What Can We Learn From Bhutan, the “World’s Happiest Country?”
*Republished from my private journals, originally written November 2015.
As my ten days in Bhutan came to an end yesterday, I finally started putting together all the notes that I had scratched down about this incredibly unique place. Bhutan, more formally known as The Kingdom of Bhutan, is a small country with a population of only 700,000 that has been recognized as “the happiest country on Earth” thanks to its famed concept of Gross National Happiness. What makes Bhutan so different is that until 10 years ago, it was a closed monarchy that was almost completely isolated from outside influence. The country has operated with minimal modern conveniences and much of the labor and agriculture were done by hand. Over the last decade, however, since Bhutan’s Fourth King seceded the country’s total monarchy in favor of a constitutional monarchy, the country has slowly opened its borders and society to both tourism and foreign investment. The result is a culture that, while still deeply rooted in its protectionist and Buddhist traditions, is in the early stages of a massive transition towards modernization.
Gross National Happiness (GNH) was born in 1971, founded on the idea of prioritizing the welfare of Bhutan’s people over economic advancement. In practice, GNH seems to be working in terms of minimizing the suffering amongst the Bhutanese. Hunger and homelessness are almost non-existent, the eco-system is sparkling clean, free healthcare is available to all people, and the King grants property and necessary loans to anyone in need of land and livelihood. However, GNH is also blurred by a number of misconceptions and the country’s “happiness” faces a number of challenges in its long term viability.
I think the biggest misinterpretation of Bhutan’s happiness is rooted in the difference between the West’s definition of happiness and Bhutan’s. The difference of perspectives could be contrasted as pleasure vs compassion or joy vs contentment, but either way, GNH doesn’t mean that Bhutanese people are walking around with huge smiles on their faces like those ridiculous male enhancement commercials from years ago. In fact, in comparison to other countries, there doesn’t seem to be a surplus of joy amongst the people. Rather, GNH is founded upon ensuring that all basic needs of Bhutan’s people are looked after. These needs include the spiritual, physical, social, and environmental health of the people and the eco-system.
Beyond the function of GNH, the Bhutanese people live in a society deeply rooted in Buddhist Philosophies and Mythology. Typical hardships are often simply accepted as fate, something out of peoples control, and thus not worth fretting over. The divorce rate, for instance, is incredibly high in Bhutan as compared to the rest of the region. If a marriage crumbles, it doesn’t carry a hugely negative stigma nor is it typically a major source of emotional turmoil. It’s often accepted and life goes on. This simple notion is a major factor in Bhutan’s happiness.
The challenges facing GNH, on the other hand, are significant. To name a few:
1. Foreign Investment. In recent years, Bhutan has depended heavily on India for the development of its roads and infrastructure. Hydroelectric power is Bhutan’s largest export and all the facilities have been built by India. The tentacles of foreign money are wrapping themselves around the country and sustaining adherence to GNH will become increasingly difficult.
2. Urbanization. There is a large migration of Bhutanese people from rural areas into the larger towns and cities. Bhutan is already importing a major bulk of goods from India and with its ability to produce agricultural products diminished by urbanization, dependence on imports will only grow.
3. Population growth. The viability of GNH largely depends on the country’s population sustaining its fairly small population. The costs associated with GNH would quickly spiral out of control if the population increased dramatically.
4. Reputation and ego. Outside of farming, most blue-collar work is looked at negatively by the people of Bhutan, creating a reluctance to accept jobs in industries such as roadwork and construction. Migrants from India and Nepal are coming in and taking those jobs, creating a dependance on foreign workers and creating a shortage of ‘acceptable’ jobs for Bhutanese workers.
5. Greed and inequality. As foreign money and influence pours in, so does excess, greed and envy, which have been predominantly absent in Bhutan’s society. Even the King lives in a very modest home in the capital city of Thimphu as a showing of solidarity. It is yet to be seen whether the country’s ‘happiness’ will survive the effects of capitalism and growing income inequality.
At a high level, Bhutan’s transition feels like a reflection of many of the things that plagued other societies decades and centuries ago. As it stands today, I think the minimal suffering qualifies Bhutan as a a “happy” country. Like with many great ideas, viability will prove to be a challenge, but the commitment is in place. As the transition from closed monarchy to modernized society continues, the people, landscape and environment will all change, but hopefully GNH can grow stronger rather than fall victim to the priorities of capitalism and personal gain.