Gross National Happiness

An old friend sent me an unusual article from an unusual source today on tiny Bhutan and its Gross National Happiness (GNH) approach to life, learning, policy and measurement. Coincidentally, this arrived just as I was about to address the PPX on performance measurement. In the age of accountability, measurement matters. We know that it’s very difficult to manage what we cannot measure. We spend less time, however, thinking about how what we measure determines how we manage.

So, for those who don’t know, Bhutan is a very small Buddhist country that decided that rather than focus on GDP, it would focus on GNH – and unquestionably their approach is worth a close look. In fact, Bhutan has sparked the interest of a number of leading policy thinkers. To be clear, this is not some sixties encounter group, thinking that we should simply give people what they want or that we can actually make all people happy all the time. Some valuable work is going on to measure our sense of well-being and this should be part but only part of the puzzle.

The interest in GNH is not just about adding up what we as individuals want; it is more than that, and, ideally, more than addressing our immediate and short-term interests. It is about reminding us that public policy – government – is all about people’s well-being now and for the future, and politics, at its best, is about debating what that entails and how best we may make progress. In Bhutan, for example, what is valued and assessed includes things like taking responsibility for others, treating people with respect and good governance. Measuring outputs in money(GDP), as important as this may be, is just not good enough for assessing how well we are doing as a country, and may actually distort policy and do damage if not complemented by strong measures of quality of life and human dignity. The GNH is about values, fundamental debates about what a GDP is for, what a healthy society looks like, debates Canada is not having.

Others are.

A couple of years ago, France’s Nicolas Sarkozy launched a national project to go beyond GDP and to propose measures of quality of life (no doubt motivated in part by France’s lagging GDP growth) and this project, chaired by Nobel prize-winning and progressive economist Joseph Stiglitz, reported in September. Clearly, not everyone will agree with the group’s formulation; they attend to economic measures certainly but also, appropriately I would argue, to measures of environment, health, political participation, social relationships, and equality as essential to human dignity. The OECD too is pursuing the issue of measuring quality of life including but beyond GDP.

We in Canada would benefit from a similar project, a similar values debate. So of course it’s the economy (stupid) but the economy for what? As they say in Bhutan, it’s not only the economy and, for that matter, the economy is more than GDP. Measures of how well we are performing must go beyond GDP; they must at least try to capture quality of life and human dignity now and for future generations, however difficult and conflictual this may be. We need, in any case, to start measuring the things that matter most and debate what those are.


I am reminded that Roy Romanow is spearheading a Canadian project on measuring well-being. The Romanow project explains its purpose as follows:

“Canada lacks a single, national instrument that shows whether our quality of life, in all of its dimensions, is getting better or worse. The CIW, measuring at the national level, links up with the work of many organizations that are striving to improve quality of life at the neighbourhood, community, municipal, provincial, and regional levels. This collective action can indeed generate a powerful force – refocusing the political discourse in Canada, helping to reshape the direction of public policy that will genuinely improve the quality of life of Canadians, and holding decision makers to account for whether things are getting better or worse.”

Also worth following is CIFAR’s work on successful societies.

4 Responses to “Gross National Happiness”
  1. joeblow says:

    In the continuing absence of a debate about values and the kind of society we want (one that goes beyond GDP for instance), a narrow vision of politics becomes entrenched over time, which places limits on the imagination of Canadians, especially of young Canadians. In this way, it becomes increasingly more difficult to say: “this is the only life we have to live: why should we accept that it be defined by competitive individualism, money and other forms of instrumentalism?”

    It strikes me as even more puzzling that there is a lack of policy debate in Canada given the existence of organizations such as CIW and CIFAR that are dedicated to thinking outside of the traditional paradigm. Is this not another example of the existence of a serious disconnect between policy decision-makers and our research community in this country – and another reason why we are not having the debates we need?

  2. roddy and bambeena says:

    agree that we need a debate in Canada on the GHP….what would it take to initiate this?

  3. himelfarb says:

    That is the question. A new politics?

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  1. […] debates about what a GDP is for, what a healthy society looks like, … Read the original: Gross National Happiness « Alex's Blog Share and […]

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