Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index

The phrase ‘gross national happiness’ was first coined by the 4th King of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, in the late 1970s when He stated, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” The concept implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notions of progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing and happiness.

Since then, the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has influenced Bhutan’s development policy, and also captured the imagination of others far beyond its borders. In creating the Gross National Happiness Index, Bhutan sought to create a measurement tool that would be useful for policymaking and create policy incentives for the government, NGOs and businesses of Bhutan to increase societal wellbeing and happiness.

The GNH Index includes both traditional areas of socio-economic concern such as living standards, health and education and less traditional aspects of culture, community vitality and psychological wellbeing. It is a holistic reflection of the general wellbeing of the Bhutanese population rather than a subjective psychological ranking of ‘happiness’ alone.

Structure of the GNH Index

The framework contains nine constituent domains of GNH. They are psychological wellbeing, health, time use and balance, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standard. The nine domains include 33 GNH conditions expressed as indicators. The indicators and domains aim to emphasise different aspects of wellbeing and human flourishing, and different ways of meeting underlying human needs.

Source: 2022 GNH, 2023

By assessing nine domains and 33 indicators, the GNH Index provides a comprehensive and balanced assessment of Bhutan’s progress as a nation. Concretely, the GNH Index measures whether or not each individual has attained sufficiency in each of 33 GNH conditions. For the GNH Index,  a person is classified as happy if she or he has sufficiency in at least 66% of the 33 weighted indicators or domains. The GNH Index combines the share of happy persons with the sufficiency achieved among the not-yet-happy people. It runs from 0 to 1, with values closer to 0 suggesting low GNH and 1 being a perfect score.

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. The 33 indicators are statistically reliable, normatively important, and are easily understood by large audiences. Within each domain, two to four indicators have been 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.

The Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies constructed the GNH Index using robust multidimensional methodology known as the Alkire-Foster method of multidimensional measurement.

What kind of results does the GNH Index give? 

The GNH Index identifies four groups of people – unhappy, narrowly happy, extensively happy, and deeply happy. The analysis explores the happiness people enjoy already, then focuses on how policies can increase happiness and sufficiency among the unhappy and narrowly happy people.

The GNH Index aggregates the proportion of happy people, plus the proportion of not-yet-happy people multiplied by the average sufficiency levels of not-yet-happy people. So the Index captures the rate of improvement across both happy as well as not-yet-happy people.

The GNH Index generates various types of results;

  1. Incidence of happy people: The share of people who are happy because their sufficiency score is 66% or higher. Value ranges from X to X
  2. Incidence of not-yet-happy people: The share of people who are not-yet-happy. The value ranges from 0 to 1. Note that if you subtract the headcount of happy people from 1 then you will get the headcount of not-yet-happy people, which reflects the percentage of the population who are not-yet-happy.
  3. Average sufficiency among happy people: The average level of sufficiency among happy people is the average sufficiency score of happy people. The value ranges from 0% to 100%.
  4. Average sufficiency among not-yet-happy people: The average level of insufficiency in weighted indicators among not-yet-happy people is the average sufficiency score of not-yet-happy people. The value ranges from 0% to 100%.
  5. Censored sufficiency headcount ratio: Share of the population who are happy and sufficient in the indicator. Each headcount ratio represents the percentage of the population who are happy and sufficient in the indicator.
  6. Uncensored sufficiency headcount ratio: Share of the population who are sufficient in the indicator. Each headcount ratio represents the percentage of population who are sufficient in that indicator, irrespective of whether they are happy or not-yet-happy.

The Index, incidence, and intensity are all ‘decomposable’, meaning they can be broken down by population group, for example, to show the composition of GNH among men and among women, or by district, and by dimension, for example to show which group is lacking in education.

The 2022 GNH Index

The Royal Government of Bhutan’s Centre for Bhutan & GNH Studies revised and released an updated GNH Index in May 2023. The GNH Index seeks to measure the nation’s wellbeing directly by starting with each person’s achievements in each indicator.

The results of the 2022 GNH Index, which were based on over 11,000 Bhutanese from every Dzongkhag, show a significant improvement in the overall wellbeing and happiness of the Bhutanese people.

The GNH Index value increased from 0.743 in 2010 to 0.781 in 2022. This upward trend demonstrates Bhutan’s commitment to creating an environment that fosters wellbeing and happiness, even in the face of economic downturns like the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The 2022 GNH index identifies four groups of people; deeply happy, extensively happy, narrowly happy and unhappy. Those people who have met at least 77% of the GNH enabling conditions, that is 77% of the 33 weighted indicators, are categorized as deeply happy. Those who have scores from 66% to 77% are classified as ‘extensively happy’. Both of these are GNH Happy. Those who met just 50% to 65% of the GNH conditions, are termed ‘narrowly happy’ and those who have sufficiency in less than half are classified as ‘unhappy’. 

Overall, 9.5% of Bhutanese people were deeply happy, 38.6% were extensively happy, 45.5% were narrowly happy, and 6.4% were unhappy.

For policy purposes it identifies ‘happy people’ as comprising sufficient achievements in 66% of the weighted indicators, whichever domains they come from. This corresponds to the groups who are identified as ‘extensively’ and ‘deeply’ happy. Therefore, ‘deeply’ and ‘extensively’ happy people makeup the ‘happy people’ while ‘narrowly’ and ‘unhappy’ make the ‘not-yet-happy’ people.

Group typeHappiness gradientSufficiency scores includedproportion of population in each groupaverage sufficiency score
Happy peopleDeeply happy77–100%9.5%80.9%
Extensively happy66–76.9%38.6%70.8%
Not-yet-happy peopleNarrowly happy50–65.9%45.5%59.7%
Unhappy0–49.9%6.4%45.2%

Source: GNH 2022, 2023

According to the 2022 GNH Index, 48.1% of those aged 15 years and above were classified as happy. The percentage of happy people increased over time, from 40.9% in 2010 to 48.1% in 2022.  In 2022, the remaining 51.9% of Bhutanese people were not-yet-happy, as they are presumed to lack some causes and conditions of well-being. For policy and programmatic purposes, it is vital that we understand the deprivations of those in the not-yet-happy group so future policies can accelerate GNH growth – and the GNH Index report illuminates key action areas.

Full details of the indicators and survey questions can be found on the Gross National Happiness website.

Impact on policy

For policy and programmatic purposes, its vital that we understand the deprivations of those in the not-yet-happy group so future policies can accelerate GNH growth. To improve the GNH Index value, we would need to understand who they are, what indicators they lack sufficiency in, and most importantly, what kind of interventions could improve their conditions.

The GNH Index is a useful instrument for policy making and planning because it provides a more comprehensive framework for assessing societal wellbeing and happiness. Some of the key ways in which the GNH Index has been utilised by the Royal Government of Bhutan are:

  1. Complement existing measures of development: The GNH index complements GDP by providing a more comprehensive and holistic perspective of progress that considers aspects other than economic growth. While GDP provides information on economic growth and development, it does not capture the full picture of a country’s wellbeing. The GNH index helps to fill this gap by providing a more comprehensive and holistic view of development that considers both material and non-material domains.
  2. Prioritise policy areas in GNH: The GNH Index enables policy makers and planners to identify and prioritise domains and indicators that are lagging behind. For example, if the Index shows that the population has a low level of psychological wellbeing domain, policy makers can prioritise policies and activities to address this issue, and therefore direct investments to improve the domain circumstances.
  3. Track and monitor national progress in GNH terms: The GNH Index is a valuable instrument for tracking GNH progress. It has been used by policy makers to track holistic progress and changes across various GNH domains over time.
  4. Align planning/policies/programmes/projects with GNH: The GNH Index can assist in ensuring that programmes and projects are aligned with general aims of increasing happiness and wellbeing. For instance, to help ensure that there is a seamless inclusion of GNH domains and indicators, planners incorporated the GNH indicators into the results-based approach framework of the 12th Five-Year Plan (FYP) in the form of the National Key Result Areas (NKRAs).
    In 2008, the Centre for Bhutan and GNH Studies (CBS) developed the GNH Policy Screening Tool, which is a framework for undertaking a systematic assessment of the potential consequences of proposed policies. The tool was created to assist policy makers and programme managers in determining how well their proposed policies correspond with a selected list of GNH indicators.
    As of 2023, the adoption of the GNH Index as a Resource Allocation Formulae (RAF) criterion is still in its early stages, but it has the potential to transform the way resources are distributed in Bhutan. The RAF is determined by characteristics such as population, multidimensional poverty rates, and geographic isolation. By including GNH Index values into the RAF, the government is able to consider not just economic or poverty variables, but also less basic social and environmental aspects that contribute to happiness and wellbeing.
  5. Set GNH targets and goals for sectors: The GNH Index has also paved its way as an alternative framework for setting sectoral targets and goals to help design GNH indicator relevant programmes. By setting goals that address many domains of the GNH Index, sectors can help enhance GNH in the country.

Relationship with other happiness measures

The GNH measure has been designed to fulfil various criteria which are needed for an official national measure of happiness that is also relevant to national and district policy. It aims to reflect the happiness and general wellbeing of the Bhutanese population more accurately and profoundly than a monetary measure.

A measure of Gross National Happiness might be presumed to comprise a single psychological question on happiness such as “Taking all things together, would you say you are: Very happy, Rather happy, Not very happy, or Not at all happy?” However, this is not the case with GNH. The objectives of Bhutan, and the Buddhist understandings of happiness, are much broader than those that are referred to as ‘happiness’ in the Western literature. Under the title of ‘happiness’ in GNH are a range of domains of human wellbeing including traditional areas of social concern such as living standards, health, and education, while some are less traditional, such as time use, psychological well-being, culture, community vitality, and environmental diversity.

Bhutan and the 2011 UN Resolution on Happiness and Development

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 and civil society and spiritual leaders together to develop a new economic paradigm based on sustainability and wellbeing. This built on the Government of Bhutan’s pioneering work to develop the GNH Index.

More information on Bhutan’s GNH Index