.

History of the Gross National Happiness Index

Due to its unique culture and relative isolation, the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan has always had a different approach to measuring success and progress. Most importantly, Bhutan has always considered happiness and spiritual well-being as an important goal in a country's development. It was due to these ideas that it was the first place to develop the idea of a Gross National Happiness Index to measure progress.

The Gross National Happiness Index was first proposed in 1972 by Bhutan's former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuk (Nelson, 2011). At that time most of the world relied on the Gross Domestic Product to measure a country's economic success. Wangchuk said that instead of simply measuring economic factors, social and environmental factors among other things should be measured as well because happiness is a goal of all people and it should be the government's responsibility to ensure that a country's conditions are such that a person living there can attain happiness.

After its initial proposal, GNH was mainly an idea that was only practiced in Bhutan. In 1999 however, the Center for Bhutan studies was established and began to help the idea spread internationally. It also developed a survey to measure the population's well-being and Michael and Martha Pennock developed a shorter version of the survey for international use. This survey was later used to measure GNH in Brazil and Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

In 2004, Bhutan held an international seminar on GNH and Bhutan's king, Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk, expressed how important GNH was for Bhutan and explained that its ideas were applicable to all nations.

Since the 2004 seminar, GNH has become a standard in Bhutan and it is "a bridge between the fundamental values of kindness, equality, and humanity and the necessary pursuit of economic growth…" (The Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United Nations in New York). As such, the use of GNH in combination with GDP to measure a nation's social and economic progress has also increased internationally in recent years.

Measuring the Gross National Happiness Index

Measuring the Gross National Happiness Index is a complex process as it includes 33 indicators that come from nine different core domains. The domains within GNH are the components of happiness in Bhutan and each one is equally weighted in the index.

According to the Center for Bhutan Studies, the nine domains of GNH are:

  1. Psychological well-being
  2. Health
  3. Time use
  4. Education
  5. Cultural diversity and resilience
  6. Good governance
  7. Community vitality
  8. Ecological diversity and resilience
  9. Living standard

In order to make measuring the GNH less complicated these nine domains are often included in the four larger pillars of GNH as laid out by the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United Nations in New York. The pillars are 1) Sustainable and Equitable Socio-Economic Development, 2) Conservation of the Environment, 3) Preservation and Promotion of Culture and 4) Good Governance. Each of these pillars includes the nine domains - for example the 7th domain, community vitality, would fall into the 3rd pillar, Preservation and Promotion of Culture.

It is the nine core domains and their 33 indicators though that makes up the quantitative measurement of GNH as they are ranked according to satisfaction within the survey. The first official GNH pilot survey was conducted by the Center for Bhutan studies from late 2006 to early 2007. The results of this survey showed that more than 68% of Bhutan's people were happy and they rated income, family, health, and spirituality as their most important requirements for happiness (The Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the United Nations in New York).

Criticisms of the Gross National Happiness Index

Despite the popularity of the Gross National Happiness Index in Bhutan, it has received considerable criticism from other areas. One of the largest criticisms of GNH is that the domains and indicators are relatively subjective. Critics claim that because of the subjectivity of the indicators it is too difficult to get an accurate quantitative measurement on happiness. They also say that due to the subjectivity, governments may be able to change GNH results in a way that best suits their interests (

Other critics claim that the definition and therefore the ranking of happiness varies country by country and that it is difficult to use Bhutan's indicators as measurements to assess happiness and progress in other countries. For example, people in France may rate education or living standards differently than people in Bhutan or India.

In spite of these criticisms, however, it is important to note that GNH is a different and important way to simply look at economic and social progress around the world.