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Gross National Happiness in Bhutan

Penn State Ph.D. candidate Matt Branch recently embarked on a journey to better understand a potentially unique approach to environmental governance. In December, Branch traveled to Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist kingdom nestled in the eastern Himalayas, to research environmental governance in the country. Bhutan has gained important international attention for developing a concept called “Gross National Happiness,” or GNH, which is an alternative to mainstream development models oriented toward GDP, or Gross Domestic Product. The concept was born in the 1970s by the fourth king of Bhutan, in response to criticisms that Bhutan’s GDP wasn’t growing rapidly enough. The king stated that he was more concerned with the well-being of his citizens than simply increasing the country’s economy.

The concept has gained quite a bit of traction since then. Bhutan has transformed GNH from a broad guiding principle to a quantitative metric that involves intensive national surveys that aim to understand the population’s happiness levels and what the government can do to improve them. Originally understood to have four pillars, good governance, sustainable economy, a healthy natural environment, and cultural preservation, GNH has since evolved to have 72 empirical indicators. In 2008, Bhutan crowned a new king and completed its transformation to a parliamentary monarchy, holding its first democratic elections. Thus, the country is at an interesting crossroads, as GNH will undoubtedly change with the shift in government.

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