Bhutan Gross National Happiness (GNH)

Dr Saamdu Chetri at the House of Commons Dr Saamdu Chetri at the House of Commons

11 February 2015
APPG meeting on GNH in Practice
Anna Drescher - The Mindfulness Foundation


Money can’t buy you happiness


Over the last few years, the discussion about measuring the wellbeing of our country has taken on a new importance. It is no longer satisfactory to purely measure Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as this does not give an indication of the actual wellbeing of the population. In 2011, the Office of National Statistics launched a comprehensive programme to measure national wellbeing covering health, education and skills, what we do, where we live, our relationships, the economy and governance, the environment and our subjective wellbeing(1). The results are published every year in their ‘Life in the UK’ report, which can be found online. However, at this time, the outcomes are still not widely used to inform policy(2).


Addressing this issue, the APPG on Wellbeing Economics suggested that

  1. All political parties should set out their approach to wellbeing in their manifesto, 
  2. Government should set out the ultimate wellbeing objectives and how they will be delivered and 
  3. All new policy should be assessed for its impact on wellbeing(2). 


This model is similar to the strategy and framework used in Bhutan, where the country’s progress is measured in terms of the Gross National Happiness (GNH) of the population. In order to discuss how something similar might be implemented in the UK and how it could work, the APPG on Wellbeing Economics, the APPG on Mindfulness and the APPG on Arts, Health and Wellbeing hosted a meeting at the House of Commons on Wednesday 11th February on ‘Gross National Happiness in Practice’. Dr Saamdu Chetri, the Executive Director of the Centre for Gross National Happiness in Bhutan was invited to talk about how GNH is implemented in Bhutan and how this might work in the UK.

The seminar was chaired by Lord Andrew Stone, who himself practices mindfulness in his daily work. He set the objective for the meeting: ‘We are all here to find out how it works - how can you measure the happiness of a country?’ Before opening the speeches, Dr Saamdu Chetri, wearing his traditional Buddhist robe and with a relaxed smile, guided the audience through a meditation. It is far from the ordinary to be sitting in a committee room in the House of Commons with your eyes closed, silently observing your breathing and listening to the soothing instructions of a Buddhist political and spiritual figure.


The discussion was officially opened by Andrew Martin, who moved to Bhutan to prepare a strategy and raise funds for the GNH Centre. He was the Director of Business and Fundraising between 2013-2014. He gave a brief overview of its origins and how it works: In 1972, the King of Bhutan declared ‘Gross national happiness of the people is more important than the gross national product’, and with that the path was set to develop a measure which would capture the wellbeing of the population based on four guiding principles:

  1. Sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; 
  2. Preservation of the environment; 
  3. Preservation and promotion of culture; 
  4. Good governance.

In practice this means it is a political strategy and framework. After extensive surveys, a screening tool was devised which would measure a policy in terms of its impact on nine indicators of psychological wellbeing, health, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience as well as living standards. Before a policy can go ahead, each domain must come out with a positive score. For example, in 2007 the domain ‘education’ scored the lowest. In response, the government actively considered how to improve education with the result that mindfulness practice was implemented in all schools in Bhutan.

After this short introduction, everyone’s attention turned to Dr Saamdu Chetri ‘we [Bhutan] do not have all the answers- we need to work together’. He gave a heartfelt overview of the current situation of the planet which we humans have brought upon ourselves; we are destroying the eco-system and using 1.5 times the regeneration capacity of the planet due to the way in which we behave towards it. We spend most of our time chasing after things that we do not need, so we need to ask ourselves: ‘Is wealth everything?’ According to Dr Chetri the answer is ‘no, all we really need is happiness, love, food, water and a roof over our heads’. As an example he takes schools in western society, highlighting the fact that we are taught to be competitive and to strive for material rather than spiritual capital. He illustrates this point with the way in which maths problems are formulated: ‘If you had 10 apples and 3 were stolen, how many would you be left with?’ Dr Chetri exclaimed ‘Why the word ‘stolen? Why not the word ‘shared’?’ These are small examples but they contribute to the greater picture, he says. We need to ask ourselves what the purpose of our lives is and what it is that makes life worth living.


He made it clear that he was not asking everyone to adopt GNH as it is put into practice in Bhutan, but that he wants it to be an inspiration for other nations. Nevertheless, Buddhism is the predominant religion in Bhutan, so is GNH a Buddhist concept? A few years back Dr Chetri invited 38 cultural leaders from the Islamic, Jewish, Hindu, Christian and Buddhist faiths to Bhutan. They discussed GNH and how it could be practiced at operational and governmental levels, soon realising that it has in fact nothing to do with Buddhism but that the need for such a measure is universal.

As Dr Chetri addressed the audience the atmosphere in the room was relaxed but attentive and there was much laughter. When he opened the floor for questions, there seemed to be much excitement and hope in the room, although many of the questions reflected the scepticism felt by many about how to bring mindfulness and wellbeing to the top of the political agenda here. One woman asked how the talk of bringing mindfulness into public services and life would translate into reality, demanding to see ‘less talk and more commitment to action’. She wanted to know whether it would come down to the people who really needed it, such as people with chronic pain, or whether the ‘postcode lottery’ would mean they will not be able to access mindfulness treatment. Chris Ruane, co-chair of the Mindfulness APPG, took up her question; he explained that, although mindfulness has been approved by the NHS as an effective treatment, the uptake is minimal. In 1991, nine million prescriptions for antidepressants were issued compared to 49 million in 2011, illustrating the steep increase in mental health problems in the country. So although we know that mindfulness is effective, since it was recommended in 2004, we have not taken it up more in practice and continue to rely on drugs. Mr Ruane recommended that mindfulness activists, CCGs, MPs and the NHS need to work together in order to make the change happen. There is a need for pressure from the top and the bottom in order to move this agenda forward.

The officer for the APPG for Arts, Health and Wellbeing, Lord Howarth, asked Dr Chetri how ‘happiness candidates’ would get elected to Parliament, if he was running the campaign for a ‘happiness party’ in Great Britain. Although Dr Chetri could not give a precise answer to this, he looked to the future: ‘If mindfulness were introduced into schools today, there would be many happiness MPs in 30 years’ time!’ Another woman, who claimed her job was to ‘spread joy and happiness’, pointed out that politicians should be talking to the wealthiest ‘1 per cent’, in whose favour it is to keep measuring GDP rather than wellbeing. They should be encouraged to ‘share a little bit because if they don’t share the goodies, soon there will be no goodies left as we won’t have a planet!’ Dr Chetri, on the other hand, saw the need for change to come from us as we ourselves create the demand. We need to stop craving, stop wanting and stop blaming other people. We need to stop them from taking advantage of our human psychology.


The last question came from a Positive Psychologist asking ‘What’s the one thing we can all do today that would make a difference? According to the laws of nature, it only takes 10% of a group to decide to make a change in order for it to make an impact on the whole group’. Dr Chetri paused and before closing with a five minute meditation, said ‘We must think about whether our actions are affecting others. We need to get serving; in the words of Gandhi ‘If you want to be a leader, lose yourself in service’.


(1) ONS measuring national wellbeing

(2) Report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Wellbeing Economics