There are several, universally accepted, statistical indicators that are used to appropriately measure the overall development and economic progress of a nation. GDP(gross domestic product) per capita, has been considered as the strongest of all indexes, for a long time now. However, the 4th King of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, envisioned a different yardstick to measure the pace of growth and progress in his country. The concept of ‘gross national happiness’ was coined by him in 1972 when he declared, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” The concept implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notion’s progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing.
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The concept of GNH
The concept behind GNH comes from placing value upon those aspects which may or may not be economically calculable, however, have a deep impact on our well-being and overall living circumstance. The aim is not to quantify but to qualitatively look at different aspects of people’s lives to ascertain their level of happiness and satisfaction.
For instance, if there are two people, one whose life is consumed with working, leaving barely any time for friends and family, while the other, though not as good in working conditions, has still enough quality time to spend with his friends and family. Then that person who spends time with family and friends ends up having a larger GNH, than the person that is just in it for work. In other words, a person is happier or can be happier, in life by focusing on the little things.
UN adoption of GNH
In 2011, the UN unanimously adopted a General Assembly resolution, introduced by Bhutan with support from 68 member states, calling for a “holistic approach to development” aimed at promoting sustainable happiness and wellbeing. This was followed in April 2012 by a UN High-Level Meeting on “Happiness and Wellbeing: Defining a New Economic Paradigm” designed to bring world leaders, experts, civil society, and spiritual leaders together to develop a new economic paradigm based on sustainability and wellbeing. This builds on the Government of Bhutan’s pioneering work to develop the GNH Index.
What does it mean?
The GNH Index includes both traditional areas of socio-economic concern such as living standards, health, and education and less traditional aspects of culture like psychological wellbeing. It is a holistic reflection of the general wellbeing of the Bhutanese population rather than a subjective psychological ranking of ‘happiness’ alone.
The GNH Index is decomposable by any demographic characteristic, meaning it can be broken down by population group, for example, to show the composition of GNH among men and women. Or it could be deconstructed district-wise, for instance, to show which group is lacking in education, rural or urban. The indicators and domains aim to emphasize different aspects of wellbeing and different ways of meeting underlying human needs.
In creating the index of ”Gross Domestic Happiness” Bhutan sought to create a measurement tool that would be useful for policymaking and to create incentives for the government, NGOs, and businesses of Bhutan to increase GNH.
What does it consist of?
The Gross National Happiness Index is a single number index developed from the 33 indicators categorized under nine domains. The Centre for Bhutan Studies constructed the GNH Index using a robust multidimensional methodology known as the Alkire-Foster method.
The concept of GNH has often been explained by its four pillars; good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. The four pillars have been further classified into nine domains to create a widespread understanding of GNH and to reflect the holistic range of GNH values.
The nine domains are equally weighted because each domain is considered to be equal in terms of its intrinsic importance as a component of GNH. They are psychological well-being, the standard of living, good governance, health, community vitality, cultural diversity, time use, and ecological resilience.
The 33 indicators are statistically reliable, are normatively important, and are easily understood by large audiences. Within each domain, two to four indicators were selected that seemed likely to remain informative across time, had high response rates, and were relatively uncorrelated. Within each domain, the objective indicators are given higher weights while the subjective and self-reported indicators are assigned far lighter weights.
What was the process of arriving at GNH?
In 1998, the government of Bhutan established the Center for Bhutan Studies and Gross National Happiness (CBSGNH) to conduct research on the topic. The institute’s mandate was to develop a GNH index that the government could build into its public policy decisions. Bhutan could then share this framework with the outside world, with which the isolated Himalayan country was increasingly in contact with. To that end, the GNH Center in Bumthang developed what it calls the four pillars of GNH. These are — good governance, sustainable development, preservation and promotion of culture, and environmental conservation.
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The 2008 constitution dictates that lawmakers must take each into account when considering new legislation. The CBSGNH published an official report of its research into GNH in 2012. The report draws upon previously collected data and a formal survey that was conducted in 2010. In this report, the center provides an overview of national performance across the nine domains described above. Each domain is weighted equally, but the indicators that go toward each domain’s rating are scaled according to the subjectivity of that indicator.
The research allows for so many components and domains of happiness because it operates on the assumption that happiness is a multidimensional concern. True contentment follows from the sense that others are happy, not just the self. In Bhutan, the pursuit of happiness is a collective one, though a significant portion of the sentiment comes from within. The nine-domain structure of GNH attempts to capture that multidimensional pursuit.
The spread of GNH in other countries
There have been many other national and local governments outside Bhutan, who have adopted GNH or have tried to measure well-being and happiness in their way, not using GNH. A shortened version of GNH has been used in countries like- Canada, The UK, The US, Brazil, the Philippines, and more.
Also, several companies that are implementing sustainability practices in business, have been inspired by GNH. It also represents a form of leadership for sustainability that gains international recognition.
The gross national happiness index presents itself as one of the more holistic economic measures of current times. Especially in today’s time when people are rightfully questioning the legitimacy of many of the current measures we use, GNH comes across as a more broader and comprehensive perspective on the assessment of the well-being and happiness of people. It remains to be seen, however, whether in the long run, it is adopted by a larger more populous country as a definitive performance indicator or not. The implications of such an adoption will be very interesting to find out.
Till then the answer is up in the air.