Gross National Happiness (GNH): An Alternative Economic Development Paradigm?

An Initiative of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Students of Harvard Divinity School and Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA

Conference Themes

How relevant is the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) as an alternative economic development paradigm as opposed to the conventional Gross Domestic Product (GDP)? The key outcome envisaged for this conference is the creation of a coalition and an action plan to achieve the noble task of mainstreaming universal happiness as a fundamental human right and exploring how various stakeholders can both learn from and contribute to this objective. By taking the lessons from GNH as Bhutan’s governing philosophy, we hope to outline an alternative economic development model and refine relevant concepts such as Gross World Happiness (GWH).  Within this initiative we will explore specific initiatives such as Gross Organizational Happiness (GOH), Gross Institutional Happiness (GIH) and others, for measuring happiness and well-being in organizations and institutions across sectors – public, private and non-profit, globally. This requires an insight into development with multi-disciplinary approach most notably from the economics and also theological point of view to address wider issues of social, environmental and racial justice. In this, it is proposed that a faculty each, from the Center for International Development and one from the Harvard Divinity School will initiate this conference. In addition, we will be drawing into a lot of other studies and initiatives carried out in behavioral sciences at the Psychology Department, and best management practices at the Harvard Business School and other schools across Harvard University.


Derek Bok, the 25th President of Harvard University, introduced the concept of GNH of Bhutan to Harvard University in his book Politics of Happiness[1].The GNH metric was envisioned in 1972 by the 4th King of Bhutan, His Majesty King Jigme Singye Wangchuk.  Since then, the GNH concept has gained worldwide attention and interest, with the President of France, Nicholas Sarkozy, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK), David Cameron, commissioning studies for measuring well-being in their societies. The United Nations (UN) General Assembly passed a resolution in 2012, declaring 20 March as the International Day of Happiness, now adopted and observed by all UN Member States.

As the GNH concept gained world-wide popularity, it simultaneously went through various filters of interpretation and modification based on the contexts in which it was received. Among scholars it was subject to measurement, leading to metrics corroborated by empirical and scientific studies[2]. At the corporate level, well-being and mindfulness have been adopted as part of a wider strategy of managing human resources. The 7th GNH Conference in 2017 in Bhutan focused on the theme of GNH in business. Therefore, we see that what had initially been dubbed as a utopian fantasy has over the years been transformed into a compelling ideology of alternative development policy. It has grown to coalesce various stakeholders to address common development problems across sectors, including academia. Harvard Business School (HBS) published a case study exploring how it is possible to govern for happiness[3]. The T. Chan School of Public Health, additionally, has established the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness to identify and develop a positive psychological well-being index, or “happiness index,”.[4] Professor Daniel Gilbert, Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University stumbled on happiness in his New York best seller by the same name (Gilbert).[5] It is in this spirit that the GNH conference is proposed, continuing Harvard’s leading role in the development of a global and dynamic extension of GNH and its economic impact cross-sectors, and its impact in the world, including the vibrant Asian region.

Asia Focus

Happiness Economy and well-being economy has a special relevance for Asia, a region that is home to over 4.5 billion population (60% of the world) and with over $28 trillion Gross Domestic Product - GDP (nominal 2017). Not only are Asian countries like China and India are leading in rapid economic growth taking millions out of poverty, countries like Thailand and Bhutan are also leading in sustainable economic growth with concept of balanced development especially taking inspiration from traditional culture and faiths like Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam. This is where the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) from Bhutan could be linked with similar initiatives in Asia region so that the rapid growth is managed in a sustainable manner. The collaboration with faculties of the Harvard Divinity School and the Harvard Kennedy School will provide this special integrated platform to rethink the fundamental growth strategy that also incorporates the spiritual and holistic well-being of the people in Asia. In fact, there are already concepts of Buddhist economy promoted in Thailand and Cambodia (Dreschsler)[6].


The organizing team will be led by faculty members from the following schools and assisted by graduate students in organizing the logistics and carrying out the researches.

  • Faculty from Harvard Kennedy School

  • Faculty from Harvard Divinity School

  • Kinga Tshering, graduate student from the Harvard Divinity School

  • Timothy Huang, graduate student from the Harvard Kennedy School


They will in turn be supported by respective faculty advisors and contributions from other student bodies and organizations.

  • South Asia Engagement Forum (SAEF), Harvard University

  • The Institute of Happiness (IoH), Bhutan.

  • Other Potential Partners (GNHUSA and Happiness Alliance)

Potential Speakers

  • Ambassador of the Kingdom of Bhutan to the U.N.

  • Honorable President of the Center for Bhutan Studies, Bhutan

  • Professor Ricardo Hausmann, Director Center for International Development, Harvard Kennedy School

  • Professor Wolfgang Drechsler, PhD SocScD, Center Associate and Member of the Advisory Board, Davis Center of Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University.

  • Professor Tim Gregoire, Yale Environment and Forestry Institute.

  • The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, Director of The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) who also serves as the Buddhist Chaplain at MIT.

  • Ginny Sassaman, President of GNHUSA

  • Laura Musikanski, Executive Director, Happiness Alliance.

  • Professor Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies and Associate Dean, Harvard Divinity School

  • Edward Cunningham, Director of China Programs, Harvard Kennedy School.

  • Professor Sophus Rienert, Harvard Business School.

Conference Participants

We expect approximately 100 participants from the Harvard student body and beyond, as well as from outside organizations including the U.N., World Bank, University Alumni, GNHUSA networks, Happiness Alliance networks, University of Virginia, Naropa University, Rocky Mountain Institute, Davines Group (Italy), EI University, Brazil, and the Berkeley Institute at Georgetown University.


Given that Harvard University has played an important role in the discussion of GNH metrics, as noted above, this conference could provide the ideal platform for leading the next stage, forming the necessary coalition and action plan, and accomplishing our vision.  This proposal details the organizers’ vision to manifest policy outcomes in real world economic governance.

Works Cited

[1] Derek Bok, The Politics of Happiness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[2] Dasho Karma Ura and Dorji Penjore, Gross National Happiness: Practice and Measurement.

[3] Sophus Rienert, “Bhutan: Governing for Happiness”. HBS Case No. 97-125, March 12, 2015, HBS.

[4]  “A quest for happiness,” Harvard Gazette, April 22, 2016,

[5] Daniel Todd. Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness. New York : A.A. Knopf, 2006. Print.

 [6] Wolfgang Dreschsler, The Reality and Diversity of Buddhist Economics