Nestled in the soaring eastern himalayas between Tibet and India, Bhutan is one of the happiest countries on Earth. How do we know that? Because when researchers at the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom pieced together 100 studies to create the first world map of happiness in 2007, Bhutan ranked first in Asia and eighth in the world—which is extraordinary, given that Bhutan’s Gross Domestic Product ranks 137.
When another attempt to measure international happiness, the Happy Planet Index, asked people around the world a simple question—“Overall, how happy would you say you are these days?”—the Bhutanese came in 13 among 178 nations. Notes the World Bank, “Bhutan should be considered one of the few countries where the quality of life of its people is higher than would be expected from traditional development indicators.”
For Bhutan, happiness isn’t accidental. It’s a policy goal. After ascending the throne as Bhutan’s fourth king in 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck advanced the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and placed it above Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the ultimate measure of well-being for the Bhutanese, arguing that health, education, and justice were necessary for a nation to develop. His Oxford-educated son, Jigme Khesar Mangyal Wangchuck, who succeeded him in November of 2008, has pledged to continue this policy.
Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness is measured by how well the natural environment is supporting the people; the extent to which communities and families are intact and thriving, not just financially but also culturally; and by its citizens’ reports on their own levels of happiness. The Bhutanese, as well as many outside observers, argue that the secret of their happiness lies in the security of their community, kinship, and family relationships, and in a self-sufficient lifestyle. And their Buddhist spiritual tradition, which considers craving the root cause of unhappiness, guides their daily life.
Its commitment to priorities beyond the almighty dollar is often cited as a main reason why happiness is so pervasive in Bhutan—and it is why the country has been celebrated by commentators around the world. “They do things that don’t make economic sense,” writes journalist Eric Weiner in his 2008 book, The Geography of Bliss. “In Bhutan, what’s on the inside is often more impressive than what’s on the outside.”
But this way of life now faces significant changes. As the country modernizes its government and economy for the 21st century—most notably in its shift to parliamentary democracy, with its first-ever national elections held in 2008—there are signs that some Bhutanese may be leaving their traditional values behind.
“People are aspiring for more and more wealth,” says Damber Kumar Nirola, a psychiatrist at Jigme Dorji Wangchuck National Referral Hospital in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu. “Smaller cars are not OK for them; they need a bigger car. They need taller buildings.” Nirola questions whether the Bhutanese will be able to preserve their GNH as their GDP rises and democracy reshapes their way of life. “When you see your neighbor going up and up in materialistic gain and you are trying to be spiritual and fan away your desires, how many can do it?” he asks.
That agonizing question isn’t unique to Bhutan; indeed, Bhutan’s national struggle to preserve happiness contains lessons for people all over the world, including Americans.
New world, old happiness
Bhutan started to take its first steps toward modernization in the 1960s, when then-King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, the present monarch’s grandfather, cautiously opened the doors of his medieval-like kingdom to change. In recent years, the pace of change has accelerated. In 1999, for instance, Bhutan allowed television into the country. In March of 2008, Bhutan transformed its political system through a new constitutional process and nationwide elections.
Modernization has helped improve the country’s literacy rate, health care, educational system, transportation infrastructure, and its access to potable water and safe sanitation. But it has also brought a number of new challenges, chief among which has been creating jobs for the new ranks of educated youth.
Until now, the public sector was able to provide employment for the majority of high school graduates, while the rest of the youth stayed in rural areas and worked on farms. But more and more children are now getting an education, and “none of them want to go back to the farm,” says Lyonpo Kinzang Dorji, who served as the prime minister of Bhutan from 2002 to 2003 and again from 2007 to 2008. Unfortunately, given Bhutan’s size, the civil service cannot grow to absorb more people, and a rise in unemployment among young Bhutanese is leading to disenchantment and, from there—for the first time in the country’s history—it’s a short step to drugs, gangs, and crime.
“The time has come when we can sometimes be robbed,” says Damber Kumar Nirola, the Thimphu psychiatrist. “Young people believe that by taking alcohol, taking drugs, they feel happy. Obviously, all these drugs somehow increase the dopamine level in the brain, which is supposed to cause some sort of euphoria, and people believe that that is happiness. But happiness simply in the form of euphoria is not the one we desire.”
Although marijuana grows wild in the countryside, the Bhutanese feed it to pigs. The youth prefer to sniff correction fluid or pop pills smuggled in from India. Overdose deaths now average one a month, a dramatic change from the past. Perhaps as a result of spreading drug addiction, crimes such as rape and theft are rising, along with the vandalization of statues and religious objects—an activity previously unheard of in Bhutan. Even so, violent crime, including homicide, remains low.
The increase in crime and drug addiction might also be related to recent changes in family dynamics. According to Chief Justice Tobgye, traditionally in Bhutan, “looking after the family was a most pleasant duty and ethical responsibility.” Grandparents or aunts and uncles would take charge when parents were not available. But the younger generation’s shift from the country to the city often means leaving extended family members behind. Working people are relying instead on what once was unthinkable: child-care providers. Some Bhutanese wonder whether old-age homes will eventually appear, too.
These shifts may have been exacerbated by the introduction of international media into Bhutan. Whereas in pre-media days, families sat around together singing, telling stories, and joking, today they’re facing the TV screen and wrangling over the remote control. Nim Dorji, formerly an employee of Bhutan’s department of agriculture but now the managing director of Snow Lion Adventure Travels, says, “In my family, my children like to watch cartoons; my mother-in-law is very keen on Hindi movie serials [soap operas]. There’s always some kind of conflict, so I had to buy a TV for my mother-in-law. The only time we meet is mealtime. Soon after that, she goes back to her bedroom and watches television. Things are changing.”
As images of other lifestyles stream in through TV and the Internet, rock, hip-hop, and breakdancing hold the interest of Bhutanese youth far more than soft indigenous music and dance. Thimphu has radio stations, discotheques, and bars where Western music dominates, along with Western-style clothing.
Despite these challenges, Chief Justice Tobgye does not favor returning to an isolated past. “With the whole world opening,” he says, “Bhutan cannot close itself.”
Four pillars of happiness
Bhutan is, of course, not the only developing country to face such challenges. But how its government is responding to them is unique. To Western eyes, some of their measures may appear overly authoritarian. For instance, when young Bhutanese began imitating the professional wrestling they saw on TV, the state banned wrestling programs. When lawmakers were caught playing computer games on their laptops during legislative sessions, Parliament barred its members from bringing laptops to work. The government also prohibits the sale of tobacco, smoking in public places, plastic bags, and big advertising billboards.
Perhaps more significantly, Bhutan is trying to fuse its modernization with a renewed commitment to traditional values. In 1999, the Planning Commission (now called the GNH Commission), articulated a vision for Bhutan’s “peace, prosperity and happiness” by 2020.
To achieve this goal, four distinct but mutually supporting pillars were established to uphold the guiding philosophy of GNH: equitable and sustainable socioeconomic development; environment conservation; preservation and promotion of culture; and good governance. The government has also created indicators to track its progress maintaining GNH, using surveys to discover how respondents rate income, family, health, spirituality, and good governance with respect to their personal happiness.
These four pillars not only reflect Bhutan’s national priorities; they offer principles for any nation looking to balance economic and social well-being.
Sustainable socioeconomic development and environmental conservation. The first two pillars—economic development and environmental responsibility—go hand-in-hand.
“One of the most important means through which to achieve GNH is the surrounding environment—nature,” says Lyonpo Kinzang Dorji, who became minister of agriculture in 1999. Bhutan exploits its natural resources as long as there is no concomitant indigenous or environmental degradation. For example, constitutional law stipulates a minimum of 60 percent forest cover; it is presently 72.5 percent. Although there is logging, clearcutting of trees is prohibited. Community forests also keep people actively involved in sustainable management.
“Forest protection is of the highest priority because we live in a very fragile, young mountain system,” says Dorji. “One monsoon would be enough to create a landslide. It would have an impact on everything.” When he became a government minister nine years ago, “good timber was being exported—we used to get a very good price from India—and the inferior quality timber was available for our local people,” he says. “So keeping in view the long-term impact, not looking at the short-term gain, the government decided: No more timber export.”
As educated youth increasingly want to remain in urban areas, the government is trying to make agriculture more economically attractive by switching from subsistence to commercial farming. But each proposal is carefully evaluated according to GNH guidelines. When a company from Calcutta offered to help Bhutan grow tea, the government decided against it because tea would force other crops to compete for land and require a lot of chemicals.
Instead, Bhutan is looking at organic and niche products, such as traditional herbal medicine.
Cultural preservation. Because Bhutan, which is half the size of Indiana, with a population of barely 700,000, is sandwiched between two giants, India and China, the government promotes its rich cultural identity through training, conservation, and accessibility.
When young people leave the country for an advanced degree, they have to enter a two-week cultural reorientation program upon their return. Men, women, and children are still required to wear indigenous attire for public occasions. Buildings conform to a uniquely Bhutanese style of architecture. The intention of all these symbols is to ensure that the national culture is visible and alive.
Good governance. Democracy in Bhutan has progressed gradually and peacefully during the last five decades. But why bother to move in that direction when the people are happy with a benevolent king? “We have been asking that question quite a lot,” says Sonam Kinga, a member of the National Council, one of the houses of the new Parliament. “The transition we experience here takes a very different trajectory, unlike post-colonial democratization. The leader of the country is initiating democracy, whereas in the West, it came in opposition to the state.”
Because the Bhutanese have so much regard for their monarch (unlike Bhutan’s Himalayan neighbor, Nepal, which has been torn by a Maoist insurgency and a fierce anti-monarchist movement), they asked why he suggested the change. Kinga says, “The only answer that we got from him was there could be good kings now, but in the future there may be bad kings, and people should take advantage of the democratic system. It could contribute to our well-being.”
Today, Bhutan’s democratic government is working out the fine details. A 32-member committee in Parliament debates every single point in the constitution because traditional features of Bhutanese culture seem at odds with certain ideas borrowed from Western constitutions. For instance, the Buddha’s teaching permeates every aspect of Bhutanese life: Bhutan without Buddhism is not Bhutan. Fortress-like dzhongs have been built since medieval times to function as both administrative and monastic centers. Yet the constitution has an article that points to the separation of religion and politics. Kinga says he has been arguing against that particular clause.
“Basically, the rationale of the Bhutanese state is in the interconnection of the secular and the spiritual that has a 368-year history,” he points out. Will constitutional values replace Buddhist values? “Here you have a constitution that tries to be Bhutanese, but also brings in concepts and principles from modern liberal democracy,” he says. “We do not know whether they will really harmonize because, ultimately, when the constitution is implemented and lived, we might end up with contradictions.”
Lessons from Bhutan
Given Bhutan’s singular circumstances and its differences from a heterogeneous, large-scale, and highly developed country like the U.S., does this Himalayan Buddhist nation have something to teach North Americans about how to cultivate happiness in the face of social and technological change?
Tim Kasser, associate professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois and the author of the 2002 book The High Price of Materialism, believes it does. He has spent two decades studying people’s values and goals and how they relate to their quality of life, and he has recently turned his attention to exploring how public policy can foster individual happiness. Kasser cites two ways in which Bhutan’s focus on GNH can have such an impact.
First, it offers important cues to the country’s citizens. “By setting up GNH and working hard to establish policies that help achieve it, Bhutan is offering a whole different set of values as to what’s important,” he explains. “It’s not trying to pursue American corporate capitalism. Imagine if we lived in a country where we saw indicators of GNH—literacy, ecological sustainability, and equality—appear in the newspaper every day, rather than the Dow Jones
average. That would promote a different mindset among citizens.”
Kasser argues that Bhutan is trying to lead its citizens down a path that, according to decades of research, really is more conducive to cultivating happiness. “People who pursue extrinsic materialistic goals tend to be less happy, less likely to contribute positively to society, and more likely to be competitive and ecologically destructive,” he says. “People who pursue intrinsic values—self-acceptance, affiliation, community feeling—tend to be happier, to contribute more to society, to be more cooperative, and to live more lightly on the earth.”
The second important thing about GNH as a policy goal, says Kasser, is that it creates important institutions that can help people achieve happiness. “While government probably can’t legislate happiness,” he says, “what it can do is pass legislation that removes the social and economic barriers to happiness, and that promotes situations that are likely to provide happiness.” He cites legislation that exists in other countries that the U.S. could adopt: mandatory paid parental leave and minimum paid vacation laws; banning advertising to children “because it increases materialistic values and is associated with obesity”; and taxing advertising, rather than allowing it to be a tax write-off.
Though the U.S. seems to be worlds away from Bhutan, Kasser suggests it’s not too late for Americans to take some cues from the Bhutanese, even as the Bhutanese are starting to emulate the West.
“We can start measuring happiness or well-being and get that information out there so people can see that promoting well-being is not the same thing as economic growth,” says Kasser. “It all depends on what values we want to organize our society around.”
This is precisely the question with which Bhutan is grappling. The country is consciously modernizing while simultaneously trying to hold onto its traditional values, a feat that has eluded most other nations. But it is hard to predict whether Bhutan will be any more successful. Some of its residents, such as innkeeper Pema Dawa, are not optimistic.
“As one thing gets eliminated, more things will go, leading to erosion of the culture,” he says. “In 50 years, I don’t know what will happen to Bhutan.”