Bhutan is said to be the world’s happiest country. While most of the world is determined to move quickly towards modernization, Bhutan prefers the the path to a larger Gross National Happiness (GNH) over Gross National Product (GNP).
In my studies of the world of “Internal Arts”, I have been focusing on the arts that stimulate the human internal or instinctive senses. This time I take the opportunity in Bhutan, where people seek to explicitly value this type of internal element, to explore its essential nature of and keys to “happiness”.
Introduction – land of true happiness, Bhutan
Happiness is a fundamental value that most of us share. The pursuit of happiness seems natural as a human being. At the same time, happiness is seems quite subjective, intangible, and difficult to measure unlike material or monetary wealth. In Bhutan, however, they say their country is the land of true happiness and they even use the concept of “Gross National Happiness (GNH)” as a measure to prove their claim.
Bhutan is a tiny kingdom at the eastern edge of the Himalayas, in between the two giants, China and India. It’s one of the world’s smallest countries in terms of land (2011 estimate: 135th), population (720,679, 2011 estimate: 163rd). Its annual GDP per capita $2,121 (127th, 2011 by IMF) compares with $48,387 in the U.S. However small the kingdom is, Bhutan’s strength is in its happiness.
In 1972, Bhutan’s fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck coined the term “Gross National Happiness (GNH)”. He used GNH to signal his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture, based on Buddhist spiritual values. The concept was at first offered as a casual, offhand remark. But it was later taken seriously, as the Centre for Bhutan Studies developed a sophisticated survey methodology to measure the population’s general level of well-being and happiness. The GNH has influenced the world. Today even the United Nations is placing “happiness” on the global agenda.
Some surveys indicate that 97% of Bhutanese are happy. But how can they almost all be so happy? I decided to make my way to Bhutan to explore the essential nature of and keys to happiness.
Organizing a trip to Bhutan was simple. There is only one airline company, Drukair, which flys into Bhutan, and there is a fixed price per day for foreigners to travel in the country. The daily price includes full-board accommodations, a private guide, and a private car with a driver – the travel agent takes care of the itinerary and all booking according to your preferences. Mind you, the fixed, per-day charge is actually more than their monthly GDP per capita. At the time I booked my trip, this “one choice” Bhutanese way caused me some frustration, since it seemed to limit my freedom and to give those in control some advantage over the tourists. However, the more I saw of Bhutan, I came to realize that “less choice” is actually one of the keys to happiness.
Keys to Happiness – what makes you happy?
One may think that such internal element as happiness is entirely subjective; that the meaning of happiness itself may differ from person to person. However, through my many interviews with local Bhutanese, I came to learn they are generally happiness-conscious and tend to share similar values and views about it.
Upon my arrival in Bhutan, I started by asking three simple questions to a variety of people I met – from high school students, to local shop owners, farmers, police men, and monks.
Q1. Are you happy?
Q2. What makes you happy?
Q3. What is your dream?
When approached with a question, Bhutanese may appear quite shy. However, ask of happiness and they will show confidence and pride. Each Bhutanese has his/her personal view, but their answers tend to follow a common theme. In general, I found the Bhutanese people calm, relaxed and welcoming; very kind and warm hearted.
Here are some of their answers:
1. Of course, yes, I’m happy with what I am doing.
2. I feel happy mainly because of my friends, teachers, and the support that I receive from my parents. I feel life as a whole is ’happy’.
3. My dream is to be an independent woman.
- Dorji Dema (high school student)
1. Yes, I am very happy.
2. Because my parents and friends make me happy. Another reason is that I was born in this beautiful, peaceful country.
3. My dream is to make my parents happy.
- Deki (police woman)
1. Yes, I am happy in my country where I was born.
2. Every one of us are happy in this country, and it makes me happy.
3. Since I am a monk and dedicated to religion, I would go for meditation in some of the temples around.
- Gyeltshen (monk)
1. Yes, I am happy.
2. I live in Bhutan with my parents, wife and children who make me happy.
3. My dream is to be a good man.
- Deoman Rai (meat seller)
1. Yes, I am happy, but sometimes I’m sad.
2. Seeing my friends makes me happy.
3. My dream is to see the world. I love to help all sentient beings.
- Pema (lady in a local restaurant/bar)
1. Yes, I am very happy in our small country.
2. I wouldn’t be happy in any other place than Bhutan. Peace, religion and happiness of all the people in Bhutan make me happy.
3. My dream is to be a noble businessman, living with my happy family.
- Bishnu Kr. (travel agent manager)
1. I am happy
2. Bhutan is a religious country and our king is a reincarnation of a great lama so we are really happy under his power.
3. I would like to expand my weaving business in the future.
- Thongmey Yeshey (hand craft shop owner)
By the end of my trip I collected nearly 50 answers. The key message was quite clear, and can be summarized by compiling their responses
into one representative answer:
Yes, I am (very) happy
My beautiful country, my family and friends make me happy
I want to be a good person. I want to help others, make my family and friends happy
Keys to Happiness — Thoughts on Happiness in Bhutan
Through my trip to Bhutan, I learned that the concept of happiness in Bhutan is unique. Although I feel “happiness” can have a little different meaning depending on the culture and the person, their happiness taught me a great deal about the keys to true happiness.
*** Love and Action ***
In Bhutan, one particular value the people share is that they absolutely love the King, the Kingdom, and being buddhist. They value nature, care for animals like family, and kill no living creatures themselves. They sincerely hope to keep their beautiful country as it is rather than to modernize or globalize. They respect their parents and want to be good people. It is common to hear,”I want to look after my parents”, in appreciation for the good care they received while being raised. They also want to help others because they think it will return happiness. Here the key is unconditional love towards people, nature, their religious life, and spiritual symbols – in their case, this is the King and his wife. Love is not only expressed in words, but also through actions. Bhutanese take time everyday to care for what they love. This attitude is universal in Bhutan, making the country as a whole happy and peaceful.
Key to happiness 1: Love what we have, and act to express it every day.
*** Thinking Positively ***
Bhutanese people are laid back, confident, honest and kind. They don’t seem to get angry or sad easily. When an unfortunate incident happens, for example losing a cell phone, they look at the positive, saying ”all my bad luck will be washed away by this” and move forward happily. And that applies even in extreme cases. According to my Bhutanese friend, if a man’s wife runs away with all the wealth he had earned after many years of hard work, he’d still say, “all my bad luck is now gone” and start over. This suggests that they are not attached to possessions or what they have worked to earn and they are willing to look at the bright side whatever happens. Here the key is to stay calm and be positive about any outcome. Do not remain attached to things lost and move forward.
Key to happiness 2: Stay calm, and look at the bright side whatever happens.
*** Less is More ***
Less competitiveness – One Bhutanese man mentioned that he likes Bhutan because there is less competitiveness. Competition promotes growth and improvement, but it also creates winners and losers. Less competition means there is no need to feel superior or inferior to others.
Less materialism – the GDP per capita in Bhutan is a little over 2,000 dollars per year. Although they have electricity in the cities, cars, TVs, and other modern things, their lifestyle seems simple. They would rather spend time with family and friends or pray in front of their household alter than go to prep school or work overtime for more money.
Less choice – during my trip to Bhutan, the menu selection was mostly the same every morning, lunch and dinner. Bhutanese food does have variety and I enjoyed all the meals cooked by different people in different locations, but they simply offer less choice. In Bhutan, there is Bhutanese food, but not French, Chinese or Japanese. For travel, as mentioned in the introduction, there is only one airline and one fixed daily rate for traveling. Whatever price they deem fit to charge for whatever service they offer, if we want to go to Bhutan, we have to pay it and take what comes. Once we accept, however, we can be assured that the Bhutanese will do their utmost to make the experience outstanding. The key is to accept less choice we have, but make the most of each.
Key to happiness 3: Having less gives us more room to appreciate and do our best.
The Bhutanese people provide an example of sustainable, happy living. They have confidence in themselves and an awareness of their happiness, as well as unconditional, devoted love towards their own culture. True happiness is about loving your environment, staying genuinely positive, and having a less materialistic way of life – quite the opposite of a complicated, modern life, always insatiably striving for *more*.
Among the many countries I have visited, Bhutan left me a with a very strong, lasting impression. I felt that even for one single day, it’s worth visiting this beautiful, happy country.I would like to thank the 50 Bhutanese people who shared their thoughts about happiness and made me realize that happiness is always in front of us, and up to us to appreciate or to ignore.