Diving into Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH)

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 | Uncategorized

We just returned from a one-week deep dive in Bhutan, where we went to learn about the Bhutanese approach to Gross National Happiness (GNH). “We” were the participants in the Global Well-being & GNH Lab — an innovation collaborative that brings together change-makers working in government, business, and civil society from Bhutan, Brazil, China, India, Sri Lanka, the United States, and Europe. (The Lab is co-sponsored by PI, the GIZ Global Leadership Academy, and the GNH Center in Bhutan.) The deep dive in Bhutan was an eye-opening and awareness-expanding experience.
Here are a few observations.

Four levels of GNH

What is GNH and how does it work? Contrary to Western perceptions, GNH has nothing to do with the feel-good type of happiness. It is grounded in the Buddhist concept of compassion, of enhancing the happiness of all beings. Last week we heard the concept of GNH being used and referred to in at least four different ways:

1. As an index. The index is developed from 33 indicators that make the actual well-being of the population much more visible in the following nine domains:
o Psychological well-being
o Health
o Time use
o Education
o Cultural diversity and resilience
o Good governance
o Community vitality
o Ecological diversity and resilience
o Living standard

2. As a process and policy screening tool. All new policies and regulations in Bhutan are tested and reviewed for their impact on the well-being of people in the above nine domains;

3. As a development strategy. The country aspires to depart from the Western consumerism-based development models through an alternative economic paradigm that better balances the material, social, and the spiritual dimensions of well-being;

4. As a mindset of mindfulness. Mindfulness cultivates a positive attitude toward the world and the ability to become aware of oneself.

Western alternative indicators for measuring economic progress, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), often lack the teeth to influence actual policymaking. But the Bhutanese approach to GNH is full of very tangible effects on a policy level. A few examples: Bhutanese citizens enjoy free education and free healthcare services and a literacy rate close to 100%; 80% of the country is covered by forest, 50% of which is protected; Bhutan bans advertising in public places; it has implemented policies for achieving 100% organic farming by 2020; it limits the import of cars and helicopters; it puts a very high priority on the well-being of animals; and, for GNH considerations, it did not join the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Not everyone will agree with these GNH-informed choices. But no one can say that GNH is just about feeling good. In fact, the opposite tends to be true. GNH has had much more influence on real policy choices than any other alternative economic progress indicator to date.

The power of leadership

How is it possible that a tiny and poor country like Bhutan can be so much more innovative in creating alternatives to GDP than all the other much more resource-rich countries of the world combined? Because of leadership. GNH in Bhutan is not, like in the West, a bottom-up movement. It’s the result of enlightened top-down leadership. Jigmi Y. Thinley, the Prime Minister, explains why he sees alternatives where other world leaders tend to see none.
“The GDP led development model that compels boundless growth on a planet with limited resources no longer makes economic sense. It is the cause of our irresponsible, immoral, and self-destructive actions. Irresponsible, because we extract, produce, consume, and waste ever more, even as natural resources are rapidly depleting. Immoral and unethical because [we have] consumed far beyond our share of natural wealth… Self destructive, because, aided by technology, we are bringing about the collapse of our ecological life support systems. Having far outlived its usefulness, our fundamentally flawed economic arrangement has itself become the cause of all problems. Within its framework, there lies no solution to the economic, ecological, social, and security crises that plague the world today and threaten to consume humanity.” (UN Head Quarters, New York, 2nd April, 2012)

When was the last time you heard a Prime Minister (or any politician) being so outspoken and clear?

The power of entrepreneurship

GNH in Bhutan originated from the top. But it is also starting to grow bottom-up. We visited some of these social mission driven enterprises during the week. One of these learning journeys took us to the startup company Greener Way, an organization that has managed to change the face of the country in the area of recycling and waste management.
IMG_0860The idea for this company was planted a few years back in a student dorm, over a bottle of wine and some very inspired conversations among fellow students. Then, a small core group of them committed themselves to creating Bhutan’s first recycling firm. Over the years, with lots of support from family, friends, agencies, and donors, as well as waste generators, the group succeeded in creating Bhutan’s first waste management and recycling firm in the capital city of Bhutan, Thimphu. For more detail Picture: Karma Yonten, CEO (and Lab participant), Greener Way

The power of place

From the moment you arrive in Bhutan, located in the Himalayas between China and India, you can sense that it is a special place. You feel the presence of humanity in a more profound way than you do in other places. It’s as if Bhutan was a little island that globalization and Western materialism has not yet penetrated. Going to a place like this can make us question our lives on a deeper level. Who are we as human beings? What is our role and purpose? What kind of progress do we want to create? What kind of planet do we want to leave behind?
We reflected on these questions when we took a day in order to hike to Tiger’s Nest, one of the most sacred places in Bhutan (picture). On the way back, each of us took a couple of hours of solo time, in order to listen to our own emerging thoughts about those deeper questions. What is it that we are called to do now?

Prototyping to explore the future by doing

On our final two days in Bhutan we formed prototyping teams to explore the future by doing. The teams we created include a GNH Business Lab, a team to implement and scale a GPI indicator system across individual states in the U. S., a team that focuses on wellbeing and the informal economy in India, and a team that focuses on co-creating a web of Transformation Hubs in several parts of the world.


In the GNH Business Lab, for example, we developed an intention of reframing business in terms of being part of a larger social movement that then gives rise to new forms of eco-system wide wellbeing and related business opportunities. Our team includes entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, and senior business and government leaders from Bhutan, Brazil, and the United States. In the following six months we will prototype and scale a co-creative eco-system engagement strategy that will be tested in Bhutan, Brazil, and the United States. More to come…

SEWA: Self-Employed Women’s Association

Another of the prototyping initiatives asks the question, What development does India need to maximize the well-being of its people? It involves SEWA, Oxfam, and some company partners and focuses on linking micro, meso, and macro perspectives in order to empower young people in the informal sector as part of a broader discussion of the kinds of development India needs to maximize the well-being of all of its people.

On the trip home, some of us visited SEWA and its core leadership team in Ahmedabad. It was a very moving experience. Founded 40 years ago, SEWA today is one of the most significant and highest-impact NGOs on the planet. Its 1.7 million members all come from the informal economy. The informal economy in India is not exactly small — it represents 93% of the workforce in India. In spite of its significance for well-being in India, the informal economy remains largely invisible.

We were impressed during the SEWA visit with the positive approach to the future and to each other that the circles of SEWA leadership displayed (picture).
Despite daunting challenges, the collective will and spirit of change seemed more powerful than in most other places we have been to before. The prototype with SEWA and Oxfam will focus on reinventing SEWA’s approach in order to make it more relevant to the aspirations and needs of the next generation of women leaders in India’s informal economy. As one of them said in our conversations: “We aspire to create a different type of company. Not the old-style business corporation. But another one that is more cooperative, more creative, and more shared. We don’t want to replicate the old model. We want to create something new.”

Back home in Boston, I feel inspired and humbled by these connections and initiatives from around the world that aim at the very same thing: to shift the economy from ego (me) to eco (wellbeing of all). Its a movement in the making. Its a global field of inspired connections that grows, widens, and deepens every single day. Where and when do you feel connected to that movement? What initiatives do you see and what seed ideas do you carry that may be relevant here?

(see also next blog entry: opening remarks in bhutan, GLobal Wellbeing and GNH Lab)

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12 Comments to Diving into Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH)

May 3, 2013

Dear Otto,

reading through your experience, and the sun coming through the clouds here in Dresden I am feeling that something is happening around the globe.

Now the challenge is to not just keep the energy from Bhutan, but to let the energy be the driver for diverse actions, either in Boston, Latin America, Finland, Saxony, Australia – in general on global scale.

As always with something new something else has to go (at least in the traditional sense, as we as humans are not yet capable of sufficiently juggle many different information streams, and communities (online and off-line) at the “same time”.

This morning this has been the death of the father of a dear friend of my girlfriend, and the closing of Pegasus Communications, http://bit.ly/134SQwm

Looking forward to be part of the transformational journey towards Global Wellbeing

Cheers, Ralf

Thank you very much for share this powerful experience ! and thank you for existing there where you are Otto. Every single action that we do every day, feeding this new paradigme, is our connection with this mouvement. This article of your back to home from Bhutan inspire me and remember me, now, the importance of this connection. This resonates at this time in various places in Colombia south america and somewhere in Paris from where I wrote these words.

Thuk Ji che

monika hardy
May 3, 2013

What is it that we are called to do now?
…a co-creative eco-system engagement strategy..

thank you for sharing.
elements of disruptive sustainability (thrivability) no doubt.

Asha Singh
May 3, 2013

Thank you for sharing this Otto, it certainly sounds like a wonderful week. I’m really happy too, to see such values being effectively and successfully embraced by the “system”. We could learn a lot all around the world from Bhutan. Let’s take it out there into the world around us!

joachim weckmann
May 3, 2013

dear otto –
you touched my heart –
thank you for sharing.
could this lead to holacracy – ken wilber?
from styria greetings

Alexander Rausch
May 4, 2013

Dear Otto,
thank you for sharing. For me stories like this are so important to know that change can happen… and happens all the time! It motivates me and shows exactly what it means how important it is to “keep an eye” on our attitudes (or sources) from which we act… it makes a difference acting from achieving Happyness or achieving only numbers and more power… It’s wonderful that Bhutan shows that Happiness can be focused – even in politics, as a whole Country.

Robin Alfred
May 4, 2013

Thank you, Otto. Inspiring as ever. I have watched the work of Bhutan on this issue of measuring ‘progress’ for some time and it is great to read of your experience and perspectives. Also to see the clear role of ledaership.

One small question – why did you choose to create ‘ a team to implement and scale a GPI indicator system across individual states in the U. S.’ when earlier you wrote that GNH is a more effective tool than GPI?

Wram regards

Bea Davison
May 5, 2013

Dear Otto
How heartening it is to read this…….may we all stay as connected as possible to our inner selves to listen to what is calling us so that we can become a dynamic force for change in the world!
Much love

Claire Caffrey
May 7, 2013

I find your insights interesting. However, I think it provides an illumination on the east/west split. I have been following the development of a well-being index in the UK that was put forward by the Office for National Statistics. It was also supported by the Charity Commission. However, there has been nothing for a few years. The last was in 2009.

What I find is that there is a push to create change and then there are people that become scared. It is these people who return to the stastics of GDP, levels of employment and interest rates as these are seen as safe. It is difficult to challenge this approach.

Moreover, there is challenge within the sector with differences around social accounting, social impact and who is change really measured. These debates continue to rage and people remain in their silos where people feel comfortable. I include myself in this category, as i continue to try and stretch out in to this new world and find it challenging.

Elisabeth Kamps
May 10, 2013

Thank you very much for your sharing Otto. I have been involved with Findhorn since recently, but I have to come back to Germany by the end of May. I have great organisational and counselling skills and I would like to be part of a wonderful new-world spiritual community in Germany or elsewhere. Does anyone want to get in touch with me? I do not have money, but I have a lot to share. Many blessings.

Ron Newman
May 15, 2013

Thanks Otto. I am the founder of http://worldHappinessMeter.com . The purpose is 1) to gather spontaneous measures of happiness, tagged by place and time, and 2) provide a convenient method of taking more extensive surveys without the expense of paper surveys and teams on the ground.

We welcome your comments on how it can be better!

Comments may be left at blog.myideatree.com .

Torn Halves
September 25, 2013

From a skeptic: Bhutan culture is founded on religion, is it not? How is the West, where the prevailing liberal culture insists that religion be kept out of politics, going to build something similar? Is the precondition of all this the presencing of a new religion? Is that what is emerging from the Future?

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