The country of Bhutan is well known for its development metric, Gross National Happiness (GNH), which is an attempt to create both a quantitative index of quality of life indicators, incorporating both economic development (as measured through GDP) and more holistic conceptions of well-being. Bhutan's attempts have garnered significant world-wide attention, and other countries are looking into GNH as a potential sustainable development paradigm. However, GNH is grounded in Buddhist beliefs and is quite specific to Bhutan. Of importance then is to understand how GNH developed in Bhutan, how it influences natural resource decision-making in that country, and what aspects of it might translate to contexts outside of the country. This doctoral dissertation search will help to better understand the ways that GNH as a development paradigm impacts environmental decision making. The research asks four primary questions: 1) How has the cultural, religious, and political context in Bhutan influenced the development of GNH? 2) Who are the domestic and international actors central to conservation and natural resource decision-making networks in Bhutan, and how have their interactions influenced the application of GNH? 3) How, when, and why is happiness linked to natural resources and the environment? and 4) How is GNH operationalized? To do this, interviews with government officials, NGO employees and others working at the intersection of GNH and the environment will be conducted to better understand how GNH is related to environmental decision-making. Additionally, a participatory video documentary project will be produced in rural Bhutan to assess how GNH environmental policies are impacting daily interactions with the environment.

This research project examines what GNH is and how it is impacting environmental decision-making in Bhutan. The findings will help to tease out what is meant by GNH, how it evolved over time, when happiness is invoked in relationship to the natural environment and how it is influencing people's interactions with the landscape. Since GNH has recently gained international attention and is beginning to be adopted by governments around the world, research into the genealogy and implementation of GNH is important in order to understand which aspects are Bhutan-specific and which aspects might be useful in other contexts. In recent years novel development metrics have experienced exponential growth world-wide. This research provides an opportunity to better understand them and to determine their influence on development. This Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement award will enable a promising student to establish a strong independent research career.

Project Report

The broader impacts of this project are numerous; in addition to contributing to multiple areas of scholarship, this research is significant for broader efforts to construct alternative measures of and pathways to sustainable development. Bhutan’s unique approach to environmental governance has potentially transformative implications worldwide, and there has been a recent surge of interest in GNH, from national governments such as Bolivia and Brazil, to the Indian state of Sikkim and the city of Seattle. A close examination of the roots of GNH in Bhutan’s culture, along with analysis of the ways that GNH is shifting with the current changes in Bhutan’s governance, will clarify which aspects of GNH are specific to Bhutan, and which might inform sustainable development and environmental governance elsewhere. This research will also assist the government of Bhutan by uncovering the ways that GNH is popularly understood and the ways GNH influences people’s behaviors towards the environment. Additionally, the environmental education intervention proposed here will help teach valuable skills to high school students nationwide. Bhutan is relatively understudied by western scholars, and especially by American scholars. Research findings will be published both in peer-reviewed journals in the US, as well as through the Journal for Bhutan Studies, increasing the likelyhood of their utility in Bhutan. Copies of my dissertation will be shared with research partners. This project also has numerous intellectual merits. First, efforts to develop viable alternative measures of sustainable development are urgent and mostly nascent; Bhutan’s GNH is uniquely significant among these in that it has actually been a country’s policy for many years. Second, this research advances political ecology research by answering recent calls for "political ecologies of success"; as it seeks to analyze a distinctive and seemingly beneficial approach to conceptualizing and structuring interactions between an entire society and its natural environment. Third, this project answers the recent calls for more research into the social and cultural dimensions of development institutions, I will analyze GNH critically and from an ethnographic viewpoint, considering the possibility that it may be less detached and distinct from conventional development discourse and institutions than its proponents claim. Fourth, this project seeks to combine a genealogical approach with ethnographic fieldwork, engaging with a growing body of literature that does so, especially in relation to the environment.

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Pennsylvania State University
University Park
United States
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