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Gross National Happiness: An Alternate Way to Measure Wealth

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Joe Mack
April 26, 2019

Deep in the Himalayas, wedged between the two most populous nations of the world, lies the tiny nation of Bhutan. Historically isolated and predominately Buddhist, the country has been slow to globalize, legalizing television in 1999 only after it was deemed a, “Gateway to happiness.” Tourism has only been permitted in Bhutan since the 1970s, and even today travelers who wish to stay in Bhutan are charged a $250 fee per day. This fee has successfully curbed the number of tourists who seek to enter the country each year, sparing Bhutan of the numerous negative environmental impacts resulting from the tourist industry.

Bhutan is also the only carbon-negative country in the world, meaning that trees absorb more carbon than what’s produced by emissions. Respect for the environment in Bhutan is a central cultural value, and children in schooling are encouraged to plant trees and clean up trash. For these reasons Bhutan has maintained a high degree of cultural homogeny, effectively preserving its unique heritage in an unprecedented age of automation and, in the process, giving its citizens an interesting perspective within the global community.

Bhutan’s claim to fame, however, must be the country’s innovative Gross National Happiness (GNH) policy. Instead of measuring the country’s total wealth in economic, materialistic terms, as our model of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) currently does, Bhutan measures its wealth in terms of the individual happiness of every citizen.

While this might completely rethink what it means to be wealthy in the western sense of the word, the Sanskrit (Indian-root) word for wealth, artha, can be directly translated to, “Meaning, goal, purpose and essence.” According to the Bhutanese, one’s personal happiness goes hand in hand with one’s goal and purpose in life. Where one finds meaning won’t be found in material wealth, but rather in how one feels at a given moment.

While happiness as a concept is subjective to the individual, Bhutan has structured a system by which it can be defined and empirically measured. The GNH index is divided into 9 separate domains measuring indicators of happiness such as living standards, health, psychological well-being, community vitality, and ecological/cultural diversity and resilience. The 9 domains are further divided into 33 subsections, and the data is gathered by a pool of randomly selected individuals from each of the 20 districts within Bhutan. Everyone who participates in the study takes a survey grading them on each of the 9 domains, which is then followed by a lengthy interview. For the 2015 survey, data was taken from 7,153 people aged 15 years and older. A 4-stage stratification sampling method was used to randomly select individuals.

The last national survey conducted by the government was released in 2015 and its findings are documented in a report that’s over 300 pages long. Some of the general takeaways of the survey include educated people being on average happier than uneducated people, urban residents tending to be happier than rural, and the idea that government services need to be improved. A major goal of the GNH index is to provide indispensable data to policymakers regarding the individual well-being of citizens so that better policies can then be structured and specific areas/regions in need can be targeted and given sufficient focus.

While the idea of GNH has been around since the 1970s, the first survey was conducted only recently, in 2006, and was comprised of the responses of just 350 individuals. Three more surveys have been conducted since then, and the positive effects of the index are already being felt. In the surveys conducted from 2010 to 2015, there has been a net positive 1.8 percent increase in the general happiness within the country containing a little more than 800,000 citizens.

Maybe the United States could learn a thing or two from Bhutan, as we are currently experiencing a pandemic of distress within our country. We live in an unfortunate age where deaths by suicide and opioids have overtaken deaths by car accidents (for the first time in our nation’s history), and now more than ever, people all around our country are reportedly feeling unhappy, and dissatisfied with life. Perhaps it’s time for us to rethink what it means to be successful in our society, starting with the word wealth itself, in a similar way that Bhutan actively does through Gross National Happiness.  

Joe Mack is a Freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University. He was born in Fairfax, VA and studies political science and religious studies. He is an Eagle Scout and subjects of interest include international policy, US history, land use, and the influence of religion/culture on policymaking. He works with the VCU Center for Public Policy in the LUEP and likes helping people.

The Wilder School’s Center for Public Policy advances research and training that informs public policy and decision-making to improve our communities. Drawing on the wide-ranging expertise of Wilder School faculty, we services including leadership development and training, economic and policy impact analysis, survey insights, and program evaluation to clients in governments, nonprofits, businesses, and the public, across Virginia and beyond.

Twitter: @CPPatVCU

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