The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan was the first to measure happiness as an alternative to GDP. No wonder they’re so pleased
Tim Dowling in The Guardian
News from the International Conference on Gross National Happiness, where Bhutan’s happiness index rose from 0.743 in 2010 to 0.756 in 2015. “Is this fast or slow?” asked Bhutan’s prime minister in his keynote speech. “We do not yet know. We are still learning what is a ‘good’ growth rate!” He sounds jolly.
The notion of GNH was first introduced by Bhutan’s fourth king in the 70s, when he announced that “gross national happiness is more important that gross national product”. The GNH index is a number crunched from happiness survey statistics across nine “domains”, of which only one is living standards. Others include health, education, psychological wellbeing, time use, community vitality and cultural diversity.
GNH is a blend of hard numbers, subjective perceptions and virtually unmeasurable concepts, but it works pretty well in Bhutan, provided you’re not among the 17% of the population – mostly Hindus of Nepalese origin – expelled from the country in the 90s. It’s one way to get your GNH index up – kick out that oppressed minority.
In the last decade the idea of GNH has gained international traction. In the US some states measure the genuine progress indicator, alongside gross state product. In 2012, the UN released a World Happiness report. And the UK’s Office For National Statistics recently started measuring national wellbeing.
There’s nothing wrong with measuring subjective happiness levels – it’s interesting precisely because they’re subjective. Recent GDP improvements brought no corresponding increase British wellbeing. In Bhutan, people’s perceptions of their own health worsened even as healthcare indices improved. Still, 91% of Bhutanese are classed as either narrowly, extensively or deeply happy. Joy-wise it’s roughly on a par with Denmark, even though Bhutan’s adult literacy rate is around 60% and its GDP per capita puts it well below mid-table in world rankings.
Happiness is relative, which means the statistics can be pressed into service by anybody wanting to prove anything, including those who would suggest that spending money to improve people’s lives isn’t worth the bother. I fear that’s where all this wellbeing measurement will lead us. But cheer up – it may never happen.