“GNH is development with value.” —His Majesty, King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck of Bhutan
“Business based on happiness would go from minimizing negative impacts to maximizing positive impacts and the benefits to humanity at large.” —Isabel Sebastian, Bhutan Luminous Consultancy
Suarez began the session by pointing out that the people participating in the BSR Conference are fortunate to be connected by their passion and commitment to sustainability. She emphasized that our jobs generally bring us the satisfaction and sense of happiness that every individual should feel. She explained that the session would address how business could deliver this happiness more broadly.
Sebastian started by playing a short video that described the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which was invented by Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of Bhutan. In 1972, he decreed that he would measure his country’s wealth in terms of happiness and make decisions based on increasing GNH. Since then, the concept has gained momentum globally.
The clip showed that GNH is based on the idea that happiness is a universal goal and that governments should balance economic development with the happiness and well-being of its citizens. This means, in practice, guaranteeing social and economic opportunities, as well as enhancing community relationships and participation in cultural or religious activities that give people a strong sense of value and identity.
Sebastian then contended that companies can change their business models and approaches, informed by GNH, to promote human happiness and well-being. However, she cautioned, doing so involves radical transformation.
Sebastian presented several examples to illustrate growing awareness of the importance of happiness and well-being to sustainability and development. For instance, Bhutan suggested that happiness should be included in the Millennium Development Goals and developed a GNH screening tool for policy making. In 2012, the Earth Institute at Columbia University published the first “World Happiness Report.” Sebastian then presented several quotes from political leaders and academics to illustrate how transformative increasing happiness and well-being could be, particularly when applied to economic measurement and policy making. She explained that wealth alone does not make people happier: Other factors, such as political freedom, strong social networks, and the absence of corruption, are also important.
Sebastian then asked the audience why, in economies driven by consumption, there is a disconnect between income and happiness. Participants pinpointed a continuous desire to own new things.
Using the pyramid adapted from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a psychological concept that ranks the needs of human beings, Sebastian described that beyond the physiological needs a person experiences, there are a set of deficit needs (e.g., safety, belonging, and esteem) that are by nature never satisfied. According to Sebastian, companies tend to cater to these needs without contributing to people’s being needs, which include morality, creativity, spontaneity, and problem-solving.GNH can drive businesses to develop new models to address these being needs by helping customers find meaning in their lives. Sebastian cited the example of volunteer travel, where tourists combine their vacations with donating time to charitable causes.
Sebastian then briefly explored the methodology that the government of Bhutan has developed to measure GNH, which is based on 250 questions covering nine areas—time, health, community vitality, psychological well-being, education, good governance, culture, living standards, and ecology. She put forward that adopting business models based on happiness and well-being could create new opportunities for the business sector. This transformation would include diversifying products and services, focusing on facilitation and engagement, looking at stakeholders as partners, creating long-term value, evolving from overproduction to resource redistribution, and finding a purpose for profit beyond its economic definition.
Emphasizing the systemic transformation that this approach entails, Suarez asked how companies can start this process. Sebastian suggested that an initial step would be to measure happiness among staff and stakeholders. Responding to a second question about how to determine when profits are enough, Sebastian emphasized that the issue is not about reducing profits but rather about redistributing them. A participant asked how the concept of GNH can reflect the diverse values and mentalities of individuals. Sebastian responded that data on GNH should be gathered at the local level and consider criteria such as ethnic origin.