Photo by Suzy Bates
Just about everyone who has heard of Bhutan would know that this tiny country – with population of about 800,000 in an area similar in size to Switzerland - has adopted Gross National Happiness as a national objective. The objective apparently has its origins in the 1970s in an assertion by the former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, that ‘Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product’. Despite the origins of gross national happiness (GNH) in a play on words it is now recognized as an objective in Bhutan’s constitution.
I wrote a literature review article about GNH last year for Asian-Pacific Economic Literature (Vol 23 No 2). The article considers whether aggregate happiness is an appropriate policy objective and the advantages and disadvantages of various well-being indicators. (A policy brief summarising the article is available here; the final version of the article can be purchased here; and a draft is freely available here.) My conclusions, very briefly, were that it is possible to make sense of GNH as a policy objective if we think in terms of creating conditions in which individual strivings can succeed; that there are problems with happiness surveys and with composite measures of well-being (such as the human development index) as well as with GNP (and GDP). I acknowledged that the recently developed approach to GNH measurement in Bhutan is an impressive contribution, but my bottom line was that the best approach to well-being assessments is to gather together a suite of relevant indicators.
How is GNH measured in Bhutan? A few years ago the official answer was that happiness was measured by looking at the breadth of the smiles on the faces of the people. However a more quantitative and technical approach to measurement has recently been adopted. The underlying philosophy seems to be that a range of minimum conditions must be met before a person can be considered to be happy. The methodology involves attempting to measure the extent to which the attainments of members of the population approach a ‘sufficient level’ in nine dimensions: psychological well-being, time use, community vitality, diversity and resilience of cultural traditions, health, education, environment (perceptions and ecological knowledge), living standards and perceptions of governance. The methodology gives greater weight to large deficits in particular dimensions than to small deficits in several dimensions.
So, how happy are the people of Bhutan? Unfortunately, since Bhutan is the only country attempting to measure GNH, we can’t use the GNH methodology to compare the well-being of people in Bhutan and other countries. The initial survey results enable comparisons to be made between people in different regions in Bhutan – which may be useful for policy purposes within Bhutan – but is not helpful in making international comparisons.
In any case, I think the best way to assess the well-being of the Bhutanese people is to use a suite of indicators to look at how they are faring by comparison with India, their big neighbour. For example:
• GDP per capita in 2007 was $US 4,837, 75% higher than in India;
• the growth rate of real per capita GDP was 7.9% per annum over the decade to 2007; that for India was 4.9% per annum;
• average life expectancy is only slightly higher than in India - 65.7 versus 63.4;
• adult literacy is lower than in India - 53% versus 66%;
• poverty rates are much lower in Bhutan than in India – 26% with daily income below $1.25 versus 42% for India;
• average life satisfaction in Bhutan (according to nef estimates) is about 11 per cent higher than in India.
It seems to me that even though the people of Bhutan have plenty to smile about there is still room for improvement in some aspects of their well-being e.g. health and education.