This post draws attention to important pillars in the sustainable development debate. The first is the need to measure human progress in ways other than economic development. And Bhutan's national happiness index is a great example. The other is an often unrecognized fact that Japan is making great strides in moving towards a sustainable society and the Japan for Sustainability website, included in our links to other websites, which I recommend that everyone should subscribe to.
Report from Bhutan:
Gross National Happiness (GNH) Versus Gross National Product (GNP)
Following the reports on China in our November and December issues in
2008 as part of our evolution toward "Asia for Sustainability" (AFS),
JFS co-founder Junko Edahiro reports on a meeting she attended in Bhutan,
the Fourth International Conference on Gross National Happiness (GNH).
It was held in Thimphu, the national capital, from November 24 to 26,
Gross National Happiness (GNH) is an index used to measure national
strength and progress based on people's happiness, rather than on levels
of production as measured by gross national product (GNP) and gross
domestic product (GDP). This concept was described in 1976 by Bhutan's
fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, as "more important than GNP," and
was chosen as the nation's primary development philosophy and its
ultimate goal of development.
See also: GPI, GNH, GCH: True Indicators of Progress
The first International Conference on GNH to promote the concept and
creation of a GNH index was held in Bhutan in 2004, the second in Canada
in 2005, and the third in Thailand in 2007.
The theme of the fourth International GNH Conference was "Practice and
Measurement," indicating a step forward into a new phase focusing more
on how to reflect GNH in policies, and how to grasp the current
situation and measure progress, rather than considering GNH as simply a
principle or philosophy.
A total of 90 people from 25 countries attended the conference, with
about 10 from Japan, which was the second highest number of attendees
next to Bhutan. In the morning of the first day, the organizer gave
opening remarks after a ceremony conducted by Bhutanese monks, then H. E.
Jigmi Y. Thinley, the first prime minister of Bhutan following the
country's shift to a democratic parliamentary system, gave the keynote
The prime minister touched upon the words of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel
Wangchuck, Bhutan's fifth king, who, in his coronation address the week
before the conference, clearly said that the "promotion of GNH was his
responsibility and priority." The prime minister in his speech also
repeatedly said that GNH lies at the foundation of Bhutan's national
policies. He also noted that, while most believe economic growth is
necessary in order to alleviate poverty, "to believe this is to believe
in killing the patient in order to cure the disease. Even the
justification for economic growth for poverty alleviation seems very
shaky, unless we radically improve redistribution."
After the opening ceremony, the general meeting began, and one of the
highlights was the announcement of the GNH Index by the Centre for
Bhutan Studies. The idea of GNH is well-known, but how can it be
measured? This is what the world wants to know today.
Bhutan has made four pillars of GNH the basis of its major governance
principles: economic self-reliance, a pristine environment, the
preservation and promotion of Bhutan's culture, and good governance in
the form of a democracy. Nine dimensions support the four pillars:
living standards, health, psychological well-being, education, ecology,
community vitality, time use, culture, and good governance.
This time, in order to gauge the progress of advancement with the four
pillars of GNH, 72 variables were selected to correspond to the nine
dimensions, and a national survey was carried out. At the conference, a
researcher from the Centre for Bhutan Studies presented the types of
variables selected and an overview of the survey findings. Participants
from other countries also gave papers on their studies and practices to
measure happiness, which led to some lively discussions.
(See also the Gross National Happiness website, operated by the Centre
for Bhutan Studies, for the GNH Index and the survey results, at
While the Bhutanese government actively promotes GNH, this does not mean
that it guarantees the people's happiness. It simply promises, as the
nation and/or the government, that it will work to create the conditions
under which individuals can seek GNH.
During the conference, one Bhutanese participant said, "Bhutan should
build its own GNH-based economy, politics, and culture. Considering GNH,
it is clear that even democracy is not an end. Democracy is a means of
good governance necessary for GNH." From such comments, I could sense a
move to start considering GNH as a foundation of nation building, not
just as a concept or an index, as many people think.
Obviously, Bhutan is not a utopia just because it advocates GNH. For
example, in many areas of the country, infrastructure such as adequate
water supply has yet to be developed well enough. The country also has
many other problems related to modernization, particularly growing
concern about an increase of juvenile crime and other social problems
since the introduction of television.
In addition, even the term "GNH" is not specifically mentioned in
Bhutan's current tenth development plan. Later on, at the wrap-up
session of the conference, a Bhutanese participant said that GNH should
not be used to solve world issues but to solve national problems in
The three-day conference was concluded with a strong message that
putting GNH into the mainstream of Bhutanese politics will be a driving
force in creating a more holistic society in the country. The next
conference will be held in Brazil.
The fact that the prime minister gave the conference's opening speech,
with many ministers and cabinet officials in attendance, is an
indication of the importance the government places on GNH. On the third
day of the conference, I sensed the essence of GNH at an event at a
luncheon hosted by the king, to which I was invited together with all
the participants from outside Bhutan.
Prior to the lunch meeting, the newly coronated 28-year-old king stood
in front of the entrance of the palace, shook hands with guests one by
one, exchanged words for a while, and welcomed them all politely. I
myself shook hands and talked with him for a while. There was no hurry
with him at all to meet individually with the several dozens of guests.
He focused his entire attention on the here and now, serene like a calm
lake. I sincerely felt that he cherished the time with me, and I was
deeply impressed with this.
In regard to the character of the king, a person I interviewed who knows
Bhutan well said, "At the coronation ceremony last week, citizens
gathered from villages across the country to see him, even for just a
glimpse, with many having made an overnight trip to get there. Tens of
thousands of people stood in line. When people became impatient and were
about to rush to him, the King took the microphone and said, 'I promise
to shake hands with the person at the end of the line. Please wait.'
When the time was almost running out, the King started walking and shook
hands with everyone up to the last person and exchanged words, instead
of standing in place and waiting to greet the people there."
Also, as an example of the character of the former king, who established
the basis of GNH, he administrated state affairs while living in a
modest house, and when the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake hit Japan, he
prayed for three days without eating.
When I talked with Bhutanese people, I felt that they sincerely admire
and respect the fourth king. And also I could feel that the fifth king,
just as his predecessor, wants to cherish his people in earnest.
After greeting the conference participants, the king entered the
luncheon hall alone, and lined up for food just like the rest of us.
When he had his food, he seated himself at one of the tables and started
talking with people around him while eating. Watching him, I realized in
a true manner that the king embodies the essence of GNH as one that
treasures his people one by one, as well as sensing the hearts of those
who respect the king.
Setting the GNH Index itself is only a start. Creating an index and
measuring progress is one thing, while the holistic idea that "there is
something important in those unmeasurables" is another. The question is:
How do these ideas get incorporated into their principle goal of making
the Index useful for Bhutan and the rest of the world?
This is a very important process unfolding. I would like to watch its
progress and promote the idea with like-minded people and groups around
the world who think there is something more important in life than GNP and GDP. If you too are trying to measure or visualize something along these lines and want to change society by communicating it, JFS would really like to hear from you.
Written by Junko Edahiro