Gross National Happiness: Hope, Heartache and Inspirations for Making it Our Own

lauren strelau
Photo courtesy Lauren Strelau

Naropa Students Present on Gross National Happiness at Front Range Bioneers 2015

Bhutan’s vison of Gross National Happiness (GNH) inspires hearts and minds about the possibilities of a more sane, sustainable, and life-enhancing future.

Naropa Environmental Studies students Bryan Gensits, Lacey Ranf, and Sopa Harmann recently returned from six months of living in Bhutan as part of Naropa’s first overseas study abroad program at the Royal University of Bhutan. Together with faculty member Anne Z. Parker, they ignited a lively conversation about Gross National Happiness (GNH) at the Front Range Bioneers Conference that went beyond fantasy and idealization to invite personal and practical steps to shaping our own future. Gross National Happiness, a term coined by the Fourth King of Bhutan, is a concept that implies that sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notions of progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of well-being.

GNH has inspired the implementation of measures to determine human happiness and well-being—not only in Bhutan, but around the world—such as the Green and Happiness Index (GHI) in Thailand, the Gallup Wellbeing Index used in the US, the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) used by the United Nations Development Programme, (UNDP), the “Better Life Index” (BLI) of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) among others, as well as independent measures instituted by cities such as Seattle, Dubai, and Singapore. While these are exciting movements to think beyond Gross National Product (GNP or GDP, i.e. material products as a measure of human life), they can get heady, and we can inadvertently distance ourselves from our own responsibilities in understanding the nature of happiness.

The Naropa students told lively stories of real life challenges in Bhutan and what it takes on the personal and collective level to shape GNH on the ground, taking it off the pedestal where we tend to leave it and bringing it into our hearts. They recounted their own learning journeys from idealization, to disillusionment, to arriving at a deep sense of gratitude for the tireless and compassionate way the Bhutanese citizens work to make the value of human life front and center in the world they are building.

The nuanced insights offered by the students evoked lively and heartfelt conversation with people attending the panel, and we all went away feeling we had gone not only deeply into the topic, but that we had also shifted the basis of our discussion together. GNH shifted from a cool idea to a heartfelt, life-long practice of care for community and life.


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Naropa Campuses Closed on Friday, March 15, 2024

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