How National Happiness became gross

25 June 2015

The tiny kingdom of Bhutan, wedged between Tibet and India, became famous for Gross National Happiness (GNH), thanks to its king. This was not your usual king.  Before voluntarily ceding power to democratic elections, he decreed an increase in the country’s forest cover, had every kid in the country learning English, and in 1972 introduced Gross National Happiness. GNH resonated with people around the world who were fed up with Gross National Product (GNP). As Robert Kennedy commented in a 1968 speech:

Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising…. It counts the destruction of the redwood…and the television programs which glorify violence… Yet [it] does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. …it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.1

GNH stood on four “pillars”: Good Governance, Sustainable Development, Preservation and Promotion of Culture, and Environmental Conservation, elaborated in nine “domains”, including health, education, psychological wellbeing, and community vitality.  

I was curious about this GNH, and being a fan of mountains, I visited Bhutan, in 2006. Two things struck me in discussions with a number of the country’s knowledgeable people. First, they had no idea how to measure much of GNH, and second, this did not matter because the country seemed to be behaving true to its precepts. As a BBC reporter put it, GNH had become “a way of life” in Bhutan—a poor country where life seemed to be rather pleasant.

Not long after, the technocrats descended on Bhutan, to fix GNH. After all, if the Bhutanese didn’t measure GNH, how could they possibly manage it?2 Soon each of the nine domains had “its own weighted and un-weighted GNH index...analyzed using...72 indicators.... Mathematical formulas have even been developed to reduce happiness to its tiniest component parts”3 One survey, which took 5-6 hours to complete, “included about 750 variables.”4 All this sure took care of gross, but how about happiness?

Critics, especially in the economics profession, have challenged the subjective judgments of GNH. (For the objective judgments of GNP, reread the Kennedy quote.) “Economics professor Deirdre McCloskey criticizes such measurements as unscientific…making the analogy that society could not ‘base physics on asking people whether today was 'hot, nice, or cold’’’.”5 If only education, culture, and wellbeing were as measurable as the temperature. (The scientific pretentions of economists have been referred to as “physics envy”.) It’s tough to tell who have been the greater threat to GNH: friends who want to measure it or enemies who want to eradicate it.

Not long after all this measuring, in 2013, Tshering Tobgay, who had studied with economist Michael Porter of the Harvard Business School, became prime minister. He soon claimed that GNH has “distracted [some people] from the real business at hand”: “The bottom line is that we have to work harder” (italics added). What the current king of Bhutan describes as “development with values”, including “kindness, equality, and humanity”6, the current prime minister finds “very difficult”, in fact “complicating stuff for me.”7 Which stuff—happiness? Or measurement?

F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that “"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Tshering Tobgay was one of the people I met when I visited Bhutan. I don’t recall him waxing eloquent about GNH, but he certainly seemed to be intelligent. So maybe the problem is that even first-rate intelligence can’t handle three ideas at the same time that seem to be opposing—in this case, economics, happiness, and measurement. But why not cut the measurement, and keep the happiness?  

The retired king of Bhutan with his four wives, all sisters

The retired king of Bhutan with his four wives, all sisters.

© Henry Mintzberg 2015  HM teaches in, a masters program for functioning managers who can hold two important ideas in mind at the same time.


2 See the TWOG “If you can’t measure it, you’d better manage it.” Others related to this topic include “Can the World Economic Forum deal with the world’s social problems?” and “There is no Nobel Prize in economics…and why that matters.”

3 Mydans, S. (2009, May 6) Recalculating Happiness in a Himalayan Kingdom. Thim- phu Journal. Retrieved from

4 Gross National Happiness, 2010 Survey

5  accessed 23 June 2015

7 Quoting from The Telegraph, “Bhutan’s ‘Gross National Happiness’ masks problems, says new prime minister”, 2 August 2013, and Gardiner Harris, “Index of Happiness? Bhutan’s new leader prefers more concrete goals”, New York Times, 4 October 2013.