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The Gross National Happiness Framework: Bhutan

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Framework implements a holistic approach to progress and well-being

June 6, 2023
Author: Maria Carrasco Rey, Atlantic Fellow for Social and Economic Equity (LSE)

The Gross National Happiness (GNH) framework, introduced in Bhutan in 1972, was seen as a response to the negative impacts of economic growth on the environment and society. It aims to set the country on a development path that is more than just about material well-being. Instead, it considers an array of factors for designing and prioritizing public action, such as ecological issues, wildlife damage, responsibility toward environment, mental well-being, cultural heritage, community vitality, and spirituality—among other aspects of what is considered having a good life.

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) framework is a set of holistic measures and indicators that assesses and promotes the overall quality of life and flourishing of individuals and communities in the country. It is based on Bhutanese cultural values and Buddhist beliefs regarding the meaning of happiness and well-being.1 In particular, its assessment of well-being is not restricted to merely measuring economic output like the gross domestic product (GDP).

The framework serves as a guide for government and stakeholder decisions of public action based on the well-being outcomes. It includes the GNH Index, a screening tool to evaluate proposed policies’ potential effects on happiness—and by extension, sustainable and equitable development—mandated for all public decisions by the Prime Minister’s office.2 It helps identify if policies have negative, uncertain, neutral, or positive impacts on GNH indicators. The policy guides not only the government but also other institutions such as companies, non-governmental organizations, academics, and entrepreneurs.3 The goal is for all government projects and policies to work together to maximize GNH.

Meanwhile, the GNH index is based on the (adapted) Alkire-Foster method of multidimensional measurement. It identifies four groups of people—unhappy, narrowly happy, extensively happy, and deeply happy. The analysis explores the happiness people enjoy already, then focuses on how policies can increase happiness and sufficiency among the unhappy and narrowly happy people. In this way, the GNH provides a framework for development, allocating resources using screening tools, measuring well-being and progress over time. It guides Bhutan’s planning process, prioritizing goals in the short and long run.4


The GNH policy in Bhutan is implemented through the GNH Index (GNHI), a measurement tool developed by the Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS) that combines subjective well-being with other essential Bhutanese values, resulting in nine dimensions and 33 indicators.5 Putting this into action entails minutely categorizing and carefully tracking the lives of all Bhutanese citizens. Every five years under the direction of the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research, survey-takers travel across the country to conduct questionnaires of some 8,000 randomly selected households. This survey is broken down into nine “domains” or dimensions, 33 indicators, and hundreds of variables. The broad categories include living standards, health, education, ecological diversity and resilience, time use, psychological well-being, community vitality, good governance, and cultural resilience and promotion, among others, which emphasizes the importance of balancing material and non-material aspects of life, such as spirituality embedded in the indicators. The survey takes about three hours to administer and participants are compensated a day’s wage for taking part.6

Furthermore, the GNH Index can be filtered by any demographic characteristic, which means that it can be broken down by population group, for example, to show the composition of GNH among men and among women, or by district—to show which group(s) are lacking in education.


While implementing the GNH policy does require investment in developing and conducting surveys to monitor well-being progress, the most important factor is political willingness to develop the frameworks. The cost of developing GNH policy and its tools, such as the GNHI and the screening tool, is unknown. However, the government signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with various agencies worth BTN 22.47 million (approximately USD 275,000) for the third GNH survey, which was to be conducted by 2021 (but delayed by COVID-19).7


Although causal links have not been established, Bhutan’s GNH policy may have reduced inequality and exclusion by promoting sustainable development, and using the screening tool to prevent negative impacts on people’s well-being. The country’s Gini coefficient decreased from 40.9 (2003) to 37.4 (2017),8 and the income share of the richest 10 percent decreased from 0.6 (2012) to 0.58 (2021).9

The GNH screening tool has been used to evaluate the potential impacts of projects, including a hydropower project,10 and is believed to have contributed to Bhutan’s success in responding to COVID-19,11 as the country was able to quickly implement a nationwide lockdown and close its borders, which may have been facilitated by its focus on sustainable development and well-being, rather than purely economic growth. Additionally, Bhutan’s strong community ties and emphasis on collective well-being may have helped to promote adherence to public health measures and prevent the spread of the virus.

In addition, there is evidence about the governability capacity of having such a type of framework, as stakeholders are satisfied, and civil society organizations have praised the policy’s holistic approach to development.12 The traditional associations and community practices in Bhutan emphasizing national self-reliance, community participation, and social cohesion, which are also the principles of Gross National Happiness (GNH), have existed for a long time and play an important role in the country’s economic development, environmental and cultural preservation, and social cohesion. In this sense the government and civil society exist in a symbiotic relationship, where each contributes to the other, due to the fact that they share common values and goals.

The policy’s success is also attributed to how Bhutanese people define happiness and evaluate a good life,13 because as they focus on the holistic well-being of individuals and society, rather than just material wealth, decisions are framed in terms of spiritual, cultural, and environmental values. For example, there is evidence that social capital—measured by trust, cooperation, and social networks—and community participation have positive effects on promoting sustainable development in Bhutan, by fostering better outcomes in forestry programs 14 and promoting equitable resource management.15