The Country Where Happiness Is More Important Than Growth

In Bhutan, a small country in the Himalayas, happiness is measured alongside the usual economic data. Without a measurement of gross national happiness, "we will be lost," Bhutan Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay says. Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters

This article first appeared at

"Gross national happiness [GNH] is critical for Bhutan. Otherwise, we will undo all our success so far," says Tshering Tobgay, prime minister of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of some 700,000 people that is sandwiched between the giant nuclear powers of India and China. For Tobgay, this means balancing economic development with maintenance of the country's unique culture and identity. Otherwise, he adds, "we will be lost."

This echoes what Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck said during a rare interview I did for the Financial Times in 1987. He talked at length about how he wanted the country to develop and tied that into GNH with "political stability, social harmony and the Bhutanese culture and way of life."

Few other prime ministers airing Tobgay's views would be taken seriously.

When Britain's David Cameron extolled the virtues of measuring well-being in 2010, a trade union leader was quoted in The Guardian as saying the prime minister would probably "claim that despite rising unemployment, home repossessions, longer NHS waiting lists and unaffordable education, the people of this country are happier under Tory rule."

Cameron is not the only leader to pick up on the idea, which was first mooted publicly by Wangchuck in the 1970s as a better national measurement goal than gross domestic product.

Bhutan's last prime minister, Jigmi Yoeser Thinley, energetically spread the gospel around the world, until he lost office two years ago. He focused on the United Nations and persuaded it to make "happiness" a development aim and designate the U.N.'s first annual "International Day of Happiness," in 2013.

An international conference is being held in Bhutan in November to assess progress in the country and internationally. Dasho Karma Ura, an economist and historian who runs the Centre for Bhutan Studies in the capital of Thimphu, expects about 550 people to attend, with visitors from 56 countries. He says that those "seeking better ways to improve life" around the world are mostly nongovernmental organizations rather than governments. GNH has also been the subject of many Ph.D. theses.

The conference will assess how far the idea has spread and how seriously it has been adopted, despite considerable skepticism. In Bhutan there are four pillars: sustainable economic development, conservation of the environment, preserving the culture and good governance. That was developed by Karma Ura's center into nine domains ranging from education and health to community relations and living standards, and over 33 detailed indicators.

A massive six-month national survey of some 8,000 people has just been carried out, with each person being interviewed for three hours or more. The results will be presented at the conference.

An earlier survey was mocked for producing such findings as men are happier than women and young unmarried people are among the happiest. This time, the analysis will reflect the impact of rapid development on people's living standards, their ability to cope with rising prices, and increased access to international television and the Internet, plus more traditional matters such as the impact of rivers on a person's contentment.

The significance of river waters in mountainous Bhutan is so great that it has even influenced a debate on privatization of state-owned assets. The rivers serve rural communities across the country, and they also have rich potential for hydroelectric schemes. Projects are developed in collaboration with India, which already takes about 75 percent of electricity generation, providing more than 40 percent of Bhutan's revenues. This raises environmental concerns, and there are also serious problems with one of the current projects, which has large time and cost overruns plus an unstable mountainside at the construction site.

It benefits the governments of both India and Bhutan to not lose control of such assets, but there is also a deeper view, espoused by Karma Ura, that the hydro input "is collective" because of the way that the rivers form a part of peoples' lives and because of their large role in the nation's wealth. "It would be like privatizing the sky," he says.

The current GNH focus in Bhutan under Tobgay is to apply the principles according to the way the country develops. "I don't want to be obsessed in exporting GNH," he told me when I was in Thimphu recently for an annual Mountain Echoes literary festival. "I want to do, rather than talk about it."

In fact, GNH is not talked about much, and, at the opening of the literary festival, it was scarcely mentioned in speeches that extolled Bhutan's virtues. The festival formed part of the celebrations for the 60th birth anniversary this year of Wangchuck, the fourth king in the Wangchuck dynasty, which was established when it united the country in 1907.

It was evident when I met him in 1987 that the king was anxious to map out a future for opening up the country, both to the outside world and to democracy. That led him to announce his abdication in 2006 in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who was then 25 and was crowned in November 2008, six months after the country's first general election.

There is now a delicate and evolving power balance between the roles of the elected government and the monarchy, as there is between Bhutan and India, which has regarded the former as a virtual protectorate for some 65 years. Thinley destabilized those balances by drawing closer to China than either India or the monarchy wished, or even initially knew about. That seemed to be heralding movement on China's wish for formal diplomatic relations. Thinley also proposed land reform legislation that would have reduced the monarchy's role in land allocations.

Following those developments, India is widely perceived to have intervened in the 2013 general election to ensure Thinley's defeat, not least by suddenly withdrawing a kerosene and cooking oil subsidy in the middle of the election campaign.

Under Tobgay, the balances have been restored, though one hears criticism in Thimphu of the way that India used its professed friendship. That adds to the significance of Narendra Modi's making Bhutan his first foreign destination for a visit after he became India's prime minister last year.

The main domestic concerns central to GNH include maintaining the country's free education and health care and finding jobs for over 170,000 schoolchildren and students when they need employment. Every household has electricity, officials say, with solar energy in remote areas. The constitution requires forests to account for 70 percent of the land area, though the urban sprawl that dominates the once green valley approaches to Thimphu illustrates the problem of maintaining that percentage.

It is the job of Lynopo Dorji Choden, a construction engineer and former bureaucrat who is now minister of works and human settlement (which includes town planning), to ensure that the Thimphu Valley type of development is not repeated elsewhere. She sees that as part of GNH. Heights of buildings are restricted to two floors except in urban centers, where there can be three, with traditional designs and colors.

These and other pressures of a modern consumer society are increasing, and that includes corruption. The fourth king talked at length to me about this in 1987 and said that, although corruption was a small problem compared with other countries, it had started when development began in 1961. Now the opportunities have become greater, and the current king has described it as "the highest probable risk to development." The government set an example when it sacked its foreign minister earlier this year for embezzlement of public property when he held an earlier post.

Sometimes the country makes sudden modernization strides, and at other times change comes surprisingly slowly. In 1987, Kinley Dorji, then a young journalist and now the government's secretary for communications, had just launched Kuensel, Bhutan's first newspaper, using advanced technology: an Apple Mac and a laser printer.

On this visit, I was amazed to discover that there is no helicopter anywhere in the country. When Bhutan needs one, it has hired or borrowed it from India, or sometimes Nepal, government officials say, explaining that Bhutan is a poor country. Now it is about to get one for $3.6 million. Royal Bhutan Helicopter Services Ltd. has been set up, and its offices were opened by the prime minister last month. Services will begin, appropriately, on November 11, the fourth king's 60th birthday.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India).