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Gross National Happiness in Bhutan: A Lesson in the Perils of Utopianism

Paro, Taktsang Goemba (Tiger's Nest)

“Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross National Product.” This famous quotation by Bhutan’s Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuk can be seen printed in the offices of Bhutanese government officials and written in crayon on the walls of classrooms all around the country. For decades, this motto has served as the country’s guiding principle and has popularized the concept of measuring happiness in the international community. The notion of GNH has been a major source of international attention for the small Himalayan Kingdom, especially in the Western World where the landlocked country’s primary distinguishing quality has been the novelty of this metric. To many people who lament the cold capitalism and dry economic measurements that guide so much of domestic politics, GNH offers an alluring and idealistic alternative. The broad narrative depicts a culturally pristine Eastern state that has rejected purely monetary measurements of wealth and instead discovered, if not a formula for societal happiness itself, an alternative metric that prioritizes human, environmental, and cultural welfare.

It’s a seductive image, but unfortunately also one that has been used surreptitiously to promote conservatism in the country and offer an excuse for failure to resolve social and political issues. Beyond this, GNH has profoundly failed as a genuine measurement of human welfare and has instead served as an ideological tool that has historically offered justifications for callous social policies and precarious economic agendas. As a consequence, Bhutan’s experience with Gross National Happiness exemplifies the proclivity of utopianistic dogma to license injustice and warns of the perils that come from the procurement of traditionalist policies through a pretext of cultural preservation.

Coined in 1972 by Bhutan’s reformist “Dragon King” Jigme Singye Wangchuk, who later led the country’s transition to constitutional monarchy, Gross National Happiness was conceived as a heterodox metric and an alternative to GDP that would help Bhutan maintain its cultural and national identity in the face of Westernization and modernization. Through this concept, evaluations of national wealth by the GNH Commission became based on a measurement of happiness derived from a Buddhist-inspired rubric, spanning psychological well-being, standard of living, good governance, health, education, community vitality, cultural diversity, time use, and ecological diversity. These categories were initially designed to motivate the political system to address specific issues the monarchy viewed as essential to the country’s future as it began the process of democratization. While some data is collected through an elaborate questionnaire issued to Bhutanese people across the country, other information is gathered through traditional means to assess topics like economic or environmental sustainability.

Superficially, this seems like an admirable approach to measuring a country’s success: Bhutan’s leaders appear to have eschewed a myopic focus on material growth in favor of sustainable and equitable development and cultural preservation. However, despite the positive reception of GNH throughout the global community and a current “happiness” rating of 90 percent within Bhutan, the concept has helped promote a dubious economic and social record. Specifically, Bhutan has struggled with an array of social and economic issues that include youth unemployment, declining GDP growth, the highest rate of alcoholism in Southeast Asia, increasing drug use, and gang violence in the capital Thimphu.

Moreover, the country is experiencing the effects of high income inequality — the top 20 percent hold eight times the wealth of the bottom 20 percent  — and a weak education system that exacerbates such inequality further. However, the incessant discourse centered on GNH and the need to preserve Bhutanese culture has inhibited constructive discussions about practical policy changes. Instead, conservative elites have used GNH to promote a political trajectory narrowly focused on the maintenance of antiquated agrarian lifestyles and social norms. The consequences of this are very problematic: instead of addressing income inequality, government corruption, or socio-economic freedom — including the unyielding discrimination and subjugation of the LGBTQ+ community — the Bhutanese political system is marred by tawdry appeals to GNH as an unequivocal solution to all the country’s issues. To put it simply, Gross National Happiness has not simply been employed as a tool for examining the success of the Bhutanese political system; it is the very basis on which that system operates.

The government’s approach to suicide is another symptom of the issue. Even though Bhutan has one of the highest suicide rates in the world, its political system has categorically failed to address this issue. Part of this failure is owed to prevalent cultural and religious attitudes that condemn suicide as a highly immoral act. Even discussion of the topic is relatively taboo, resulting in an unwillingness to seriously reach out to potential victims and invest in mental health support systems. Bhutan’s suicide problem consequently exemplifies three of the most pernicious ways in which GNH has been utilized: as a tool for a traditionalist agenda, as a means to conjure a facile narrative of the country as a widely happy place, and as means of upholding a conservative vision of national identity.

The narrative around GNH as a formula for state happiness also belies the dramatic implications of its emphasis on cultural preservation for ethnic minorities in Bhutan, particularly the Nepali-speaking Lhotshampa population. In 1989, King Wangchuck, fearing that the Lhotshampa could come to form the majority of the population, proclaimed a “One Nation, One People” policy, which sought to prevent cultural dilution by mandating the use of traditional Bhutanese garb and restricting the Lhotshampa’s linguistic autonomy. When these measures, taken in the name of protecting the country’s cultural heritage, were met with opposition, 100,000 members of the Lhotshampa population were systematically and forcibly expelled to Nepal throughout the 1990s in a great display of intolerance and moral dearth. Today the government under Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay continues to maintain that the refugees are not Bhutanese and simultaneously asserts that their abjection is a product of an easily navigable border instead of a monarchal effort to maintain a traditional cultural identity.

One thing is quite clear: the concept of Gross National Happiness did not prevent discriminatory policies and the escalation of ethnic tensions into mass displacement. In fact, the Bhutanese obsession with GNH, and in particular the imperative of cultural protection, provided a convenient ideological justification for the deportation of Nepali-speaking people. Most perplexing of all, perhaps, is the fact that Bhutan’s GNH reportedly rose throughout the Lhotshampa’s exodus, suggesting a cynical utilitarian calculus: Through cultural authoritarianism and the removal of the most unhappy and oppressed minority groups within Bhutan, the median GNH purportedly increased. Apparently the “Dragon King” had discovered the formula to happiness after all.

Like many utopian conceptions, GNH is rooted in admirable ideas, yet has practically limited Bhutanese social and economic progression, incentivizing inaction and traditionalism under the guise of cultural preservation. Moreover, it illustrates the danger of allowing political institutions to assess national happiness in order to gauge success; such evaluations inevitably bear some level of subjectivity. GNH would direct government institutions to develop their own unique standards of happiness because a universal or objective assessment of mental health, time use, or cultural preservation would be impossible to conjure. This would consequently have disastrous effects in the world’s most oppressive regimes. Fortunately, attitudes seem to be changing in Bhutan as the country becomes more acutely aware of the failure’s of GNH. The current Prime Minister of Bhutan has publicly decried the notion of measuring happiness and has insisted that more conventional and practical goals will better serve the country. In the Western World, where politics are becoming increasingly polarized, absolutist, and divisive, Bhutan can provide a lesson in the perils of utopianistic constructs.


About the Author

Julian Jacobs '19 is a Senior Staff Writer and Interviews Associate at BPR concentrating in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE). He is a former Opinion's Columnist for The Brown Daily Herald and the Founding Editor-in-Chief of the Brown University Journal of Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (JPPE).