Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index

Gross National Happiness background & history

Gross national happiness- was designed in an attempt to define an indicator that measures quality of life or social progress in more holistic and psychological terms than only the economic indicator of gross domestic product

The term quality of life (QOL) is used to evaluate the general well-being of individuals and societies. The term is used in a wide range of contexts, including the fields of international development, healthcare, and politics. Quality of life should not be confused with the concept of standard of living, which is based primarily on income. Instead, standard indicators of the quality of life include not only wealth and employment, but also the built environment, physical and mental health, education, recreation and leisure time, and social belonging.

The term “gross national happiness” was coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Proposed policies in Bhutan must pass a GNH review based on a GNH impact statement that is similar in nature to the Environmental Impact Statement required for development in the U.S. The Bhutanese grounding in Buddhist ideals suggests that beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.

According to Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton University psychologist, happiness can be measured using the day reconstruction method, which consists in recollecting memories of the previous working day by writing a short diary.

Gross National Happiness (GNH) value is proposed to be an index function of the total average per capita of the following measures:

  1. Economic Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of economic metrics such as consumer debt, average income to consumer price index ratio and income distribution
  2. Environmental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of environmental metrics such as pollution, noise and traffic
  3. Physical Wellness: Indicated via statistical measurement of physical health metrics such as severe illnesses
  4. Mental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of mental health metrics such as usage of antidepressants and rise or decline of psychotherapy patients
  5. Workplace Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of labor metrics such as jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints and lawsuits
  6. Social Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of social metrics such as discrimination, safety, divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, crime rates
  7. Political Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of local democracy, individual freedom, and foreign conflicts.

Criticism of Gross National Happiness Index (GNH)

Some have argued that happiness is a fleeting state of mind and is hugely influenced by mood swings of the individual and disposition of the neighbors. It is also subject to hedonistic treadmill – wearing off as it does with time. To some others, happiness itself is illusory. For instance, in a very pitiable condition of starvation, one may feel very happy for merely two loaves of bread. Prof. Amartya Sen argues that even though people living a life of great misfortune with little hope and opportunities may get more happiness over small gains, this should not be interpreted as significant improvement in their well-being. Their happiness does not actually reveal the true picture of their deprivation because of their “hopelessly deprived lack of the courage to desire much”.

Downside of Gross National Happiness

Another downside of the GNH concept is the problem in measuring happiness of such people as sadists or psychopaths. There is also the probability of disguise reporting by individuals to manipulate state policy pertaining to happiness. Responses may be different to same questions on happiness if phrasing and placement of questions vary. “In some cultures, people may not like to express their feelings but in others they may like it.”

Translation of happiness surveys into policy recommendations at times yields anomalous results. For example, at times of higher unemployment rates, the unemployed are happier than before because of reduced stigma of being unemployed. But raising unemployment rates as a state policy would certainly be an egregious blunder.

Harvard’s social psychologist Daniel Gilbert has dived into another intriguing aspect of happiness. He says that people’s forecast of happiness and unhappiness overrates what they eventually come to experience. For instance, the individuals getting paraplegic do not feel as unhappy as they had apprehended; nor do the persons winning lotteries feel as happy as they had expected.

Some experts such as Venezuelan economist Frank Bracho persist with the age-old objection that the very “act of trying to quantify happiness could threaten it.”

In Bhutan, the very Buddhist psyche of the people make them appreciate what they have and be contented with that. They love simplicity and tend to shun the complexity of consumerism because they have been conditioned accordingly for generations by their religion, culture and respect for the natural world. Around 95% of the Bhutanese youth studying abroad come back to settle at home. Tshiteem, in tune with the national mood, favors the existing agrarian Bhutan over its urbanization and disfavors outsourcing that will require Bhutanese youth to “stay up all night” and “sleep all day”.

Thus, Bhutan’s attempt to go for the measurement of happiness has sprung up not only from the evidences against income-happiness correlation but also from Bhutan’s unique socio-cultural impulses that impart primacy to contentment. Since happiness is an inner experience, one can experience perfect contentment by developing and training the mind. Critics, however, argue that the concept of GNH has organically evolved from the constituent features of the Bhutanese society. It is the translation of existing socio-cultural-religious values into development priorities. GNH may gel well with the mental makeup of a long-insulated tiny nation anchored in unalloyed Buddhist philosophy; but for a large country having a huge population with diversified outlooks, attitudes and cultures, the Bhutanese concept can hardly serve as a template for emulation. The merit of Bhutanese concept of GNH is undoubted in exposing the inherently flawed nature of GDP. GNH as the guideline has fetched good results for the people of Bhutan. Still, as admitted by the then Bhutanese Prime Minister Kinzang Dorji in the third GNH Conference, “considerable space exists between the inspirational ideal of GNH and the everyday decisions of policy makers”.

Putting GNH into practice has drawn sharp reactions as evidenced in Bhutan’s deportation of over 100,000 inhabitants of Nepalese ethnicity on the grounds of non-adoption of traditional Bhutanese language, dress and religious practices. Balaram Poudyal, president of Bhutan People’s Party formed by the deportees bewails, “It’s not gross national happiness; it’s gross national sorrow.”

The sympathisers of the exiles read into it a conspiratorial ethnic cleansing under the cloak of GNH mumbo-jumbo. Critics comment that GNH is, at best, an empty slogan including everything and meaning nothing; while, at worst, it is an ideological cover for repressive and racist policies.

It is also questionable whether Bhutan’s pillars of GNH will survive the arrival of television and Internet; and the consequent onslaught of globalisation. A media impact study, conducted by Sok Sian Pek for Bhutan’s Communication Ministry, detected huge changes in family life of Bhutanese. People adjust mealtimes for their favourite TV programmes.People are becoming restless and materialistic. Youngsters have started watching pop music and playing video games in dirty pubs. There is a controversy surrounding the causal aspect of happiness as well: Whether happiness is derived by having what one desires or desiring what one has? Jeff Larsen of Texas Tech University and Amie McKibban of Wichita State University studied both the aspects. Their test showed both to be instrumental in generating happiness though the correlation between the two was found to be far from perfect.

Read about: Gross National Product, Gross Domestic Product, Monopoly

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