Where Happiness is a Place: Defining Happiness in Bhutan

Last week I went to the International Conference on Gross National Happiness. Along with over 500 participants representing 48 countries, we analyzed, surveyed, charted, and debated happiness for three days.

Gross National Happiness was first mentioned by Bhutan’s 4th King in the 1970’s. He said that the country would measure GNH and prioritize that over GDP. What use is it, he said, if you are economically successful but unhappy? Since then GNH has become Bhutan’s philosophy of governance and development.

Bhutan has gotten some good press internationally regarding GNH. Westerners who are distrustful of leaders and disenchanted by consumerism look to Bhutan as the “last Shangri-la.” With the 2015 GNH survey reporting that 92.1% if the citizens are happy, Bhutan’s reputation will likely continue.

Before looking more closely at GNH, it’s helpful to understand “happiness” from the Bhutanese point of view. The concept of happiness is deeply cultural and variable from one person to the next. The information below is all from the conference speakers.

What is happiness?

When talking about GNH, “happiness” is not an accurate term. If a word exists in English that most closely matches the Bhutanese concept, it’s “contentment,” but even that word falls short.

How do you get achieve happiness?

Currently it’s unclear whether GNH is supposed to provide happiness or just the conditions for happiness. I’ve heard both.

So, how does one become happy?

The right external conditions along with the right inner perceptions will lead to happiness.

However, if you focus too much on your “external conditions” you’ll end up being unhappy. You’ll train yourself to be happy only under ideal conditions. Also, the happiness resulting from external conditions diminishes over time.

One Western speaker gave this example. He was a volunteer teacher in a rural district at a boarding school. (Most kids go to boarding schools because, otherwise, they would have to walk for hours each day.) The kids were living in traditional buildings and sleeping three to a bed. The teacher proposed to the school director that they improve the children’s living conditions and give each child a bed. To his surprise, the director thought it was an awful idea. “If we make the school very nice,” he said, “they will not be happy when they are with their families. And when they sleep three to a bed, they will have a friend for life.”

So, what are the right external conditions? More importantly, at what point are external conditions so poor that you will not be happy, regardless of your inner perceptions? And who decides? This was never really answered.

Regarding inner perceptions, this is a Buddhist country (there is no separation of religion and government). The “right” inner perceptions are those stemming from the Buddhist worldview, according to GNH. Concepts like karma, impermanence, and acceptance help the Bhutanese experience their life in a way that leads to happiness.

Next post will be about the actual GNH index, survey, and computing methods. In other words, how did they come up with 92.1%


Further reading:

Kelly, A. (2012, December 1) Gross national happiness in Bhutan: the big idea from a tiny state that could change the world [news article]. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/dec/01/bhutan-wealth-happiness-counts


  1. Is this a little like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? External conditions I need are physical needs and a safe environment. Then I can work on inner love, esteem, and “happiness.”

    1. Pretty much! Maybe not as linear or individual-focused. They really emphasized that what you consider “basic needs” will change based on your perceptions. The morning they talked about this, I had gotten cranky with the hotel staff because the water wasn’t working in my room and the internet never worked. Then this lama starts talking about basic needs and inner perceptions… ugh. I think he was talking to me!

Leave a Reply