Home All Happy in an Irresolvable Dilemma, Part 2: The Gross National Happiness Dilemma

Happy in an Irresolvable Dilemma, Part 2: The Gross National Happiness Dilemma

written by Laura Musikanski 12 October 2015
Prayer flags

Laura Musikanski is executive director and cofounder of The Happiness Alliance home of the Happiness Initiative and Gross National Happiness Index. Prior to that she was the executive director of Sustainable Seattle. She believes passionately that you get what you measure, and that it's time to measure and manage for the well-being of people and the planet. Laura is the author of How to Account for Sustainability and Sustainability Decoded. She is a lawyer with an MBA and devoted grandmother to Bruno. Laura's articles are here.

If you have heard about Bhutan you probably know of it as Shangri-La, a tiny kingdom high in the Himalayans where everybody is eternally happy. Maybe you know of it as the place that generated the concept of Gross National Happiness. You may even know it as the country that started the happiness movement. In my first post in this series, I explained that the happiness movement is a global effort to shift economic policy from the singular focus on economic growth to a wider focus on well-being, sustainability, and happiness.

What you probably don’t know about Bhutan is how a history of holding the tension between irresolvable dilemmas may have brought about the happiness movement. What is unknown is whether holding the tension of an irresolvable dilemma is the answer to our happiness.

Faces of Bhutan

Faces of Bhutan Collage, photos taken by James Bradbury,
director on the board of the Happiness Alliance,
on a trip to Bhutan taken twenty years ago.

War versus Buddhism

Bhutan has a long history of holding the tension between irresolvable dilemmas. Bhutan has been a Buddhist nation for over a thousand years. One of the tenets of Buddhism is “right action” which means not to harm oneself or others. Yet civil war tore through the country for hundreds of years. The current king’s great-greatgrandfather led his first battle at 23 and brought peace to his nation through victory. He was called the Dragon King. By 1907, Bhutan was at peace.

The same nation that held the tension between war and Buddhism for so long brought the concept of Gross National Happiness to the world by holding the tension in another irresolvable dilemma.

Gross Domestic Product versus Gross National Happiness

This dilemma also stemmed from war. After World War II, the superpowers got together in a conference they called Bretton Woods. They determined the best way to prevent any future world wars was to tie their economies together. They decided to use Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the measurement for their economies. The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and later the World Trade Organization were born from that conference. In the 1970’s, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development started gathering GDP data for the countries of the world. The pressure was on for all countries to provide the numbers.

Few disagreed that the purpose of economic policy was economic growth. That is the context in which the journalist John Elliot asked the forth Dragon King Jigme Singye Wangchuck what he intended to do to increase Bhutan’s GDP. The king’s famous response was “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.”

The king turned the country into a democratic monarchy for the happiness of all. In 2008, Bhutan promulgated its first constitution, setting forth Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a national principle (Article 9, clause 2). The Gross National Happiness Commission was appointed to determine whether governmental policies, plans, and programs were aligned with the goals of GNH. For compilation of Bhutan’s GNH policies, see Happiness in Public Policy, Appendix B. Some of the GNH policies include:

  • Bringing schools to all children in Bhutan and teaching GNH in schools, including mindfulness training.
  • Bringing healthcare that integrates traditional and allopathic (western) care to rural areas.
  • Encouraging cottage, small and medium sized business development that responds to climate change and ecological and social needs.
  • Increasing domestic agricultural yields to address food scarcity and stunted growth and preparing agriculture for climate change.
  • 100% organic agriculture throughout the country.

Prayer flags

Prayer flags taken by Jon Hall, UNDP, Head of Unit for Human Development Reports

With the codification of GNH, some have looked to Bhutan as a realization of Shangri-La. That is not the case for the approximately 105,000 Nepalese refugees that were pushed into camps or out of the country in the 1990’s when Bhutan’s desire to protect its culture overtook wiser action. This dilemma is still not resolved.

Other policies adding to dilemmas within GNH also aimed to protect the culture. These have included banning smoking, television, and instituting a national dress code. Some of these policies have been reversed in the name of progress for the country. Their resolution brought to the forefront the dilemma between GNH and globalization.

Gross National Happiness versus Globalization

Bhutan’s highest elected official is the Prime Minister. Jigmi Thinley was the first Prime Minister to be elected. Under Thinley, the GNH commission got its legs, GNH was measured, and the happiness movement was launched in conjunction with the United Nations. However, in 2013, the people voted to replace him. The New York Times reported the reason for Thinley’s replacement was economic and that GNH was dead. The truth was more nuanced.

Bhutan does suffer from poverty. Many do not have access to education and health care. Some suffer malnutrition. Nowhere are the threats of climate change more in the minds of the people. Today’s Prime Minister of Bhutan,Tshering Tobgay spent the first two years of his time in office focusing on ways to balance the financial, social, environmental, and personal needs of his people. Hydro-power projects, access to television and the internet, and job development are some of the programs Tobgay put in place. In September of 2015, Tobgay told reporter John Elliot (the same one who had interviewed the forth dragon king many years earlier), “Gross national happiness is critical for Bhutan.”

Tobgay seeks to alleviate the poverty in his country. Fast tracking economic growth would be the conventional means for most policy makers. Most policy makers in most countries would ignore the impacts on the environment, culture, or society rather than allow the irresolvable dilemmas that emerge when a country is guided by Gross National Happiness and suffering from poverty.

Historically, this is not so for the Bhutanese. In 1987, the forth Dragon King explained “Whether we take five years or ten to raise the per capita income and increase prosperity is not going to guarantee…happiness, which includes political stability, social harmony, and the Bhutanese culture and way of life.”

However, it is unknown if it will take five, ten, or more years to bring Bhutan out of poverty and increase the country’s Gross National Happiness. Bhutan does not have a track record to rely upon. Policy makers cannot look to another nation for examples of what to do or what not to do for the Gross National Happiness of its nation. There are no known solutions.

This is one of the features of an irresolvable dilemma. Yet the future of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness depends on whether Tobgay and the other policy makers in Bhutan can live with the irresolvable dilemma of Gross National Happiness.

Like Bhutan, the happiness movement faces its own dilemma. This is the subject of the third post in this series.



Das, B. (2014, Jan. 28). In Pictures: Nepal’s Bhutanese refugees. Aljazeera.

Elliot, J. (2008, November 5). Bhutan’s king told me about his plans for gross national happiness.

Elliot, J. (2015, September 8). The country where happiness is more important than growth. Newsweek.

Geiling, N. (2015). This tiny country is going 100 percent organic. Climate Progress.

Gross National Happiness. (n.d.) Bhutan GNH index.

Gross National Happiness Commission. (n.d.). Approved Policy.

New York Times (2013, Oct. 4). Index of Happiness? Bhutan’s New Leader Prefers More Concrete Goals. New York Times.

Musikanski, L. (2014). Happiness in Public Policy. Journal for Social Change 6:1.

Musikanski, L. (2015). Measuring Happiness to Guide Public Policy Making: A Survey of Instruments and Policy Initiatives. Journal of Social Change, 5(1).

Musikanski, L. (2015). Happy in an Irresolvable Dilemma: Part 1, The Sad-Happy Dilemma Positive Psychology News.

United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. (2012). Defining a New Economic Paradigm: The Report of the High-Level Meeting on Wellbeing and Happiness.

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Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) 15 October 2015 - 6:14 am

Nice to see an article about Bhutan that doesn’t gloss over the challenges and complexities of their happiness movement.

Stefano Sarge 18 December 2015 - 1:50 am

Hello Laura,

Do you think GNH(Gross National Happiness) is possible in the United states? If so, how?


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