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I am sharing a paper that i presented on ‘Bhutan:Gross National Happiness?’ at the Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand on November 6, 2012. The paper was part of a public forum with the title ‘a public forum on government and politics in Nepal and Bhutan.


Tuesday, November 6, 2012.

Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand



By Tashi Dorji, Editor and Managing Director, Business Bhutan


A very good morning


First of all, I would like to thank ISIS Thailand and the Chulalongkorn University for inviting me to talk on Gross National Happiness. I would also like to extend my special thanks to Dr. Thitinan for making this forum possible and all those involved in the forum. And my greetings from the people to Bhutan to everyone present here today. 

All of you would know that Gross National Happiness (GNH) is the development philosophy of my country, Bhutan. Before I move on to talk about GNH, I would like to briefly introduce Bhutan for the benefit of those who may not know much about my country.



Bhutan was unified for the first time in its history in the early 17th century.

A Tibetan Lama, by the name of Ngawang Namgyel, was holding an important seat in the Tibetan estate of Ralung and was recognized as the reincarnation of an important lama. However, a controversy arose after there was another claimant who also claimed to be the real reincarnation and his candidature was supported by influential people.

The controversy forced Ngawang Namgyel to flee to Bhutan in 1616. At that time, there were several other Buddhist sects prevalent in Bhutan. Ngawang Namgyel went on to defeat all of them and unified Bhutan for the first time. By then Ngawang Namgyel was given the honorific title of the Zhabdrung which means ‘at whose feet one submits.’

The Zhabdrung went on to establish a dual system of governance under a legal code under which power and control of the country was shared between a spiritual leader and an administrative and secular leader. The present day governance is a modified form of the dual governance system created by the Zhabdrung.

The legal code under which the Zhabdrung ruled the country, usually credited as the 1729 legal code, declares that “if the government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist.”     

After unifying the country, the Zhabdrung died in 1651. He was so popular at that time that the news of his death was kept a secret for 54 years and a small group of his trusted people who ruled the country let everyone believe that he was in silent meditative retreat. Even orders were drafted in his name. The reason for keeping the news a secret was the fear that it would trigger a power struggle and send the country to war. Making things worse, the Zhabdrung was a monk and he did not have a legal heir to succeed him.

After the news of his death became public, the country was ruled by many leaders for the next two centuries and Bhutan recorded a very bloody history during this period. By the beginning of the 20th century, one man had become the most powerful figure and he ruled the country from his fort in central Bhutan. In 1907, all power centers in Bhutan decided to consolidate the country and unanimously made him the first King of Bhutan. It was the birth of the monarchy in Bhutan and it was also the birth of a new and a peaceful country.

If we take stock of Bhutan’s history today, it must be understood that the intent with which Bhutan became a monarchy has been a successful story. Since then, we have had five kings and each and every one of them has been a symbol of unity for the country. Each has been selfless and giving. Every king of Bhutan has placed the interests of the country before his own. And, we, the people of Bhutan, love and respect our Kings. We pray for our kings before we pray for ourselves because we are fortunate to have Kings who we consider, in the spirit of being Buddhists, true bodhisattvas and it is not their blood but their actions that deserve such an accolade.

The first King, His Majesty Gongsa Ugyen Wangchuck, ruled the country till he passed away in 1926. His son, His Majesty Jigme Wangchuck, succeeded him and ruled the country till 1952. His Majesty Jigme Dorji Wangchuck ruled the country till 1972 when he died one year after making Bhutan a member of the United Nations.

The fourth king, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the golden throne formally in 1974 and when he was 51 years old and in 2006 he handed over the kingship to the fifth and the current king His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck. So figuratively speaking, we have two kings in Bhutan today.



Even after Bhutan became a monarchy, it remained an isolated country to the world. Apart from few occasional journals written by British explorers and more infrequent news reports by the international media, hardly anything was known about Bhutan by the outside world. Its policy of self-imposed isolation was not to hide itself from the world but there was no pressure to open itself in the early 20th century. The extreme geography also contributed to the isolation with the Himalayas in the north restricting easy access to Tibet and the tropical southern borders making it a haven for tropical diseases like malaria and dengue making the area extremely difficult for human settlement.

By the middle of the 20th century, Bhutan was forced to wake up to the realities which came in the form of the upheaval in the north following the Chinese invasion of Tibet and the independence of India from the British in the south. So it was only in 1961 that Bhutan opened itself to the world and it did so by initiating the first five-year development plan.

Joining the UN 10 years later in 1971 was a big development. 



Just one year after becoming a member of the UN, the third king passed away in 1972 leaving a 17 year heir apparent who waited for two years before he formally became king.

When His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck ascended the throne in 1974, Bhutan was still an agrarian economy. Modern infrastructure like roads was being built for the first time thorough its mountainous terrain with development assistance of India. Literacy level in modern education was also painstakingly low and there were just a handful of university graduates in the country. Bhutan was dealings with the basics in modern development.

Outside Bhutan, the global economy was not faring well at that time either. 1973-74 was the time when the world saw the beginning of the 1970s recession and one of the worst stock market crashes of modern times particularly affecting the United Kingdom and all the major stock markets around the world. It was a time when the Bretton Wood System had virtually collapsed.

Back home, the young teenager king was building a vision for his poor country and preparing it to brace the challenges of modern development. Those were also the days when the king mostly toured the country on horseback and mingled with the people, mostly villagers, around campfires at night and drank water from natural springs. His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck made his vision clear in almost all such informal meetings with his mostly illiterate citizenry and the civil servants. The message was clear and simple and it was that the happiness of the people is more important than economic development.

At almost every informal and formal meeting, His Majesty outlined his vision for the country with the same message. He was never tired of reiterating that collective happiness of the people was his ultimate goal.

In one of my interviews with the current prime minister of Bhutan, Jigmi Y Thinley, who is credited as the ambassador of GNH to the outside world, he agreed that there is no single incident recorded as the first time when His Majesty asserted his philosophy of development or the idea of GNH.

Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley told me, “It was during these unrecorded and informal occasions, over campfires, during his travels throughout the country that His Majesty repeatedly alluded to the need for the government and the leaders to aspire to give to the people what they needed and desired most and that is happiness.”

In the global media, His Majesty is usually credited for coming up with the philosophy when he ascended the throne in 1974. While it is not completely false, it is not completely true either.

The scope of this new development philosophy did not get immediate attention initially, not even in Bhutan.  Prime Minister Jigmi Y Thinley explained it to me, “At that time, it did not strike most of us as an extraordinarily wise and unique statement as it has now become. We all took it as something obvious and it wasn’t taken as an extraordinarily unique statement.”


It will not be wrong to say that His Majesty was rather probed to give his development philosophy a name in English. And not surprisingly it happened outside Bhutan.

In 1979, His Majesty was returning from the sixth Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) Summit in Havana and at the Bombay airport in India, he gave a rare interview to a group of Indian journalists. A reporter asked “We do not know anything about Bhutan. What is your Gross National Product?”

His Majesty replied: “We do not believe in Gross National Product.” He added “because Gross National Happiness is more important.”

No substantial media reports resulted from the interview or at least I am not aware of it as it has not been properly documented. 


It was only in 1987 on May 2 edition of the Financial Times of London that journalist John Elliot wrote an article entitled ‘The Modern Path to Enlightenment’ It was the first news article ever to highlight GNH as a development philosophy propagated by His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck.

His Majesty is quoted in the article saying “We are convinced we must aim for contentment and happiness.”

 In 2008, John Elliott wrote on his blog (www.ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com) about the interview “He (His Majesty) put gross national happiness above the more usual economic targets of GNP and listed the GNH parameters: ‘Whether we take five years or ten to raise the per capita income and increase prosperity is not going to guarantee that happiness, which includes political stability, social harmony and the Bhutanese culture and way of life.’”

John Elliott also writes “When I met the shy, unassuming but dignified king in his ornate Thimphu palace, he worried about how to develop the country – how to open it up, but not so fast as to be disruptive, while maintaining Bhutan’s traditions and peaceful Buddhist culture. In a paternalistic way, he was clearly agonizingly aware of the enormity of his inheritance – and that his decisions could make or break his tiny nation. It needed protecting from what could become uncontrollable and avaricious outside influences.”

The research organization in Bhutan responsible for developing mathematical indicators to measure GNH, the Center for Bhutan Studies (CBS), also records the article by John Elliott as the first ever written evidence of GNH.

Today the CBS, founded in 1999, has developed mathematical parameters to measure GNH and has measured it in Bhutan twice. It uses a new nine-step methodology of multi-dimensional poverty by Alkire and Foster to measure the GNH index.


It was only in 1998 that Bhutan decided to consciously share its unique development philosophy with the outside world. It was the current Prime Minister, Jigme Y Thinley, also serving in the same capacity then, who mentioned GNH as an alternative development paradigm at the Asia-Pacific Millennium Summit in Seoul, South Korea.

Asked why Bhutan decided to do it then, Prime Minister Jigme Y Thinley told me “because of the success of the GNH philosophy and its relevance to development, the donor countries and donor development partners that visited Bhutan felt that Bhutan should share this idea with the larger world. So it was for the first time that Bhutan was convinced to take this idea outside its boundary and we made the statement in Seoul.”

Around the same time, it is also interesting to note that the global economy was once again not doing so well. There was the Asian financial Crisis which began in Thailand in July 1997 and went on to affect most Southeast Asian countries including Japan, Indonesia, and South Korea. It also came in the aftermath of the 1994 Mexico Economic Crisis. Moreover, the 1990s was marked by international financial crisis and the decade ended with crisis in Brazil, Turkey, and Argentina. It was a time when the world was challenged by economic realities and an overdependence on it to assess progress, growth and development.


In 2004, Bhutan organized the first international conference on GNH in Thimphu. The second one followed the subsequent year in Canada. It has organized five international GNH seminars so far with the third one in Bangkok in 2007, the fourth in Bhutan in 2008 and in Brazil in 2009.

It was in 2005 that Bhutan decided to quantify happiness and entrusted the responsibility of developing mathematical parameters to measure GNH to the Center for Bhutan Studies. 

The same year in 2005, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck declared on the national day on December 17 his intentions to abdicate in 2008 in favour of his son, the crown prince.

A year later, on 14th December 2006, three days before the national day, His Majesty shocked the nation when he declared that he would be handing over the responsibilities of the king to the crown prince immediately. He also ordered that the first democratic elections will be held in 2008.

In 2008, the Center for Bhutan Studies (CBS) finally came out with the mathematical formulae to measure GNH. The same year, Bhutan became a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Bhutan also formally crowned its fifth King.


It was a big moment for Bhutan in July 2011 when the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the Bhutan-led resolution on “Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development.”

As a follow up to the resolution, Bhutan convened a High Level Meeting on ‘Happiness and Well Being: defining a New Economic Paradigm” at the UN headquarter in April this year in New York. The meeting was followed by yet another UN resolution declaring March 20, as the International Day of Happiness.

In line with the UN mandate to elaborate the proposal for a new development model, His Majesty the King also commissioned an international experts group and has declared that it will work closely with the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on the post MDG world and the New Sustainable Development Initiatives headed by professor Jeffery Sachs.

 At the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil and the Non-Alligned Movement Summit in Tehran, Iran, this year, Bhutan called on world leaders to adopt GNH as the new development paradigm. 






After the transition to a parliamentary democracy in 2008, the first elected government had the daunting task of forming, consolidating and empowering the new democratic institutions in Bhutan. I would say that it has been done commendably despite the expected challenges of the transition.

All the three arms of the government – the executive, judiciary and the legislative machineries are today strong and independent. We have set up constitutional bodies like the Anti Corruption Commission, Election Commission and the Royal Audit Authority.

The tenure of the government is coming to an end and we will be having the next elections by the middle of next year.  Right now, the preparations towards the elections is gripping newspaper headlines and we have already seen four new political parties prop up in the past year.

In the past four years, the new institution of monarchy has also been strengthened under the leadership of our young king. His Majesty also gave us our Queen in October last year when he married Her Majesty Queen Jetsun Pema Wangchuck.



Let me take you back to Bhutan and share how Bhutan is trying to implement GNH at home.

Let me begin with a simplistic explanation of how GNH is characterized by more direct and distinctive priorities:

Bhutan has always attempted to define and explain GNH through what it calls its four pillars:

  1. Good Governance
  2. Sustainable Socio-economic development
  3. Cultural preservation, and
  4. Environmental Conservation.

Of late, the four pillars have been further classified to nine domains which are:

  1. Psychological wellbeing
  2. Health
  3. Education
  4. Time use
  5. Cultural Diversity and resilience
  6. Good Governance
  7. Community vitality
  8. Ecological diversity and resilience, and
  9. Living standards

The GNH Index:

The CBS defines the GNH index as “a single number index developed from 33 indicators categorized under nine domains. Please visit www.grossnationalhappines.com for details.

GNH Index = 0.743 – the GNH Index ranges from 0 to 1. A higher number is better. It reflects the percentage of Bhutanese who are happy and the percentage of domains in which not-yet-happy people have achieved sufficiency.

The CBS claims that “the GNH Index is decomposable by any demographic characteristic and so is designed to create policy incentives for the government, NGOs and businesses of Bhutan to increase GNH.” It also says that the indicators used are “ statistically reliable, normatively important, and easily understood by large audiences.”

Let me share some of the highlights of the 2010 GNH Index survey:

  1. On average, men are happier than women
  2. About 50% of the urban population are happy while it is 37% in rural areas
  3. Unmarried people and young people are among the happiest.
  4. The happiest people by occupation include civil servants, monks/anim, and GYT/DYT members.   Interestingly, the unemployed are happier than corporate employees, housewives, farmers or the national work force
  5. There is quite a lot of equality across Dzongkhags, so there is not a strict ranking among them. The happiest Dzongkhags include Paro, Sarpang, Dagana, Haa, Thimphu, Gasa, Tsirang, Punakha, Zhemgang, and Chukha.
  6. The least happy Dzongkhag was SamdrupJonkhar.

In order to align all government policies according to GNH priorities, in January 2008, the Planning Commission which was the main government body responsible for formulating the developmental roadmap of the country was renamed as the GNH Commission.

Today, all initiatives of the government are divided into policies and projects. Each policy or project then has to undergo a GNH screening test where it is scrutinized against several GNH indicators. For example, the mineral development policy has to pass not only the economic indicators but also environmental standards and impacts on other indicators like culture. 


There are a lot of challenges of implementing GNH. The most obvious challenge or criticism is the virtual impossibility of using mathematical formulae to quantify a subjective and basic human emotion that is happiness. And similarly there are hundreds of other criticisms from experts, scientists, economists, academics and many other expert groups. But I will not focus on that because a lot of international conferences have focused on that and moreover, I think what has not come out so far in GNH discourses is challenges of implementing GNH on the ground and how the people of Bhutan feel about it. So I will focus on that.

There are people or critics of GNH within Bhutan who believe that while Bhutan has advocated GNH very effectively to the outside world, the sailing has not been so good back at home. So, there are some who say that GNH has rather become a rhetoric concept. I will broadly sum up the challenges under four topics.

  1. Overall legislative challenge
  2. The lack of a proper policy outlining how GNH would be practiced in Bhutan
  3. Top-down implementation
  4. Idealistic implementation


The biggest transition that defined Bhutan in its recent history was the transition to a parliamentary democracy in 2008. We had the first democratic election in 2008. The whole elections and the preparation towards the transition were based on the constitution which was in its draft form and was formally enacted by the first democratic government during the first parliamentary sitting.

Maybe because the first elected government was overwhelmed with so many responsibilities of securing the transition that there was an oversight.

Despite the constitution stating GNH as the guiding principle for Bhutan, there was no exercise undertaken to harmonize the then existing laws of the country to the newly enacted constitution. It has not been done even today. It could be one reason why we are still struggling to integrate GNH into the governance structure and more so to implement GNH and make it more practical.


This problem is also related to the first one. We have already made GNH the development philosophy of the country. But we don’t have any kind of a policy document outlining how GNH would be practiced within the country.

In the absence of such a mother document outlining how GNH would be practiced, there is no formal reference point to base any strategy.

With no implementation strategy, all government agencies take it upon themselves to implement GNH in the way they think is best. Such cases have led to complications.

For example, the education ministry wants to infuse GNH principles in schools and school principals were oriented with GNH teaching techniques. One part of the initiative was to teach students the essence of meditation. So today, students are asked during the morning assembly to close their eyes for one to two minutes and meditate every day. Then teachers are advised to begin all classes of the day with a minute or two of meditation. And as expected all students have to do so with their eyes closed.

I am not really sure that this initiative has been successful in teaching students the essence of meditation. It has definitely taught students about the general physical attributes of how someone should meditate but not the essence of the main act itself.

Imagine what we would have thought as young students if we were told to do the same exercise about eight or nine times a day, all days of the week and throughout the year. Here I fear that students may start hating these meditative exercises. And the naughty ones who are looking for an excuse not to study may love it but then they would be loving it for the wrong reasons. Now teachers even joke among themselves that the moment they feel bored to take classes, they ask the students to close their eyes and meditate.

Actually this example of meditation in schools typifies how GNH is being implemented as a whole in Bhutan.

The only channel of formal implementation of GNH happens at a legislative level. Like I outlined earlier, all government initiatives are bifurcated as policies and projects and each policy or project has to undergo a GNH screening test to see whether it is pro GNH. Only those policies and projects that pass the test are given the go-ahead sign.

Here I would like to say that this practice is rather limited in scope of just giving birth of good policies.


In the absence of a policy to practice GNH, all efforts are right now focused on implementing pro-GNH policies. This has made all GNH initiatives something aspired to be implemented which naturally give it a top-down approach.

While the implementation of pro GNH-policies is also important, there should be a parallel focus to make it practical and people should be able to relate to it. Herein lays a bigger challenge. Today, the government justifies all its initiatives along GNH lines and it is one of the reasons that there is a GNH fatigue among the citizenry.

Today, the only experts of GNH are our leaders and senior bureaucrats and of course the Center for Bhutan Studies and they seem to define all aspects of GNH. 

Here, the scope of ordinary individual opinion is rather limited. There is definitely more need to have a wider debate on the issue.

Some even argue that GNH is being used as a reason, logic, and a pretext to implement any policy the government wants.


As expected, the pursuit of something like happiness can only be idealistic in nature. So a big challenge is to draw a line between idealism and realism and how to make GNH more practical.

In the past few years, many government decisions have inadvertently toed a very idealistic line. I should also add that it has happened even if decisions were taken to promote GNH values.

For example, there are several bans in the country. The sale of plastics is banned. Commercial billboards are banned. All forms of gambling is banned. The sale of meat is banned on religious days and months. In the Buddhist calendar, the 8th, 10th, 15th, 25th and 30th of every month are religious days so the sale is banned on five days a month. The bigger contention is the meat ban on two religious months which corresponds to the first and fourth months when people including hoteliers tend to stock up meat months in advance leading to many heath concerns. 

Perhaps the most controversial decision of late was the banning of all tobacco and tobacco products. Initially when the Tobacco Act became effective on January 1, 2011, it was rightly described as a draconian law and it made someone carrying even one cigarette stick a potential smuggler and it was a crime of the fourth degree felony liable to prison terms of a minimum of three years.

It was an irony at best that the first person arrested was a monk who was then sentenced to three years in prison for carrying tobacco products worth less than 2 US dollars. Later about 80 people were arrested.

The Tobacco Act attracted a huge public outcry and a country that had never seen public strikes saw a movement against the Act through Facebook. Just for comparison, I will share that some other criminal offenses liable for the same penalty according to the Bhutanese law are human trafficking, adduction, rape, robbery, torture and riot among others. So a smoker was treated like no other than a rapist.

There were several other flaws. To cite an example, the same kind of penalty was not even liable for people who abused marijuana or other hard drugs.

In June 2011, several provisions in the law were relaxed but those who smuggled in more than the allowed quantity still await the same fate. Later His Majesty even intervened and granted amnesty to 16 people arrested under the Tobacco Act.

While you can see that social evil like tobacco is banned, the number one killer in Bhutan, alcohol, is readily available in the market. While Bhutan does not produce tobacco, we still commercially produce a lot of alcohol beverages.  Early this year, a new state owned alcohol producing distillery was opened.

While the state earns revenue by selling alcohol, it spends more treating people of alcohol related diseases. In 2009 alone, the revenue generation from taxes on alcohol was about Nu 19 million while the government had to spend around Nu 20 million for the treatment of people suffering from alcohol-related diseases. Non-communicable diseases reportedly account for six out of 10 deaths in the country and alcohol is one of the leading factors for such deaths.

Now, look at our nonchalant attitude towards alcohol that a few years ago, there was even a bar called ‘GNH Bar’ in Thimphu.

This year, the government also declared all Tuesdays of the year as the Pedestrian Day. Local movement of vehicles within town and city limits is disallowed and only taxis and public buses are allowed to ply. This movement has again received a lot of criticism from the media, the business community and all other sectors of the public.

Other touchy issues have been the government’s attempts to ban junk food, proposal by one district to implement a dress code meaning to allow its residents to only wear the national dress. There is even a checklist for moviemakers (which has not been endorse so far) which mandates movie actors to only wear the national dress and to have at least two traditional songs in every movie, among others.

Because of some of the examples I have shared above and many more, some people have developed a negative attitude towards the mention of the name GNH. But I will mention here that it is not because people are against GNH but they are against the way it is being implemented or rather the way in which everything is implemented with the blessings of this holistic concept.

So there is a strong need to take a step back, reflect on some basic ground realities and make it more practical. There is a strong need to strategize the implementation of GNH in a way that the ordinary people can relate to it.


Given the challenges I have shared above, I would like to stress that the whole philosophy of GNH is still a work in progress in Bhutan today.

Under the guidance of our kings, Bhutan has always believed that economic progress is not the only parameter to measure a nation’s growth or development. We have tried to measure development by keeping people at the center of the development philosophy and that is the essence of the philosophy of GNH.

Having said that, there are definitely many challenges to implement it. There are challenges at all levels. There are challenges in advocating this development philosophy to the outside world. There are challenges in implementing it back at home and there are challenges of making it more practical.

Because of the holistic nature of the philosophy of GNH, I believe that GNH is not an end goal. The biggest achievement of Bhutan till date has been our efforts to strive towards having a GNH society. The pursuit of GNH is in itself is what matters.

But at the end of the day, we are all humans and no human society is perfect. All societies have flaws. We definitely have ours. But we have hope that something good will come out of our pursuit of GNH. And we see hope in the goodness of our people. We saw hope when a taxi driver (Tashi Dawa) in November 2011 returned Nu 90.382 million (about USD 1.8mn) to its rightful owner after he found it lying by the roadside. He saw an ad on television by the owner and went to him to return the money.  

Similarly we saw hope when a 38-year-old monk came to my newspaper last month to make an announcement. He wanted to pay and give an ad and in his message he was calling for patients in need of kidney to contact him. He was willing to donate his kidney for free to anyone in need.

So I would like to conclude by saying that the story of GNH is not the story of Bhutan alone. It is a story of valuing the goodness in human beings. It is the story of valuing small things that make you smile. Very recently, my king described GNH as nothing else but development with values. 

Thank You and Tashi Delek.