Why celebrate International Happiness Day? Lessons from Bhutan


sun in hands

Let’s admit it-if you turn on the news at any given time it’s hard to find a lot in the media to be happy about. Plus its March 20th and although its the first day of Spring, in many places we are still seeing snow on the ground.  However in 2012, the United Nations designated this day as the International Day of Happiness with the goal of promoting the “pursuit of happiness as a fundamental human goal”.

In turns out some countries  have long appreciated  the importance of happiness, most notably Bhutan.  Known as Druk-Yul, the land of the Thunder Dragon, in 1972 Bhutan’s ruler adopted the concept of Gross National Happiness Index (GNH) as an indicator of the country’s wellbeing. This makes Bhutan unique from other countries, which instead use the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), relying on economic indicators to measure a country’s standard of living. In 2013, the Bhutan Prime Minister has indicated that he prefers to focus on more concrete indicators of well-being instead of GNH. Despite this, Bhutan will likely keep up its reputation as one of the world’s happiest country for years to come.

Where in the World is it?

Bhutan, a small country the size of Switzerland, is located in the Himalayan Mountains between India and Tibet. It is predominately Buddhist with a population of just under a quarter of a million people.  Because of its location and limited number of flights into its capitol, Paro, it remains relatively expensive and challenging to get into the country.


What is the Gross National Happiness Index

The GNH is not a one dimensional concept and does not capture feelings at one point of time. Instead the GNP is composed of 9 major domains: health, psychological wellbeing, time use, education, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience and living standards.  In order to assess the gross happiness index, the government periodically surveys its residents about how they fare in these domains.

Why is it Good for Health

While Bhutan’s residents may be considered relatively poor in terms of average income, it ranks highly in terms of psychological well being. A 2010 survey of happiness in Bhutan showed that over 40% of residents were extensively happy or deeply happy (based on it measured domains).  Despite an average annual income of only $2,420 (U.S. dollars) in 2012 and being ranked 167 out of 190 in GDP that year, Bhutan ranked 17th on the 2009 Happy Planet Index.

In recent years there have been many efforts to expand the country’s health system and provide improved health services to individuals who live there. As a result the country has significantly improved its life expectancy.

There are not many health related studies about the Gross National Happiness Index but there are studies about the relationship of psychological well-being, one of its 9 domains, to health. For example:

  • Positive emotions have been linked with greater baseline health and lower risks of developing heart disease.
  • A positive attitude also helps people who already have health problems. For example, after a heart attack, happier people are less likely to be readmitted to the hospital; people who have had heart bypass surgery have better recovery periods.
  • Psychological well-being has also been linked to better survival among persons with kidney disease and the human immunodeficiency virus syndrome (HIV).
  • Negative emotions, on the other hand have been linked to obesity, diabetes, and shorter lifespans.

There may be number of explanations for these findings. It could be that happier people have healthier behaviors, are more likely to take their medicines and follow medical instructions.  A more positive outlook may also help people cope in the time of life challenges.  However it is thought that happiness may also reduce some of the body’s production of chemicals that cause inflammation, which can cause disease as well as reduce physical effects of stress, such as high blood pressure. 

bhutan dancer_jpg

How to Be Happy

Bhutan may not be easily accessible but fortunately happiness can belong to us all even in our own backyards.  There are a number of approaches to achieve psychological well-being ranging from meditation, which we will discuss in a later blog, to surrounding yourself with positive individuals and situations.

According to Martin Seligman,  a psychologist who directs the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania and has written a number of award winning books, including Flourish and Authentic Happiness,  there are 5 key tenets to help achieve well-being. These are:

  • Positive emotion (having a positive outlook that leads to enjoyment)
  • Engagement( being fully engaged in a goal)
  • Relationships (close, meaningful ones)
  • Meaning (striving for a cause bigger than one’s self)  and
  • Achievement (accomplishing specific goals).

Cguda Tm Steptoe A. Positive Psychological Well-Being and Mortality: A Quantitative Review of Prospective Observational Studies. Psychosomatic Medicine 20008; 70:741–756.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18725425

Seligman M. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-wellbeing. 2012: Atria Books.

Seligman M. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment. 2004: Atria Books.

Tobgay T, Dorji T, Pelzom D, Gibbons RV. Progress and delivery of health care in Bhutan, the land of the Thunder Dragon and Gross National Happiness. Trop Med Int Health. 2011;16:731-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21418446

Tugade MM, Fredrickson BL and Barrett LF. Psychological Resilience and Positive Emotional Granularity: Examining the Benefits of Positive Emotions on Coping and Health. Journal of Personality. 2004; 72:6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15509280

Ura K, Alkire S, Zangmo T, Wangdi K. Short Guide to Gross National

Happiness Index . The Centre for Bhutan Studies. 2012. http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Short-GNH-Index-edited.pdf

The World Bank. http://data.worldbank.org/country/bhutan


Authentic Happiness http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/seligman.aspx

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness www.grossnationalhappiness.com

Positive Psychology Center http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/bio.htm




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2 Responses to Why celebrate International Happiness Day? Lessons from Bhutan

  1. Cflow March 20, 2014 at 11:41 pm #

    4 out of 5 – not bad, just have to work on the positive outlook.

    • jcblancha March 20, 2014 at 11:50 pm #

      4 out of 5 are great! You are ahead of the game. And you can always start on the positive outlook part today! That plus all of your healthy diet and exercise will keep you living for a long time :)
      Thanks again for reading the post!

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