The Gross National Happiness of Bhutan: A Case Study

Nestled in the Eastern Himalayas on the ancient Silk Road between Tibet, India and Southeast Asia, Bhutan is a small country with a distinct national identity. Intrepidly focused on the well-being of its citizens, instead of measuring gross domestic product to gage national progress, they measure gross national happiness.

Gross National Happiness (GNH) is a philosophy that steers the government of Bhutan and was first coined by the fourth King of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuk, in 1972—a concept that implies that “sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notions of progress and give equal importance to the aspects of well-being.” Since then, the idea of GNH has influenced Bhutan’s economic and social policy, and most recently has become engrained in the school system through positive education.

The leading authority in Positive Psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman, identified Bhutan as the most enabling environment to promote well-being as a whole nation. Because of this distinction, Seligman and his team approached Bhutan’s government to launch a pilot programme: Education for Gross National Happiness, which focuses on integrating positive psychology tactics into the school curriculum. Bhutan’s government was eager to participate and adopt positive education into its larger community.

Seligman and his team began their mission by identifying what the most relevant skills were for determining happiness within the Bhutanese culture and how these could be transformed into life skills.

The following ten life skills were identified:

  1. Mindfulness
  2. Critical thinking
  3. Decision making
  4. Communication
  5. Creative thinking
  6. Empathy
  7. Problem solving
  8. Interpersonal relationships
  9. Resilience
  10. Self-awareness

From this, 18 secondary schools were randomly assigned to receive the new GNH curriculum. Prior to implementing the curriculum, baseline measurements (based on key indicators from the 10 life skills) determining the well-being in every student, teacher and staff member at each of these schools were completed. During the next 15 months, the GNH curriculum was taught with much seriousness, having one period solely dedicated to Life Skills and Positive Education.

After the programme’s completion, follow-up tests were completed that indicated a significant increase in participant well-being—an outcome Seligman and his team had predicted. What wasn’t expected, however, was that there was an increase in standardized test scores, better physical health and decreased absenteeism. As a whole, there was a higher satisfaction with the entire school experience from both students and faculty.

What this points to is that the curriculum established a ‘well-being ecosystem’—a community of people confidently interacting with one another through positive activities and communication. Since these results, Bhutan has rolled out the programme on a national level.

Gross National Happiness values and principles have become deeply embedded into the consciousness of the youth in Bhutan through this holistic approach to student development, led by principals and teachers as key change agents.

For more than five years, Ridley has been a leader in positive education and focused on creating a positive ecosystem for students and employees alike. In 2012, the school developed a unique strategic vision to ‘inspire flourishing lives’, which calls upon Dr. Martin Seligman’s PERMA model and the S.E.A.R.C.H. framework of Dr. Lea Waters’ Visible Wellbeing Programme. Our two full-time social emotional counsellors continually partner with internal change agents to ensure our community is adopting thoughtful strategies.

 

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