What I learned about Gross National Happiness from visiting Bhutan (and how might it apply in a business context)

What I learned about Gross National Happiness from visiting Bhutan (and how might it apply in a business context)

In January this year (2023) I received an email that quite literally changed my life; but that’s a topic for another time. For now, I’ll just note that the email described an opportunity to travel, to Bhutan, as part of a contingent to learn more about Gross National Happiness.

To cut a long story short, I jumped at the opportunity and in this short article, I’m happy to share just a few of the lessons I learned and observations I made (and please note, I could write many more words and pages about all I learned and the fantastic experiences I had, and I probably will, but this is just the first chapter with some initial ideas so … stay tuned!).

To begin with, it’s important to define a few terms and to bust a few myths.

Much of the discussion about Gross National Happiness (or GNH) is in the context of Gross Domestic Product (or GDP); so, let’s be clear about what these to terms mean.

Like pretty much everything in life, GDP has been defined differently by different people but in short, it can be understood as something like “the total value of goods produced, and services provided, in a country during one year”. GDP is frequently used by governments as a proxy measure of economic health.

In recent years (or decades), beginning with a comment by the preceding King of Bhutan, GNH has been proffered almost as an alternative measure, one that focuses more on measuring “the collective happiness and well-being of a population”.

Which brings me to the first “myth”. Too often these two concepts are seen or discussed in dichotomous terms. That is, conversation often revolves around which measure is “better”, or if a country focuses on GNH then are they ignoring or neglecting economic growth and development.

But it need not be like this. And the Bhutanese never intended it to be like this. Measures of economic “health” are important and in many guises, always will be. Bhutan is not saying “we don’t care about GDP” but what they are saying is that their priorities are somewhat different. It’s more like, GDP is important but not at the expense of health and wellbeing, of our people and our environment.

So, although other countries in recent years have worked towards federal wellbeing budgets or programmes, these have very much been akin to “line items” within a GPD framework. In contrast, in Bhutan, every decision is guided by GNH so that when development is considered, and it very much is, it’s impact on health and wellbeing and the natural environment and even the maintenance of their cultural heritage are all guiding forces.

Within this is an implicit assumption that GDP is not the be all and end all; and that in fact, GDP doesn’t necessarily measure what many think it measures. As mentioned, GDP measures the total value of goods produced; but what it doesn’t necessarily measure are the costs, or the consequences associated with this such as environmental or social impact. This is important because we know that our health and wellbeing depend, at least to some extent, on the health of our natural environment and it’s also well known that factors such as wealth or income inequality play significant roles in national wellbeing and life satisfaction.

In summary, then, GDP is not unimportant but it’s also, very definitely, not the only important measure of a country’s “health”.

Taking this a step, or a few steps, further, a very notable feature of Bhutan’s GNH model is sustainability. For example, there are some resources that are mined within Bhutan and mining developments are frequently proposed and considered, but all decisions are made based on how these activities will impact the country, including (obviously) it’s natural resources, not just now but for future generations.

Bhutan’s GNH approach, and its political philosophy generally, mindfully takes a very long-term view. This is something that unfortunately, in many countries around the world, is not common, largely due to the myopic thinking that dominates most governments due to the relatively short “election cycle”.  

Finally (I could go on forever, but I’ll save some for future writings and/or discussions), Bhutan is not and has never claimed to be “the happiest country” in the world. Instead, it’s just the country that most overtly and consciously focuses its governing and decision making on GNH. And following on from this, GNH isn’t really about “happiness” at all; at least not in the way we typically think about happiness.

GNH does incorporate “psychological wellbeing” into its framework, and this does incorporate positive emotions such as happiness into its mindset, but GNH also includes dimensions such as physical health and wellbeing, spirituality, what we might call work-life balance, education, good governance (including trust in politics and government), cultural diversity, community vitality, living standards (such as housing) and notably, ecological diversity and resilience.

Bhutan, and its GNH approach, is about so much more than just “feeling good”. Rather, GNH really is a set of values or principles, values and principles that guide all decision making.

Anyway, as noted, I’m very passionate about this and could go on and on but for now, I just wanted to note a few reflections I’ve had about how this might apply within a business or corporate context, back here in Australia or, for that matter, in most other “developed” economies.

Firstly, just as Bhutan doesn’t ignore GDP, nor would I suggest any business ignores revenue or profit. For many, many reasons, every business needs to focus on their P & L statements, their balance sheets, and ultimately their financial health. At the same time, however, I very much believe many businesses could learn from Bhutan’s GNH approach in the following ways:

  • Even if one accepts profit as a goal, it can easily be argued that there are reasons it should not be the ONLY goal
  • Further to this, even if one accepts the value of profitability, it should always be considered within the context of (long-term) sustainability
  • And further still, profitability can still be a focus, but maybe just as much focus could be given to factors such as the impact of a business’s activities on the health and wellbeing of its staff, its clients, its community and on the broader environment in which it operates
  • All of the above could be contemplated much better by many organisations, in my experience, if a longer-term framework were considered (beyond, that is, the next financial year or reporting period) and if a clear set of values were used, really used, to guide decision making and future plans

In conclusion, as someone who’s founded and run several small businesses over the years, and as someone who’s worked with many larger businesses over many years, I’m not suggesting traditional financial measures should be abandoned any time soon. But what I am suggesting, is that these measures might be more sustainable if considered more often within a values-driven context, and if greater consideration were given to human and environmental and other social factors.

Maybe “profit” is more than just a monetary concept?