“K4?” A mountain peak in the Himalayas more known as Gasherbrum II. However, it is also the pet name the Bhutanese people gave to their 4th King Jigme Wangchuck, who ruled the country from 1972 until his abdication in 2005 in favor of his eldest son, the current 5th King of Bhutan. King Jigme Wangchuck is known as the father of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) development philosophy.
Bhutan is a small country, the size of Switzerland, squeezed between India and China in the Eastern Himalayas. It has less than 800,000 inhabitants and is one of the few predominantly Buddhist countries never to have been colonized.
HM Jigme Wangchuck was 17 when he became the 4th King of Bhutan. During his first trip to India in 1972, he was asked by a British journalist of the Financial Times what the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Bhutan was. He famously replied that “Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross Domestic Product (GDP).” His response implied that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notions of progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of well-being. Though many believed this is where the idea of GNH was born, it may have had earlier antecedents, such as the Legal Code of Bhutan of 1629, which states:
“If the Government cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for the Government to exist.”
Bhutan is not the fictional, mystical, harmonious valley of “Shangri-La,” nor the Country of Happiness as some Westerns sometimes refer to it. And the Bhutanese aren’t the happiest people on earth. Bhutan may be the only carbon-negative country, but it still has its share of other problems, like poverty, an increasing unemployment rate, unprecedented divorce rates, domestic violence, and drug abuse. But Bhutan aims at promoting a development approach aimed primarily at the happiness of the people.
“GNH is an aspiration, a set of guiding principles through which we are navigating our path towards a sustainable and equitable society. It is our North Star.”– Thakur Singh Powdyel, Bhutan’s former Minister of Education
- In 1975, the 4th King declared GNH as the development philosophy of Bhutan.
- With the new millennium, the development of quantifiable GNH tools was launched in response to the global attention that GNH philosophy had generated.
- In 2008, both a GNH screening tool, used to systematically review all development policies and projects under the lens of GNH, and the GNHI (GNH Index), used to measure the general well-being of the Bhutanese population on a regular basis, were put in place.
- That same year, the first written constitution of Bhutan was adopted by referendum, and its Article 9 guaranteed a continuity of the GNH philosophy: “The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness.” Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy with the coronation of the 5th King, and the first general elections took place.
Under the first elected PM Jigme Yoser Thinley (2008 – 2013), GNH gained international visibility:
- In 2011 the United Nations adopted a General Assembly resolution introduced by Bhutan calling for a “holistic approach to development” aimed at promoting sustainable happiness and well-being.
- In 2012 a High-Level Meeting hosted by the Royal Government of Bhutan took place at the United Nations headquarters in New York to encourage the spread of Bhutan’s GNH philosophy: “Happiness and Well-being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm”.
Under the second elected PM Tshering Tobgay (2013 – 2018), the GNH focus shifted back to Bhutan, with the job of the government being, in his words, “to implement the GNH principles at home.”
- The PM looked for ways to improve local competitiveness and to bring in more foreign direct investments without compromising GNH: “There is one condition in doing business in Bhutan: companies will need to take GNH very seriously.”
- In 2015, the development of a Business GNH assessment tool was launched to align business with GNH. In 2018, the GNH Certification report provided a methodological foundation for evaluating a business’s social performance, and assisting business firms in becoming aware of and adopting GNH values.
* Thakur Singh Powdyel, Bhutan’s former Minister of Education and current President of the Royal Thimpu College in Bhutan