International Day of Happiness: What could we learn from Bhutan?

A child laughing as she lays on some grass

20 March 2022 marks the United Nation’s (UN) International Day of Happiness. After two years of challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic, looking after your wellbeing has never been more important.

The annual International Day of Happiness is a global celebration to promote the idea that happiness is a fundamental human goal and calls for “a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes happiness and wellbeing of all peoples”. When you think about countries that promote happiness, Bhutan may not spring to mind, but the country is leading the way in putting happiness ahead of economic growth.


GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is an acronym you’re probably familiar with. It refers to the monetary value of all finished goods and services within a country over a certain period. It’s used to provide an economic snapshot and to measure growth. GDP is often reported in the news and used as a barometer of how well a country is doing.

In 1972, the King of Bhutan said: “Gross National Happiness (GNH) is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” But the concept goes back much further. Bhutan’s ancient legal code of 1629 states that: “If a government cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for the government to exist.” The code set out to create a flourishing society rather than just economic progress.

Since the 1970s, GNH has been used to guide policy and measures in Bhutan. The concept encourages a focus on sustainable development that gives the wellbeing of the population equal importance to economic growth. However, measuring happiness is no small task. How do you measure, track, and compare emotional states? Bhutan created a GNH index, which includes nine domains:

  1. Psychological wellbeing
  2. Health
  3. Education
  4. Time use
  5. Cultural diversity and resilience
  6. Good governance
  7. Community vitality
  8. Ecological diversity and resilience
  9. Living standards

Across these domains, there are 33 indicators, and the index is decomposable by demographic characteristics so it can be broken down further. For example, the index could be used to show whether certain geographical locations or age groups are falling behind in education. Over the years GNH has evolved and is now defined as a “multi-dimensional development approach for seeking to achieve a harmonious balance between material wellbeing and the spiritual, emotional, and cultural needs of society”. It’s been used to place happiness and wellbeing at the centre of Bhutan’s decision making.

The GNH Index doesn’t mean that Bhutan is the happiest country in the world, but it leads the way in pushing wellbeing to the forefront of decision making and giving it equal importance to economic factors. It’s something that many other countries could learn from, and it has lessons for individuals too.

How do your goals reflect what makes you happy?

When you’re making decisions and setting out goals, how far do you consider your happiness or what will bring you joy? And how do you measure it?

According to a report from Aegon, just 4 in 10 people have considered what gives their life joy and purpose. While it may seem strange to set out what brings you happiness, it can help you focus on what’s really important to you and guide your decisions. It could be spending time with your family, getting outdoors, or investing in a hobby. So, next time you’re thinking about how to spend your time or what to spend your money on, asking “will this improve my happiness?” can help boost your wellbeing.

For example, while you may be thinking of splashing out on a new car, will this add to your enjoyment? For some, the answer will be “yes”, but for others, using that money elsewhere can bring more fulfilment to their life.

Setting out what brings you happiness in life can also help you effectively plan for the long term. It can mean you’re able to work towards larger plans, such as travelling or retiring early. Planning for the long-term can help you get more out of life, improve your wellbeing, and have confidence that you’ll reach the goals that will add to your overall happiness.

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