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Notes From Bhutan: How to Measure Happiness

If a brand cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for the brand to exist

We’re in Bhutan, the small Himalayan “Dragon Kingdom” (population 800,000) with a big reputation for making citizen happiness the nation’s core development goal.

We’re here because our digital agency – SYZYGY – seeks to put client happiness and user happiness at the heart of everything it does. So we’re here to learn.

Arriving on World Happiness Day 2018, our first meeting has been with Sonam Tsoki Tenzin, director of the Gross National Happiness Centre of Bhutan.

Tsoki explains that happiness has been a core goal of Bhutan for nearly four centuries.  In 1629, (a century and a half before the 1776 US Declaration of Independence laid down unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”) Bhutan’s founding father Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel declared

“If the government cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for government to exist”

– Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, founding father of Bhutan, 1629

Could this apply to brands as well as governments? If a brand cannot create happiness for its people, then is there no purpose for the brand to exist?

The pursuit of happiness as the nation’s goal is now written into Bhutan’s Constitution (articles 9 & 11). However, it was in 1972 that the country’s focus on happiness found global fame, when the former king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, claimed that

“Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product”

– King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, 1972

But what is Gross National Happiness? To understand Gross National Happiness, it helps to understand what happiness means to the Bhutanese. Unlike Western notions of happiness as a personal experience, happiness in Buddhist Bhutan is conceived of as a social act – something we create for others. From this perspective, Gross National Happiness is the amount of happiness produced by the country (for a Western spin on this idea, see the short World Economic Forum clip below – click to play).

Until 2008, Gross National Happiness was more of an idea rather than a formal metric.  This changed in 2008, when Bhutan launched its GNH Index to track progress in promoting the nation’s happiness. Although the GNH index is a single number (for simplicity), it is derived from 33 indicators across 9 domains that influence overall happiness.

As Tsoki explained the GNH Index to us, we realised that the Index was not a simple measure of happiness itself. Instead, the GNH Index measures ‘wellbeing’ and the enabling conditions for wellbeing to flourish.

  • Subjective Wellbeing (SWB) is a more formal and accepted measure of happiness used by psychologists and demographers, which essentially measures the degree to which we subjectively experience and evaluate our lives positively.  As a Buddhist culture, Bhutan combines this measure of subjective wellbeing with spiritual wellbeing to create a compound indicator of ‘psychological wellbeing’
  • Wellbeing Enabling Conditions – a multi-dimensional measure of the conditions necessary for wellbeing to flourish, made up of health, living standards, education, time-use, cultural diversity and resilience, community vitality, psychological wellbeing, ecological diversity and good governance)

This was a first ‘aha’ moment for us as a digital agency concerned with client, user and employee happiness. Should we measuring our work in terms of the wellbeing we create or enable, rather than happiness itself?

We’ve often found that clients struggle with the idea of customer happiness, employee happiness or user happiness.  Happiness is considered tricksy or vague, or both. This is despite good evidence that happy customers buy more, more often, for more and for longer, and that happy employees are more productive, more creative and more loyal.

So could the Bhutanese trick of measuring wellbeing as opposed to happiness help sidestep doubts over the validity and appropriateness of the more ‘fluffy’ notion of happiness?  The advantage of adopting a wellbeing focus in assessing the impact of our work is that we can adapt or adopt simple scientifically-validated wellbeing measurement scales.

For example, mental health practitioners use a simple seven-question scale to measure wellbeing (SWEMWBS), which could be adapted to measure the quality of client, user or employee experience

Below are some statements about feelings and thoughts. Please tick the box that best describes your experience [with working with us/for this organisation] over the past two week (boxes are none of the time (score 1), rarely (score 2), some of the time (score 3), often (score 4), all of the time (score 5)

  1. I’ve been feeling optimistic about the future
  2. I’ve been feeling useful
  3. I’ve been feeling relaxed
  4. I’ve been dealing with problems well
  5. I’ve been thinking clearly
  6. I’ve been feeling close to other people
  7. I’ve been able to make up my own mind about things

To calculate your own personal wellbeing score, simply add up your score out of 35.  Multiply by 2.86 to get a wellbeing score of 100.

Wellbeing is also measured in terms of the three dimensions held to underpin a positive mindset – positive experience, positive life evaluation and positive meaning

  1. How frequently have you experienced these feelings over the last four weeks? Positive, Negative, Good, Bad, Pleasant, Unpleasant, Happy, Sad, Afraid, Joyful, Angry Contented (on a scale of 1-5 where 1 is very rarely or not at all, 2 is rarely, 3 is sometimes, 4 is often and 5 is very often or always) – SPANE Model (or for alternative list of feelings to audit, see below for the influential “circumplex model of affect”)
  2. Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
    (on a 0- 10 scale, where 0 is not satisfied at all, and 10 is completely satisfied)
  3. Overall, to what extent do you feel that the things you do in your life are worthwhile? – ONS
    (on a 0-10 scale, where 0 is not at all worthwhile and 10 is completely worthwhile) – ONS

These three questions, used by positive psychologists like myself to research wellbeing could be readily adapted to measure the outcome of our work on client, employee or user wellbeing.

From this perspective, the measure of success for our agency is the degree that working with us is a positive experience, that our work is evaluated positively, and that it creates positive meaning for our client.

How frequently have you experienced these feelings over the last four weeks? [Circumplex Model of Affect]. Note – the emotions in the circumplex model could be adapted to include Bhutan’s Buddhist interpretation of positive emotions (calmness, empathy, forgiveness, contentment, and generosity) and negative emotions (anger, envy, guilt, resentment, selfishness, jealousy, pride, disappointment, sadness, and frustration).


Nuance aside, the big takeout from our first meeting in Bhutan is that if SYZYGY – or any other agency – is serious about client happiness, then we need to measure it. Using established wellbeing metrics, rather than tired satisfaction metrics that don’t capture the emotional nature of experience could be the answer.


Written by
Dr Paul Marsden
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Digital wellbeing covers the latest scientific research on the impact of digital technology on human wellbeing. Curated by psychologist Dr. Paul Marsden (@marsattacks). Sponsored by WPP agency SYZYGY.