Bhutan, Indonesia, Gross National Happiness (GNH) developmental philosophy

Bhutan and Indonesia established diplomatic relations from 15th December 2011. Nations becoming friends are always good news and healthy for peaceful world. In light of this development, both Bhutan and Indonesia could learn many things from each other. Both nations are located in Asian region and they have bright future in terms of development in all aspects. In particular, Indonesia with world’s fourth largest population and rich natural resources has potential opportunities to be the leading economy of the world. Of late, intellectuals, economists, leaders and common people are questioning about economy being measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate. Though GDP remains one of the significant indicators for economic growth, individual’s wellbeing needs to be considered amid rapid developmental activities and materialistic pursuits. Therefore, Indonesia with its immense potential to be one of the leading economies of the world could base its economic developmental practices on Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) developmental philosophy.

The term Gross National Happiness was conceived by Bhutan’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972 when he was just a mere teenager aged seventeen and at a time when he had to ascend the golden throne because of unfortunate and untimely demise of the third king. He said, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product”. Since then, the GNH concept has been developed seriously under the leadership of the president of Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS), Karma Ura. Currently, Bhutan’s developmental activities (five-year plans) are all guided by GNH philosophy.

Gross National Happiness (GNH): 4 Pillars & 9 Domains

That said, what is GNH? 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. These four pillars specifically have nine domains namely psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards, which were developed by Centre for Bhutan Studies in collaboration with a group of international scholars and empirical researchers (Thinley 2007; Ura & Galay 2004; Ura 2008). Therefore, GNH framework is based upon the empirical research literature of happiness, positive psychology and well-being.

The Gross National Happiness survey was carried out in 2010 by CBS with representative samples taken at district and regional levels in Bhutan. The survey was administered using the GNH questionnaire, which gathered data on a comprehensive picture of the wellbeing of Bhutanese. The survey gathered data from 7142 respondents; 6476or 90.7% of the respondents had sufficient data to be included in the GNH Index. Some of the highlights about happy people revealed by GNH Index are:

  • Men are happier than women on average.
  • Of the nine domains, Bhutanese have the most sufficiency in health, then ecology, psychological wellbeing, and community vitality.
  • In urban areas, 50% of people are happy; in rural areas it is 37%.
  • Urban areas do better in health, living standards and education. Rural areas do better in community vitality, cultural resilience, and good governance.
  • Happiness is higher among people with a primary education or above than among those with no formal education, but higher education does not affect GNH very much.
  • The happiest people by occupation include civil servants, monks/anim, and local government members. Interestingly, the unemployed are happier than corporate employees, housewives, farmers or the national work force.
  • Unmarried people and young people are among the happiest.

GNH indicators serve as evaluative tools to track developmental progress over time.  GNH screening tool systematically assesses impacts of any policy and project on GNH, thereby simultaneously selecting GNH enhancing policies and projects and rejecting projects and policies that adversely affect key determinants of GNH.

Psychological well-being is the first domain of GNH which leads to desirable outcomes, even economic ones, and does not necessarily follow from them. In a very intensive research done by Diener and his colleagues, people who score high in psychological well-being later earn high income and perform better at work then people who score low in well-being. It is also found to be related to physical health. In addition, it is often noticed that what a society measures will in turn influence the things that it seeks. If a society takes great effort to measure productivity, people in the society are likely to focus more on it and sometimes even to the detriment of other values. If a society regularly assesses well-being, people will provide their attention on it and learn more about its causes. Psychological well-being is therefore valuable not only because it assesses well-being more directly but it has beneficial consequences (CBS 2012).

The second domain standard of living is one of the important determinants of well-being or happiness. Obviously, improvement of living standard constitutes the most important objective of plans and programs of both developed and developing countries. Given this important role in actualizing the overall well-being of their citizens, it has been (and continues to be) a subject widely studied by various disciplines and agencies- governmental, non-governmental, multilateral, academic, etc. These studies also have a variety of themes, with poverty being the most common one. Studies on poverty have looked at its “causes, effects, and prevalence” and the extent to which it improved or worsened following change in government policies and programs. Inequality is another popular theme. These studies looked at the disparity in standards of living between rich and poor, sub-populations, ethnic groups, etc. Studies have also focused on how standards of living have changed over time (CBS 2012).

The significance of the third domain of good governance and GNH is evident from the reigns of all the successive Kings of Bhutan that the ultimate purpose of governance has been to bring greater well-being and happiness to a greater number of people. In this respect, governance in Bhutan has always been an integral part of the system of government and of political structures, which reflect and internalize GNH values. In particular, efficiency, transparency and accountability have been the main thrust of the good governance exercise carried out in 1999 and revised in 2006 to enhance good governance in the country (CBS 2012).

The fourth domain is health. Promotion of health and happiness of its citizens are the ultimate goal of most state policies. State policies are increasingly directed towards enhancing well-being of its people, which for so long have been concentrated only on economic fronts (CBS 2012). The fifth domain education is undoubtedly important to uplift any individual’s wellbeing and quality of life.

The sixth domain is community vitality. For meaningful development and vitality of the community the emphasis on the quality of life of the community, not just on the economic aspects of it, is clearly important. The seventh domain is cultural diversity and resilience. The significance of cultural diversity for humanity is now being increasingly recognized by several international organizations. The UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity represents the first international instrument aimed at promoting cultural diversity. Developing cultural resilience is also given importance, which can be understood as the culture’s capacity to maintain and develop cultural identity, knowledge and practices, and able to overcome challenges and difficulties from other norms and ideals (CBS 2012).

The eighth domain is time use and happiness. Time is an important resource for everyone. It is also a limited resource in that we have only 24 hours in a day to put to competing uses. How we use this limited resource is important and has implications for our economic and social well-being (CBS 2012). The ninth domain is ecological diversity and resilience and it is equally important owing to ecological destruction amid rapid pace of developmental activities.

GNH is increasingly being discussed and developed in international platform like conferences around the world (Bates 2009). Many leaders and nations are now taking a pause and trying to understand GNH philosophy in order to orient their developmental plans in line with GNH pillars for increased sustainability not only for today’s generations but also for generations beyond. Besides, the United Nations has adopted Bhutan’s proposal to include happiness as the Ninth Millennium Development Goal (MDG) this year indicating the importance of considering happiness and well being of its citizens by every nation in the planet.

To sum it all up in the words of Bhutan’s fifth king, “The essence of the philosophy of Gross National Happiness is the peace and happiness of our people and the security and sovereignty of the nation”. Therefore, based on my views, I personally believe Indonesia has a significant potential to emerge as the world’s leading economy with the highest propensity of happiness. Bhutan has been the eighth happiest nation of the world (even with a low GDP). WHY not Indonesia?


  • CBS 2012,, viewed November 3, 2012.
  • Bates, W, 2009, Gross National Happiness, Journal compilation Crawford School of Economics and Government, The Australian National University and Blackwell Publishing Asia Pty Ltd.
  • Thinley, J., 2007, ‘What is gross national happiness’, in Rethinking Development—proceedings of the second international conference on gross national happiness, The Centre for Bhutan Studies, Bhutan. Available at, <>.
  • Ura, K., 2008, GNH index, paper presented to 4th International Gross National Happiness Conference, Thimphu. Available at <>.
  • Ura, K. and Galay, K., 2004, ‘Preface’, in K. Ura and K. Galay (eds), Gross National Happiness and Development: proceedings of the first international seminar on operationalization of gross national happiness, The Centre for Bhutan Studies, Bhutan.

Subash Sharma

Subash Sharma is 2012 AusAid Scholar from Bhutan who is currently pursuing Master of Business Administration/Master of Marketing Management in the University of Canberra.

Back home, he is the co-founder of Bhutan’s first private waste services firm, Greener Way. Greener Way’s missions are to contribute towards Bhutan’s environmental conservation efforts, economic growth and employment generation which are all in line with Gross National Happiness developmental philosophy.  

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