On “Gross National Happiness”

Posted on by Dodge

David Grant, President and CEO

Early on Tuesday morning last week, at the end of the Memorial Day holiday weekend, I drove across the state of Vermont to drop in on the first day of a three-day conference in Burlington on the concept “Gross National Happiness.

GNH Banner

My own level of happiness was not too high at first, since I went to the wrong college campus and had to ask several bemused strangers where the Happiness meeting was.  They must have thought, “What is this, some weird metaphorical pick-up line?”

Anyway, I found the right place eventually and enjoyed hearing about various efforts around the world to do on a societal scale what our Dodge assessment workshops advocate for organizations, which is to “Measure What Matters.”

The most interesting and well-established experiment along these lines is in Bhutan, where they have chosen the goal of Gross National Happiness in deliberate contrast to Gross National Product as the primary measure of a country’s wealth.  That parallel verbal construction creates an immediate understanding of what’s going on, but I agree with one of the speakers who said, “Drop the ‘Gross.’  This is about National Happiness.”  And I agree with another who said the subtitle of the conference, “Changing What We Measure from Wealth to Well-Being,” really should be “Changing the Way We Define Wealth.”

What Bhutan has done has been to create 72 indicators, in NINE areas, nine dimensions of wealth.  (Ecology, Education, Culture, Health, Living Standards, Good Governance, Psychological Well-being, Community Vitality, and Use of Time.) They strive to create public policy with these indicators in mind, and they do a national survey every two years to monitor developments in any and all of them.

I realized why I was drawn to this conversation early on when the secretary of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission invoked in his keynote address the two themes that appear prominently in Dodge’s current guidelines.  He said the indicators were all about his country’s collective vision of what a SUSTAINABLE future would look like for them.  And he said when their biennial surveys gave them data on these indicators, the real work is to craft CREATIVE policies and programs in response to the data and with a sense of the whole that the nine dimensions gives them.

I’ll give you an example.  One of their cultural indicators told them that only 1% of people in Bhutan meditated daily, despite the historical resonance of that practice.  Their interest in psychological well-being focused their attention on the benefits of meditation, and their interest in school climate focused them on the benefits of shared time of quiet and introspection.

The result was a national experiment, through educational policy: two minutes of meditation at the beginning of the school day and two minutes at the end.  (Note that when you are in the habit of measuring results of different practices, you can try things and see if they work.)

The experiment is only four months old, but the early responses are overwhelmingly positive.  Teachers and students say those times of day are the only ones when they can count on having time to think uninterrupted.  They love the new ritual – and they say the tone of the entire school day has subtly changed as a result of the way it begins and ends.

Lest you think this conversation is reserved for people living in, or about to move back to, mountainous kingdoms like Bhutan or Vermont, I should note that hovering over the gathering was the publication of Derek Bok’s new book The Politics of Happiness: What Government Can Learn from the New Research on Well-Being.

Politics of HappinessWhen the former President of Harvard believes that the findings of scientific research into Happiness are clear enough and significant enough that we should base public policy on them, you know the idea has moved beyond aging hippies and frustrated idealists.  Might it be heading for the mainstream?

I think that shift in the emphasis in medical research has a lesson for us in the world of philanthropy.  Until recently – maybe the last twenty years – research has been based on pathology.  We saw disease and strove to cure it.  And that will always be an important part of medical research.

But as Bok describes well in his book, there is a burgeoning new body of research into well-being, studying why some people are so much happier and healthier than others.  What we learn from it is sobering, because it goes way beyond individual behaviors to cultural assumptions – the way we think about time and work, the accumulation of stuff and the forming of relationships, the balance between libertarian and communitarian values.

Philanthropy will always focus on problems to be solved.  But shouldn’t we also constantly hold up models and visions of societal well-being, even if they call into question – especially if they call into question — cultural assumptions?  It’s a conversation uniquely suited to the flexibility, the privileges, and the responsibilities of foundations.  I have loved being part of it for almost twelve years at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

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4 Responses to On “Gross National Happiness”

  1. Ruth Fost says:

    The beginning of Derek Bok’s book, “The Politics of Happiness,” reads like a fairy tale: i.e. There once was a good king (Wanchuk) who wanted all the people in his kingdom (Bhutan) to be happy. So he set out to find the key to what it was that would provide happiness, because “joy in the hearts” of the people would make his kingdom stronger and better than any particular “thing” that the little country might produce.

    Wanchuk’s pillars of happiness and Bok’s findings, as David Grant indicates in his recent blog, are revealing. So much of our happiness hinges upon health and well being. David Grant’s tenure at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation over these past 12 years might be characterized as having the same “Utopian Audacity” as the good king of Bhutan’s. And the health, well being and sustainable futures of so many organizations are there to show for it.

    We shall miss our “good king” as he moves on and we try to live happily ever after.

  2. Thank you David.

    As usual, you lead us towards the pool of deep reflection and fields of great exploration.

    Though you’ve left your official role at the Foundation, I hope you’ll continue to share your insights and wisdom as time allows.


    Erik Mollenhauer

  3. Claudio says:


    in line with the promotion of „Gross National Happiness“ we created a Simpleshow that explains the movement of GNH and comments on the added value for the people, the environment, the social structure and the economy. Furthermore, it shows the influence on other countries that try to adopt GNH´s maxime.

    If you like this Simpleshow, feel free to use the material and/ or youtube link (visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Zqdqa4YNvI) in your work to bring a bit more happiness to everyone of us.

    Best wishes and always a good karma,

    Morten Sondergaard

  4. Ken White says:

    Mr. Grant:

    Thanks for supporting this effort (and for connecting it with President Bok’s findings). Thanks also for pointing to the link between “measuring what matters most” and the values that will (we hope) lead to a more sustainable future.

    Richard Heinberg of Post Carbon Institute (disclaimer: where I work) has come at this issue from a different direction, arguing in his book The End of Growth that alternative measures of wealth and happiness are essential in a world where economic growth is grinding to a halt: http://www.postcarbon.org/blog-post/440496-gdp-is-dead-will-the-world.

    As Richard writes: [S]ociety will have set itself on a different trajectory—increasing human satisfaction, health, and well-being, while reducing humanity’s impact on the environment. If our current crisis is being driven by limits both to debt and natural resources, then one might wonder whether there are limits also to progress in the social and cultural spheres. Could we eventually reach the limits of human happiness? Maybe. But that would be an interesting problem to have.

    Thanks for your good work.

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