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Gross National Happiness (GNH)

What is Gross National Happiness (GNH)?

In 1776, the United States' declaration of independence listed the pursuit of happiness as one of the unalienable rights of its citizens. Although the US ruling philosophy guarantees the individuals' freedom to seek their own happiness, it does place equal responsibility on the government for the happiness of its citizens. In the US there is no explicit policy that requires the rulers to develop the physical and mental well-being of the citizens.

Until the mid 1970s there was no formal  policy, any where in the world, that placed happiness at the heart of a ruling philosophy. In 1972 the phrase "gross national happiness" or (GNH) was coined by Bhutan's fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck at a conference. At first, the phrased was offered as a casual, offhand remark to contrast the King's philosophy of developing an economy that would serve Bhutan's unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values rather on western material value represented by Gross National Product (GNP). The four pillars of GNH are:

  1. The promotion of sustainable development
  2. Preservation and promotion of cultural values
  3. Conservation of the natural environment
  4. Establishment of good governance

For more than thirty years, the GNH concept struggled for acceptance by policy makers and economists outside Bhutan due the subjective nature of happiness, the lack of a policy implementation framework and economic measurement system. Even in Bhutan the Gross National Happiness philosophy remains a challenge due to the political transformation of the country and the overemphasis on the spiritual and cultural aspects of GNH instead of balanced socioeconomic development.

In 2005, Med Jones, An unorthodox American economist, inspired by the King's GNH philosophy,  proposed a second generation Gross National Happiness / Well-being (GNH / GNW) concept that would incorporate a qualitative and quantitative framework.  The purpose of the new generation GNH was to implement a practical and more comprehensive framework is to bridge the development gap between (1) the objective western, yet incomplete socioeconomic policy framework and (2) holistic yet subjective eastern political philosophy.

It was the first complete happiness economics framework that combined subjective and objective measures providing a new model for socioeconomic development and governance. The working paper proposed to call it Gross National Wellness (GNW) Index or Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index to honor and credit the King of Bhutan. The new development framework utilizes a metric that measures socioeconomic development by tracking seven development areas, including the nation's mental and emotional health. GNH/GNW metric value was proposed to be an index function of the total average per capita (per person) of the following subjective and objective measures (source: International Institute of Management):

  1. Mental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey on life satisfaction and statistical measurement of mental health metrics such as usage of antidepressants and rise or decline of the number of psychotherapy patients
  2. Physical Wellness: Indicated via statistical measurement of physical health metrics such as severe and chronic illnesses, disability and obesity.
  3. Workplace Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of labor metrics such as job income purchasing power, jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints and lawsuits
  4. Social Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of social metrics such as discrimination, safety ,divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, and crime rates
  5. Economic Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of economic metrics such as consumer debt, average income to consumer price index ratio and income distribution, disposal income available for retirement savings and investments
  6. Environmental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of environmental metrics such as pollution, noise and traffic
  7. Political Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of local democracy, individual freedom, domestic and foreign conflicts.

The above seven measurements were incorporated into the first Global GNW / GNH Index Survey

The subjective survey is also structured into seven areas or dimensions.

Each satisfaction area or dimension rating is scaled from (0-10) as follows:

(0) being very dissatisfied, (5) being neutral, (10) is very satisfied.

  1. 1. Mental & Emotional Wellbeing Overall Satisfaction (0-10)
    Frequency and Intensity of positive vs. negative thoughts and feelings over the past year?
  2. Physical & Health Wellbeing Overall Satisfaction (0-10)
    Your physical safety and health, including risk to your life, body and property and the cost and quality of healthcare, if you get sick?
  3. Work & Income Wellbeing Overall Satisfaction (0-10)
    Your satisfaction with your job, workplace and income to support your essential living expenses, including shelter, food, transportation, and education. If you are a head of household, include the expenses to support your household/family.
  4. Social Relations Wellbeing Overall Satisfaction (0-10)
    Relations with your significant other, family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, and community
  5. Economic & Retirement Wellbeing Overall Satisfaction (0-10)
    Your disposable (extra) income, which is the remaining money after paying for essential living expenses. This money can be used for leisure activities, retirement savings, investments, or charity.
  6. Political & Government Wellbeing Overall Satisfaction (0-10)
    Your satisfaction with your political rights, privacy and personal freedom as well the performance of the government (including socioeconomic development policies effectiveness and efficiency)
  7. Living Environment Wellbeing Overall Satisfaction (0-10)
    Your living environment including city/urban planning, utilities, infrastructure, traffic, architecture, landscaping and natureís pollution (including noise, air, water, and soil)

The survey also asks four qualitative questions to identify key causes of happiness and unhappiness.

  1. What are the top positive things in your life that make you happy?
  2. What are the top challenges and causes of stress in your life?
  3. What would you advise your government to increase your well-being and happiness?
  4. What are the most influential city, state, federal or international projects? How they are impacting your well-being and happiness? (positively or negatively)

After the introduction of the GNH Index, several well-being and happiness indices were derived from the same model and were customized to meet local cultures. 

In 2006 and 2010, the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) was updated from a green measurement system to a broader concept that included quantitative measurement of well-being and happiness. The new measures were motivated by the philosophy of the GNH and the same notion of that subjective measures like well-being are more relevant and important than more objective measures like consumption.

Among the popular indices that followed the GNH Index are the Gallup Happiness Poll in 2009.

The French President Nicolas Sarkozy, following the steps of the King of Bhutan, called for Happiness focus in economic development policies and commissioned three economists Joseph E. Stiglitz (Noble Laureate), Amartya Sen, and Jean-Paul Fitoussi who launched a report on Happiness that let to the development OECD better life Index which was launched in 2012 using Gallup world polls. The subjective and objective indicators are very similar to the GNH Index in 200

In recent years, the GNH has evolved into a socioeconomic development approach taken seriously by universities and think tanks around the world.

While there were few books and articles prior to the 21st century that referenced the term happiness economics, they were individual studies that focused on single issues such as the impact of unemployment on satisfaction, or the impact of environment pollution on the health of the citizens. Non of the studies offered a full framework of subjective and objective measurement and linked it to development policies. Just like the GNH philosophy marked the beginning of the modern happiness political movement, the the GNH Index marked the beginning of the modern Well-being Economics and Happiness Econometrics of well being.

In a follow up policy white paper, the institute called to adopt GNH 2.0 in the US. To learn more, please visit

After the introduction of GNH Index initiative, several initiatives were launched that adapted the gross national happiness index to their communities.

In the United States, the Gallup poll system lunched the happiness survey in 2009 collecting data on national scale. The Gallup Well-Being Index was modeled after the GNH Index framework of 2005. The Well-Being Index score is an average of six sub-indexes that measures life evaluation, emotional health, work environment, physical health, healthy behaviors , and access to basic necessities. In October 2009, the USA scored 66.1/100.

In a 2012 report prepared for the US Congressman Hansen Clarke, R, Researchers Ben, Beachy and Juston Zorn, at John F. Kennedy School of Government in Harvard University, recommended that "the Congress should prescribe the broad parameters of new, carefully designed supplemental national indicators; it should launch a bipartisan commission of experts to address unresolved methodological issues, and include alternative indicators." They proposed that the government can use the survey results to see which well-being dimensions are least satisfied and which districts and demographic groups are most deficient, so as to allocate resources accordingly. The report list the Gross National Happiness Index and its seven measurement area as one of the main frameworks to consider.

In 2007 Thailand releases Green and Happiness Index (GHI). 

In 2011 UN General Assembly Resolution 65/309, titled "Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development" 

In 2011 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) launches "Better Life Index" (BLI). 

In 2011 Canadian Index of Wellbeing Network (CIW Network) releases The Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) 

In 2012 South Korea launched Happiness Index citing the GNH Index framework.

In India, the Government of Goa in (2012) cited the GNH Index as a model for measuring happiness.

In 2011, a leading Israeli newspaper Haaretz, published an article suggesting that western GDP economics is an incomplete development model and called for the adoption of Bhutan's GNH philosophy and Jones' GNH Index in Israel.

In 2012, the city of Seattle in Washington, launched its own happiness index initiative, emphasizing measures similar to the GNH Index.

In 2013, the President of Singapore Dr Tony Tan proposed that in addition to building up substantial financial reserves, Singapore also needed to focus on building up its "social reserves", a concept that appears to have parallels to GNH.

In 2014 The government of Dubai launched it's localized Happiness Index to measure the publicís contentment and satisfaction with different government services.

In 2014 the United Kingdom launched its own well-being and happiness statistics. 

In 2012 Professor Dr Peter T. Coleman, a world-renowned director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University, suggested that Jones' GNH Index initiative could inform the Global Peace Index Initiative GPI.

Other noteworthy Happiness Index initiatives that followed the GNH Index of 2005 are the Bhutan GNH Index in 2010 the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD Better Life Index in 2011, World Happiness Report in 2011 and the Social Progress Index SPI in 2013

In 2006, the Genuine Progress Indicator was updated from a green measurement system to a broader concept that included quantitative measurement of well-being and happiness. The new measure is motivated by the philosophy of the GNH and the same notion of that subjective measures like well-being are more relevant and important than more objective measures like consumption. It is not measured directly, but only the factors which are believed to lead to it.

In 2010, the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative OPHI at the University of Oxford in UK, lunched the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) for the United Nations Development Programme, (UNDP). Similar to the GNH Index of 2005, OPHI promotes collection and analysis of data on five dimensions including Quality of work, Empowerment, Physical safety, Ability to go about without shame, Psychological wellbeing. 

To learn more, please visit Happiness Economics Timeline

Contributor: Sara Stenberg, GNH Institute, 2011

Sources: GNH Research Library



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