The fourth Druk Gyalpo, Jigme Singye Wangchuk at the age of 18, coined the term "Gross National Happiness" (GNH) in 1972. He put through a proposition that Gross National Product (GNP) was an insufficient measurement of the success of a country. GNP and GDP (Gross Domestic Product) were deemed as metrics that over-emphasized on production, consumption and therefore, material wealth. They did not take into account a country’s level of well-being and happiness.

To understand GNH, one needs to have a basic understanding of the concept of happiness. In the secular sense, happiness is reliant on a person’s experiences past and present. However, in the last century, happiness is often associated with external factors largely dependent on material wealth. The driving factor behind this is the movement of urbanization in the last century which has undeniably detached individuals from their communities, families and nature. However, the level of happiness one derives from material wealth is finite, unlike happiness derived from internal stimuli such as contentment and well-being.

The concept of GNH thus provides a guiding principle behind policy making to ensure there is a balance between both material and non-material factors, with an emphasis on harmonious living, conservation of environment and the protection of their sacred traditions and culture.

The fourth King made sure GNH was the DNA of policy making by incorporating it in the Constitution of Bhutan which was passed two years after he stepped down from the. Any policies implemented were done so with GNH in mind.

The results of the fourth King’s foresight is evidenced by Bhutan’s ranking in the first world map of happiness in 2007. Bhutan ranked first in Asia and eighth in the world while their GDP was ranked 137 in the world at that time. This contradicted the belief that people in countries with good health-care, higher GDP per capita and access to education were more likely to report being happy. The Bhutanese, as well as many outside observers, argues that the secret of their happiness lies in the security of their community and family relationships, and a self-sufficient lifestyle. Their Buddhist beliefs, which considers craving the root cause of unhappiness, guides their daily life.

Skeptics and pragmatics who scoff at the concept become converts when they visit this little nation nestled in the eastern Himalayas between Tibet and India. They leave touched by the simplicity of relationships, and impressed by the country’s commitment to environmental conversation and intriguing traditions and culture.

The focus on communal living and kinship is apparent from values taught from young. Children grow up understanding that looking after the family was an ethical responsibility. The continued efforts to ensure the legacy of their rich heritage and traditions are never marginalized by economic progress. The 40-odd Tsechus (religious festivals) carried out through the year in the various dzongkhags (district) focus on cham dances that tell stories from the 9th century. The scene from any Tsechu is often vibrant with colors from traditional costumes while the atmosphere is lively and spirited. These large social gatherings promote communal living that is now rare in most urbanized nations. Their belief in living in harmony with nature is not without vain. Today, Bhutan, whose forest cover is stipulated by law to be a minimum 60%, boasts of a pristine environment with scenic views of the world's highest peaks and earning the nickname "The Last Shangri-La".

Internationally, the concept of GNH was welcomed with open arms. Perhaps, it was becoming clear to society at large that after a century focused on economic growth or an obsession with GDP, society, though wealthier came with its set of distinct societal problems such as crime, work-family balance, and dysfunctional family relationships and other challenges associated with the environment.

Following the first proposition in 1972 by the Fourth King, countries like Thailand, South Korea, Dubai and Canada released their own version of their Happiness Index. Most notably, in 2011, the United Nations General Assembly passed Resolution 65/309 titled "Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development" and this resolution was adopted unanimously by the General Assembly in July 2011, placing “happiness” on the global development agenda.

In 2005, the Royal Government of Bhutan made a decision to apply this theoretical concept to a practical one. The Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS) was commissioned to implement the concept and a survey in 2007 resulting in the creation of the GNH index came to fruition.

Today, GNH is well known for having the foundation of four pillars:

CONSERVATION OF THE ENVIRONMENT - The country's constitution states that Bhutan must maintain at least 60% of the country under forest cover at all times. Currently, 72% if Bhutan is forested and more than a third of the country is under protection. One of the reasons apart from maintaining the balance of their ecological system is also the challenges their fragile mountain terrain poses to the community. Over foresting will pose dangers of landslides in any monsoons or erratic weather.

This commitment is however often at the sacrifice of economic development. The government decided against exporting timber to India despite it being a lucrative business as the government wanted to keep in view the long term impact of this business on its ecology, and not to focus on the short term gains.

EQUITABLE AND SUSTAINABLE DEVELPOMENT - At the heart of Bhutan’s policies is to create and equitable and sustainable development that allows its people to enjoy a higher standard of health care, education, and social services. One of the focus in this pillar is to ensure that the benefits of development was made available to all, regardless of where they lived or who they were.

GOOD GOVERNANCE - The fourth King was far–sighted and understood that a country can only benefit from a democratic government. He first started the process of decentralizing his power in 1998 when he created the role of Prime Minister. The Bhutanese questioned the necessity of this move as Bhutan under his reign had enjoyed peace and progress. But the Fourth King explained that power centralized on one person might be a successful regime in this generation, but not so in future generations. His move was unprecedented as in the West, it was never the Monarch who pushed for democracy but rather the people or the opposition to the State that did.

PRESERVATION OF CULTURE - With urbanization and the decoupling of individuals from their communities, comes the inevitable loss of culture and tradition. The Bhutanese make a concerted effort to preserve them. Their distinct architecture, traditional rituals, cultural events and costumes are all part of the Bhutanese way of life.

The four pillars act as the foundation for the guiding principle of GNH and were distilled into nine domains that were:

  • Living standards
  • Education
  • Health
  • Environment
  • Community Vitality
  • Time-Use
  • Psychological Well-Being
  • Good Governance
  • Cultural resilience and promotion

When the Fourth King started the concept of GNH and opened up his country to the ideals of democracy, one would have thought the focus would be on economic development for his people. But the Fourth King was visionary and knew the problems that came with it. To protect his people, he ingrained the concept of GNH into the minds of his people and his government, creating a Utopian society that is the envy of many.

To quote Karma Ura, Director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies:

"A GNH oriented society promotes a successful life-cycle of birth, living, ageing and dying."

From a happy childhood with good parenting, to successful living with a productive, fulfilling and enjoyable working life, to remaining vital in the golden years, to having a "good" death from a spiritual sense. This, in a nutshell, is what a GNH oriented life is, and till to-date the policy-makers and monarch of Bhutan is committed to not just modernizing the country, but passing legislations that cultivates happiness and economic development for one of the happiest people in the world.