Gross National Happiness: Before it's too late...

Consulting Fellow, RIETI

I have just finished reading a book by a Japanese historian, Kyoji Watanabe, titled "Traces of the World No More." [Heibonsha Library, Tokyo, 2005] It is a survey of an unusual literature, accounts of the late 19th to early 20th century Japan by foreigners. The authors, mostly Americans and Europeans, were a varied lot - traders, naval officers, scientists, teachers, medical doctors, engineers, ambassadors and their wives, or just plain tourists. Their travelogues, diaries, letters, and scholarly work collectively chronicled Japan over a few decades, following the end of the country's strict isolationist policy (1641-1854).

These foreigners were by no means unanimous in their impressions of a country they called "Shangri-La." But, on one thing they agreed, and convincingly so: the Japanese may be short on material possessions, but very long on "happiness." Quite the opposite has been closer to the truth for some time. Traces of the world no more, indeed, in just about a hundred years ...

Overcome by a century of "development" so wasted, my thoughts turned to Bhutan one hundred years hence. It would be a shame, I thought, if Gross National Happiness ended up as just another slogan with little to show.

I do not pretend to own a scholarly understanding of Gross National Happiness. Mine is an occasional foreign visitor's observation, within the narrow boundary of my management experience. But, I thought I would pen it down, for an outsider's perspective might, just might, be of some utility before (heaven forbid!) it's too late.

Gross National Happiness has a great "sound bite." Like all such expressions whose sound "bites" one's attention, it captures the idea's essence with a good measure of humor - a wonderfully dry Bhutanese humor in this case. Their brevity can mislead too, however, and Gross National Happiness is no exception. The pun on Gross National Product invokes images with little likeness to what I think it means.

Simply put, I think of Gross National Happiness as a powerful philosophy that guides the evolutionary process of public policy and institutions in every aspect. It is, after all, human beings who make public policies and make up institutions. So, being more down-to-earth practical, I think of Gross National Happiness as a vision and a set of values to be embodied in day-to-day behaviors of every public servant in everything they do. That means politicians, civil servants, and everyone else working in public institutions.

Most societies regard individual pursuit of happiness as part of basic human rights, ranked equally with freedom and liberty. Many national constitutions, including that of Japan, and legal codes of similar statue tend indeed to make explicit references to valuing "happiness." But, that does not mean public servants behave in that way. They normally do not.

If "done" well, Gross National Happiness would guide public servants to look at the world through the people's eyes, not through the eyes of those with power, privilege and authority. It would help them approach their work holistically, not along some "ministerial" boundaries that have little to do with the reality of citizens' daily life. And, it should discipline public servants to think of their mandate, always, as removing obstacles of public nature to enable individual citizen's pursuit of happiness. The question is how. How does one create and sustain such an organizational culture?

Without exaggeration, it is the top leader of an organization who shapes its culture. As such, the key for Bhutan has been a group of men and women who, under the enlightened leadership of His Majesty the King, shared deeply the philosophy of Gross National Happiness, and the vision and values associated with it. They managed public policy and institutions driven by this shared conviction, and earned the hallmark of a thoughtful government of foresight that puts people at the centre of its work.

The only constancy in life is change, however, and even such an exceptional record cannot be taken for granted. Leaders of small organizations can drive their enterprise by vision and values without using them explicitly as a management tool. Not so, when institutions grow in size and scope. Looking ahead - keeping the forthcoming political change in mind - tacit understanding of vision and values, personified in leaders themselves, will not be enough to mold a culture that embodies Gross National Happiness.

There is a body of management practice, evolved mainly in US and Europe, on how to develop an organizational culture driven by vision and values shared explicitly by everyone. It is a management science about aligning organizations' operational and personnel systems, including financial and other incentives facing all employees, strictly to their collective vision and values. It is also an art, to be practiced by leaders in inspiring and motivating their people. Likewise, one should not forget, by everyone else to inspire and motivate their leaders. And, by all to nurture an open and trusting work environment where passion and "emotional intelligence" matter just as much as professional and technical excellence.

In spite of the Western origin, those who have led the development of this management practice have actually taken their inspiration from the East, particularly from the Buddhist philosophy. Wherever successful, the practice has created nimble and dynamic organizations that not only deliver first-rate outcomes, but also learn constantly from their successes and mistakes, adapting proactively to changing environment. (This management literature is well documented, and there is no need for me to replicate any part of it here. One needs only to open any recent issue of the Harvard Business Review to find references and specific examples that include a number of well-known corporations.)

Having practiced it for some time myself, I would choose three things out of my tool kit and guard them jealously:

  • Align hiring and promotion decisions strictly to vision and values. (I once said, in all seriousness, to my board of directors: "Even Einstein is not welcome if he does not share our vision and values." While not Einstein, I would say the same in casting my vote to elect my member of parliament.)
  • Invest heavily in leadership training for all members of an organization, regardless of their positions and responsibilities, so that they learn to work from the core of one's passion and conviction. (And I mean everyone who belongs to an organization. Asked "drivers too?" my answer was "absolutely!" If asked "politicians and Secretaries too?" my answer would be exactly the same.)
  • Drive the organization's operations and personnel systems against measured outcomes of vision and values. ("What gets measured gets managed" is a business common sense, and it most certainly is true. Likewise, for all public institutions, be they ministries, other public agencies, or organized political parties.)

By using these three tools well, everything else should follow and the culture of Gross National Happiness should continue evolving over time. To be sure, it will be a hard work, and a never-ending process of positive change. The process will be full of ups and downs and twist and turns, as public servants come and go, new challenges appear and disappear, and mistakes are made and lessons learned. Just as well, for happiness is a process of change, not a static outcome to be achieved once for all. And, citizens will surely find happiness in the change process itself, as they feel and taste the evolving culture embodied in their public servants.

A few more words, on measuring outcomes. There is a variety of work in progress around the world, constructing index numbers to measure people's satisfaction, wellbeing or happiness. It is an important trend that reflects a common desire of mankind to move public policy and institutions beyond their focus on the material.

Indices are by definition surrogate measures, capturing objects of measurement that are either complex (e.g., GNP) or cannot be quantified. As the history of measuring GNP tells us, one must take care in how indices are constructed and how they are used. Some years ago, a survey of people's wellbeing was conducted in Japan. One regional government took seriously a "strong" correlation in the survey's results between the number of public parks and happy citizens. So, a large sum was spent building public parks. The consequence was unhappy residents who became irate at the stupidity of their government. What gets measured gets managed, indeed, and what gets mismeasured also gets mismanaged.

A good measurement principle is to go as close to the object as possible and measure it as directly as possible. Outcome of the Gross National Happiness culture is singular: citizens' happiness. Even if one could somehow quantify it, happiness is an individual pursuit, and what makes one happy would naturally differ from person to person. So, adding up citizens' happiness is like trying to add apples and oranges. And, unlike GNP that does add up apples and oranges by converting them into monetary values, happiness cannot be monetized.

What to do? Bhutan's new national census shows the right way, by asking the people directly whether they are happy. The best outcome measure of Gross National Happiness is the number of people, or the share of population, who say they are happy. And, just as good economic policy demands understanding what lies behind GNP growth, understanding why people are, and are not, happy enhances policy utility of the census result.

In fact, when the culture of public servants is attuned to Gross National Happiness, they would be proving such reasons and learning constantly from their findings. They would be hard at it as a matter of course, before anyone pops the question.


No amount of good management systems will create or sustain an organizational culture without its leadership at the top who is convinced - so convinced, that he/she "walks the talk and talks the walk" every waking moment. Selecting, and electing, such leaders are of paramount importance. But, success of such leaders also harbors the risk that the culture becomes too closely identified with them personally, and collapses when they move on. A thoughtful leadership succession plan would manage this risk, balancing the need for leadership continuity for cultural change and the risk of overstaying for the sake of continuity.

I dare say, it is in this very context that I am able to grasp the wisdom of the Article 2, Section 6 (on the reigning monarch's retirement age) of the draft Tsa Thrim Chhenmo. Bhutan is fortunate in its monarchs of past, present and future who so truly embody Gross National Happiness. With such a sterling national leadership as their role model, one hopes that no future historians of Bhutan would feel compelled to publish a book titled "Traces of the World No More."

Bhutan has taught me to think of citizens' happiness as a matter of national security. As the Prime Minister recently said, "Unhappy people make an unstable nation. Secure nation is a country whose citizens are proud to call it their home." Risk of external security threats is always present for every nation. But, sovereignty of a nation, whose people are happy and proud of their motherland, is one that has the greatest chance of enduring peace.

Whether or not Gross National Happiness will turn out to be just another slogan or continue as a powerful and practical philosophy for public policy and institutions, it is the people's choice. Even more so, in the new political order to come, very soon.

* This column originally appeared in the April 20 and 24, 2006 editions of Kuensel (Bhutan).

April 20, 2006 Kuensel

June 23, 2006

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