Smiles, Everyone...Smiles! Happiness Is the New Economic Paradigm

GDP and GNP only tell part of the story. A nation's progress should also be measured by its GNH (Gross National Happiness)

Perhaps there's something in the ema datshi, a recipe of chili peppers and cheese that is Bhutan's national dish. Because unlike other nations that measure progress in terms of gross national product (GNP, the global output of a country's enterprises), or gross domestic product (GDP, the output within a country's borders), Bhutan measures its progress by how happy its citizens are.

As the fourth king of Bhutan Jigme Singye Wangchuck famously declared in 1971, "Gross national happiness (GNH) is more important than gross domestic product." Around the same time, he also established a constitutional precedent that protects in perpetuity 60 percent of the nation's primary forest canopy from any harm or development.

Sometimes, the simplest of actions are also the wisest. Today, according to the Dancing Star Foundation, a California-based non-profit environmental group, over 70 percent of the native flora and fauna in Bhutan has remained pristine. Sumatra, by contrast, has lost 85 percent of its rainforests. The Philippines, 90 percent. Madagascar, 95 percent. To look at the deforestation rates around the world is to see the true destructive power of humankind, the planet-eaters.

Bhutan is the only country to measure GNH, and the indicator plays a primary role in devising the social and economic policies in the landlocked Asian kingdom with a population of 700,000 people, primarily Buddhists.


At a United Nations meeting on Monday entitled "Happiness and Well-being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm," Bhutanese prime minister Jigme Thinley urged other countries to follow his country's lead.

"We are starting a global movement on this issue," he said, noting that GNH is "a holistic reflection of the general wellbeing of the Bhutanese population rather than a subjective psychological ranking of 'happiness' alone."

To measure GNH, Bhutan defined nine key areas: health, education, time use, governance, psychological well- being, community vitality, cultural diversity/resilience, ecological diversity/resilience and living standards.


The meeting coincided with the release of the first "World Happiness Report," which ranked the happiest and saddest countries, based on poll data take between 2005 and 2011.

The top ten happiest countries are (from 1 to 10): Denmark, Finland, Norway, Netherlands, Canada, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and Ireland. The United States was ranked 11. (Denmark is on a roll: The Folketing, or parliament, recently passed what is now considered to be the world's most ambitious green energy policy.)

The ten unhappiest nations, starting with last place, are: Togo, Benin, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Burundi, Comoros, Haiti, Tanzania, Congo (Brazzaville) and Bulgaria.

"It is no accident that the happiest countries in the world tend to be high-income countries that also have a high degree of social equality, trust, and quality of governance," states the report, which was edited by John Helliwell, professor emeritus of Economics and the University of British Columbia and Arthur J.E. Child Foundation Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR); Richard Layard, director of the Well-being Programm at the London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance; and Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University.


In his remarks at the meeting, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon commended the Government of Bhutan "for initiating this important debate on the link between happiness, well-being and prosperity."

He said that "while material prosperity is important, it is far from being the only determinant of well-being," noting that such thinking can be found "in the teachings of the Buddha and Aristotle." Ban also pointed out more recent instances where measuring success solely by wealth was not considered the ultimate metric: the 1987 Brundtland Report, the Human Development Index (HDI) and the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, which was established by French president Nicolas Sarkozy. "We need a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define gross global happiness," he said.

"The world stands at a crossroads," said Ban. "We need everyone--government ministers and policy makers, business and civil society leaders, and young people--to work together to transform our economies…to place our societies on a more just and equitable footing…and to protect the resources and ecosystems on which our shared future depends. Connecting the dots between these issues--between water, food and energy security, climate change, urbanization, poverty, inequality and the empowerment of the world’s women--lies at the heart of sustainable development…We need an outcome from Rio+20 that reflects this."


If, as Ban suggests, the world is at a crossroads, then society as a whole can make a decision to move together in one direction, towards a shared goal. Certainly, Rio+20 hopes to achieve a goal whose success we would all share: global sustainability. And getting there means lots of sharing--from technology and policies to responsibilities and burdens.

The Buddha made the link between happiness and sharing. "Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened," he said. "Happiness never decreases by being shared." If that's the case, perhaps Denmark might help light some candles around the world.



Rizvi, Haider. target="blank">Measure Progress in Happiness, Not Money, Bhutan Urges. Inter Press Service. April 3, 2012. Accessed April 4, 2012.
Dancing Star Foundation. Conservation in Bhutan. December 24, 2010. Accessed April 5, 2012. What is Deforestation?. September 21, 2005. Accessed April 5, 2012.
Thinley, Jigme. Lyonchoen Jigmi Yoezer Thinley (Bhutan) on Happiness. April 2, 2012. Accessed April 5, 2012.
Helliwell, John, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs, eds. World Happiness Report. The Earth Institute at Columbia University. March 6, 2012. Accessed April 5, 2012.
Ban, Ki-Moon. Remarks at High Level Meeting on Happiness and Well-Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm. April 2, 2012. Accessed April 5, 2012.

image: Smiling children, Tonga (credit: Nicole M, Flickr Creative Commons)