The Gross National Happiness Index was developed to help anchor politicians and bureaucrats to the long-term goals of GNH.

The quantification of GNH, said the President of the Center for Bhutan studies and GNH, Dasho Karma Ura, was done in preparation for the transition where democratically elected governments could potentially change every five years.

Speaking on Development with Integrity: Bhutan’s development and its GNH index at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, England, the president said that GNH, takes a broader set of conditions related to societal and individual happiness.

“Those who achieve the conditions for happiness, are excluded from further calculation, but what it tells policy makers is to focus on those who do not achieve these conditions,” he said.

At a time when the parliament members are recommending suggestions to insulate GNH from the whims of political parties and questioning the GNH framework of the 12th Plan, GNH, the president shared with a community of scholars on Bhutan that GNH is used in official decision making primarily in five ways.

First, all 17 baseline goals of five year plans, he said, are drawn from GNH indicatives and these baselines relate to such things as mental health, safety level, community vitality as a whole, voting rights, values, assets and income among others.

Second, GNH is used as a weighted criterion in allocation of budget to local governments.

“Third, policies are screened with the GNH screening tool, which is a simple way of checking the impact of the policy on 22 criteria which are drawn from GNH index,” he said.

On the national council’s observation on past projects such as central schools and mega farms being implemented despite criticism, Kuensel learnt that these decisions did not have policies as such to be screened. Some observers said that these are cabinet decisions, which are the prerogative of the government of the day and that GNH screening tool should not be seen as a panacea to all issues.

Fourth, GNH index is used to evaluate projects, such as a horticultural project in eastern Bhutan to assess the benefits and fifth, GNH certification for business has been designed for various businesses. “Its implementation on a bigger scale will begin from this year,” he said.

A research on GNH legislation policy outputs in Bhutan from 1972 to 2014 by Michael Givel, a political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, USA found that in these 42 years, Bhutan enacted 115 national laws.  From 1972 to mid 90s, GNH legislation almost solely focused on cultural preservation pillar – on maintaining the traditional cultural identity and values of a Mahayaya Buddhist monarchy and society.

In the second phase, Bhutanese policy outputs emphasized all four pillars of GNH, aligned with the long-standing government policies to modernise Bhutan.

Beginning mid 2000s, the research found that several good governance policies were enacted to limit corruption, promote greater transparency and raise accountability in government. “The happiness policy has morphed,” Michael Givel said.

The Sheldonian Theatre, the official ceremonial hall of the University of Oxford also saw the former Prime Minister Dasho Tshering Tobgay, His Majesty’s representative, speak on Does Bhutan Matter? Stories from a young democracy.

“GNH is what defines us as a nation and what guides us as we move forward as a society. GNH has become Bhutan’s brand image and that image is so effective and powerful that many are convinced that we are the happiest people in the world,” he said.

GNH has also quietly become Bhutan‘s soft power and has contributed to the development of Sustainable Development Goals.

“Our democracy is not an end in itself, but the means to protect our sovereignty, nurture our the culture, preserve our pristine environment, to strengthen our welfare system and to ensure that political leaders and decision makers upheld the ideals of GNH.”

International Society for Bhutan Studies

The Sheldonian Lectures were a part of the inaugural conference of the International Society for Bhutan Studies (ISBS), which was held at the Magdalen College, University of Oxford in the United Kingdom from January 8-10.

Founded in Paro in 2015, the ISBS seeks to develop the study of Bhutanese culture, life and nature in all aspects and encourage, inspire and motivate interest in lesser known aspects and promote and strengthen the areas of existing concentration.

ISBS president Sabina Alkire said the conference assembles a community of thinkers, particularly young scholars to encourage academic exchange, and to contribute to the happiness of future generations. The conference’s opening, which coincided with the 109th anniversary of the Treaty of Punakha, saw more than 40 research papers on linguistics, ecology, anthropology, law and international relations, Buddhism, GNH and development, education and governance.

Dasho Tshering Tobgay, who opened the inaugural conference said Bhutan is changing fast and that a lot needs to be studied, researched and archived.

“The ISBS is a study of Bhutan from all aspects and that it is self evident and necessary like happiness,” Dasho Karma Ura said.

Sonam Pelden | Oxford