Making Sense of Bhutan’s 2015 GNH Survey Results

92.1% are reportedly happy in Bhutan, per the provisional findings of the 2015 Gross National Happiness Survey. That’s a very specific number, and it’s worth looking at how it was determined.

Luckily, I was just at the International Conference on Gross National Happiness where they explained it all.

How does the GNH survey happiness?

Actually, it doesn’t directly measure happiness. It measures the GNH “domains,” and that data is used to generate a score. Based on that score, the respondent is classified as deeply happy, extensively happy, narrowly happy, or unhappy.

There are 9 domains of GNH: psychological wellbeing, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, community vitality, good governance, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

If you have a “sufficiency” level in at least two thirds of the domains, then you are considered to be happy. It’s all about balance. Your happiness in one area can’t make up for unhappiness in another.

The survey is administered by university students who interview people in their homes.

Is it a good survey?

As someone who regularly has conversations about wellbeing, I see some problems with the survey. I also think some of the questions are wonderful and that all mental health providers should consider including them in their assessments.

The Problems:

This is a country in which democracy is new and where there is a somewhat recent history of forced deportation of ethnically Nepali citizens. Using university students from the city may not put the respondents at ease.

This is also a cultural context in which you do not criticize those “above” you. Also, this is a collectivist culture where people value fulfilling their duty to family and community. Even saying that you are unhappy with something (or that something is lacking) could be interpreted as criticism.

I also wonder whether the prompts were written in a way that encourages respondents to “round up” their happiness. They used either closed questions (yes/no) or Likert scales. In either case, the prompt implied the “right” answer, and respondents were asked to indicate how they measured up.

There was one statistician from Gallup at the conference. Based on her comments, I gather that she has identified some big problems with the survey methodology in terms of how they determined who to ask and how the data was analyzed.

The Great Stuff:

The GNH survey has done a good job at identifying a wide range of behavioral indicators of happiness. Many of these questions appear, on a surface level, to be so culturally situated that they would not be helpful in another cultural context. However, if you understand what the question is really “getting at,” you can adapt it for another culture.

Take this question: Do you consider Karma in the course of your daily life? Essentially, Karma is a Buddhist belief around cause and effect. It’s both a way of making decisions and of making meaning. Regardless of your cultural or spiritual background, those two cognitive tasks are important for psychological wellbeing and are indicators of resilience.

So, are they happy?

Per the data, yes and no.

The “No” Answer:

From 2010 to 2015 there was an overall decrease in psychological wellbeing. Those reporting sufficiency decreased by 2% for life satisfaction, 13% for frequency of positive emotions, 16% for negative emotions, and 25% for spirituality. In all indicators, the largest decrease was in good governance which fell by 52%.

Does this mean that Bhutan is doing worse or that people are just reporting differently? Is the mere act of asking influencing how people perceive themselves and their lives? Are the Bhutanese just getting more comfortable and honest with their answers?

The “Yes” Answer:

Due to how the GH survey calculates happiness, the government is reporting an overall increase in happiness even though there is a decrease in reported psychological wellbeing. They are stating that 91.2% of the population is happy.

  • 8.42% of the Bhutanese are determined to be deeply happy
  • 34.97% are extensively happy
  • 47.87% are narrowly happy
  • 8.75% are unhappy

What does it mean?

It’s difficult for me to reconcile a decrease in psychological well-being and an increase in happiness. Yes, the survey is meant to measure the conditions that make happiness possible. If it really did measure that, wouldn’t that mean that psychological well-being would also improve?

When I think about GNH I try to remain neutral. Working in a mental health program can give you a distorted sense of the culture and the overall well-being of the people. Bhutan does have some problems, and it’s not Shangri-la.

Many of the people I talk to do love Bhutan.

A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a taxi driver about reincarnation. I said, “So, if I’m really good in this life I might come back as a human?”

“Yes,” he said, “and if you are really really good, you may come back as Bhutanese.”


Further Reading:

Beattie, A. (2014, September 4). Gross National Happiness: a bad idea whose time has gone [blog post]. Retrieved from

Summary of the 2015 GNH Index [pdf]. Retrieved from


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