What Bhutan really tells us about happiness

The people of Bhutan aren’t as happy as you think, and nothing could make them happier

Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) monastery: breathtaking but not a good place for a night-time stroll

Landing in Paro is not for the faint of heart. The flight from Dhaka is short enough, less than an hour, and if the weather is clear, there are views of the Himalayas that are beyond breathtaking. It’s the last ten minutes or so where things take a turn for the dramatic, as the Druk Air flight has to lose both altitude and speed while negotiating sharp, steep turns through deep mountain valleys that frequently kick up fierce winds. This means that in addition to clearing the jagged edges of the valley walls by what sometimes seems like only a few feet, close enough that you can see the occasional yak staring at you as you fly by, you also get to experience it all with an unsettling amount of turbulence. You can’t even see the airport until just a few moments before landing, when, after one last steep, banking turn, the plane suddenly levels off and touches down on the tarmac. When you finally feel the ground beneath you in Paro, the location of Bhutan’s only international airport (and until recent, the only airport), your first thought will be that you finally understand why so many people associate happiness with Bhutan.

That sort of happiness, however, is not the sort of happiness that Bhutan had in mind when they began to develop the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH), starting back in 1972. Unlike the fleeting happiness that comes from the instant euphoria of making it through the white-knuckled approach into Paro, GNH is based on a deeper, more fundamental concept of happiness, one that goes to the core of what it means to live a meaningful life. I’ll go into some specifics about GNH in a moment, but for the time being, we have the lingering question of whether Bhutan, the country that gave us the idea of GNH, is itself truly happy. The answer to that question is yes, mostly, but with an entirely unexpected and surprising twist.

The people of Bhutan know that the secret of GNH is not to see it as descriptive, but rather as aspirational. What that means is that the Bhutanese have figured out that being slightly unhappy is actually better than being perfectly happy. Learning how to deal with the unpredictability of life, learning how to accept that life will be full of imperfections, and learning how to confront and resolve the sorts of unexpected challenges that frequently bring unhappiness into our lives — all of that creates a far better sense of meaningful happiness than simply being in a state of bliss. It turns out we are much happier in working toward happiness than in actually achieving it.

Bhutan makes truly excellent beer, though that is not the source of its happiness

GNH explained

There’s been a great deal of fuss and debate about GNH since Bhutan developed it into the central principle of its governance and social policy. On the one side, you have what I sometimes call the Eat-Pray-Love crowd, the sorts of people who think they find the authentic experience of every place they go, yet at the same time have no clue as to what an authentic experience actually is. For this crowd, Bhutan is a utopia where everyone is happy, spiritual, and serene, to which is usually added a comment about how the Bhutanese have held onto their traditions, unlike those empty, non-spiritual westerners, after which comment they run off to class to practice what is most likely a highly inauthentic, non-spiritual, and westernized form of yoga. On the other side you have the inveterate cynics whose jaded perspective leads them always to bludgeon anything that smacks of idealism with their thorny club of dystopian realism. For this crowd, the very idea of GNH is nothing but mendacious propaganda, and Bhutan is a place where the government is simply trying to convince the people of Bhutan that their miserable lot in life is somehow a good thing. Happiness? Nonsense — it’s just a rumor.

Neither side has it right, of course — things are rarely that simple. I think what impressed me the most about Bhutan and its pursuit of happiness was their no-nonsense approach to the whole enterprise, their willingness to acknowledge problems where problems existed, and their desire not to hide anything or mask it with euphemistic rhetoric. When I asked my guide about crime, he showed my a prison. Yes, Bhutan has crime — even in the land of happiness, people sometimes do bad and stupid things. How are prison conditions? They could be better, I was told, but Bhutan was working on it.

And that, you see, is really the secret to Bhutan’s pursuit of happiness. There is surprisingly broad support for the programs and policies generated by GNH in Bhutan, but that support comes less from people being truly happy than it does from people truly believing that they can make Bhutan a happier place. Working toward happiness, collectively and individually, and taking the time to appreciate the gains made along the way, no matter how small, may actually provide a more meaningful existence than simply being happy all the time. The experience of Bhutan suggests that with happiness, perhaps there’s more reward in the journey itself than in the arrival. Eternal bliss is overrated, even dull. Instead, a little unhappiness is just what we need to make us all a little happier.

Om Mani Padme Hum (Om Mani Peme Hum) on a mantra wall in Bhutan: Happiness flows from many sources

How it works

The original idea behind GNH was to find a way to measure the quality of life that went beyond mere financial considerations. For decades, international institutions have been obsessed with collecting data about countries and then ranking them from best to worst or worst to best, never realizing that the whole enterprise was mostly fraught with idiocy anyway. The most popular indicator was per capita income — according to the self-appointed experts, if you divide the Gross National Product of a country by the number of citizens, then whoever has the highest per capita income must be the best and happiest country. Many countries of course balked at these measurements and rankings, ranting about things like imperialism and Westernization and capitalism and so forth. But Bhutan’s challenge was different. Rather than denounce and decry their place in the rankings — Bhutan was and remains a relatively poor country — they questioned the very assumptions on which those rankings were based.

Was there really a compelling correlation, Bhutan dared to ask, between money and happiness?

Had Bhutan stopped there, we might have ended up with a quaint anecdote about a small Buddhist country in the Himalayas with the very cute suggestion that we should all just try to be a little happier, complete with a soundtrack from Bobby McFerrin himself. But Bhutan did something no one expected — they turned the idea of GNH into a rigorous plan of action and came up with a set of substantive standards by which to measure the quality of life in a way that went constructively and creatively beyond money and wealth. The world stood up and took notice, and the United Nations soon adopted a slightly modified version of Bhutan’s plan as a way to measure the well-being of the world. It is the UN version, based as it is on Bhutan’s original plan, that is used for the now famous World Happiness Report that had its first outing in 2012 (more on which in a moment).

School sign in Bhutan: gho on the left, kira on the right

But how does the idea of GNH work in practice in Bhutan? One main aspect of GNH policy in Bhutan, to give but one example, focuses on the idea of culture. Participating in cultural life offers meaningful experience without substantial cost, so it is something that enhances quality of life regardless of economic status. In Bhutan, this takes the form of encouraging homes and other structures to be built in traditional Bhutanese style (which is quite beautiful), maintaining religious and cultural institutions, cultivating a wide variety of artistic expression, and even requiring the wearing of traditional clothing for various activities. For men, the traditional outfit is called the gho, while for women it is called the kira, both of which come in an impressive variety of patterns and colors. Schoolchildren must wear traditional outfits at school, government employees must do so while at work (including official tour guides), and citizens must wear appropriate cultural attire when voting, which they now do in their recently-established democratic system. It’s a little-known fact that, for men at least, wearing a gho is not the most comfortable thing in the world. Many a Bhutanese man looks forward to the moment when, at the end of the day, he can arrive home and, with a bit of happiness no doubt, finally remove the tight-fitting waist-band that is part of the ensemble.

The old with the new: Bhutan’s new IT centre, just outside of Thimphu, built in traditional style

Bhutan by way of Denmark

You may have heard of the World Happiness Report without realizing it — that’s the report that, for two years in a row now, has ranked Denmark as the happiest country in the world. If you are the sort of person that felt the Bern, at least before the Bern burned out and bowed down to the frigid conformity of mainstream American liberalism, you would know that Denmark was briefly touted as a model for America to follow. What you may not know is that the Danes were quite surprised by the news that they were the happiest nation on earth. It’s not that the Danes aren’t happy. Sure, their national language is named after a pastry (😎), but for every moment of sweetness in Danish life, along comes the ghost of Kierkegaard to remind you that sugar is really just salt’s evil twin. No, the thing about Denmark, and even most Danes would point this out, is that the people of Denmark are more likely to say they are content with things rather than genuinely happy.

That distinction makes all the difference in the world. Don’t get me wrong — Denmark is a wonderful place where things work well and no one really has to worry too much about what’s going to happen tomorrow. Tomorrow will work as well as today. But that blessing can also be something of a curse. If you’re always sure that tomorrow will work as well as today, it doesn’t take long for things to feel, well, sterile. Life becomes very predictable. That’s what being content is all about — when you’ve got no need and no desire to make things better, it really means you’re not unhappy, and that’s not the same thing as actually being happy.

The ubiquitous and happiness-inducing Ema datshi (chilies with cheese)

Bhutan on the other hand doesn’t fare as well as you might think in the World Happiness Report. For 2016, it ranked 84th in the world, just after China and just before Kyrgyzstan, which you might think makes Bhutan something of a failure at a game it created. But Bhutan doesn’t see it that way. Yes, they rank somewhere in the middle, and yes, they know it. But being somewhere in the middle means you’ve got work to do, and having work to do in the journey toward happiness can be a lot more satisfying than simply being content with the way things are.

Is Bhutan a utopia? No, but it never claimed it was or would be. What Bhutan does claim, however, is that it aspires to be better, and more importantly, that it acts on its aspirations. The secret of Bhutan is that a little unhappiness goes a long way in life. In the end, it’s not about being happy. It’s about learning the best ways to deal with unhappiness.