South of the Himalayas, a tranquil and mystical Buddhist kingdom of 700,000 stands happily and detached from the outside world. This is the picture of Bhutan that we see portrayed online. Snow-covered peaks, simple farm houses flanked by rice paddies and shrines, sunlight filtering through the eaves of low-lying clouds. This idyllic realm is not dominated by its GDP or economic growth, happiness of the people is their priority. Yet how is it possible to remain happy without wealth? We had to see for ourselves.
When we first arrived in Bhutan, I was surprised to find what appeared to be another Yunnan, another Shangri-La. The low-altitude rice fields in Phunaka felt like Ta Cheng. The high-altitude Gangtey is a winter retreat for Black Necked Cranes, just like Napa Lake in Deqen. Kids played happily with rocks on the sidewalk. Our guide explained there wasn’t much to do during school holidays and they’re often left at grandma’s house, just like the children of migrant workers in China who’s parents stay in the big cities to work and are too busy to look after them.
Things seemed so familiar, at least to me, a Yunnan native. So why bother coming to Bhutan? Because their concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) truly brings a different dimension which is unique to this land.
One of our clients, Mr. Shang summed it up nicely. “It’s like a picture that ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi once described about true happiness, ‘savoring your own food, admiring your own clothing, being content in your own home, finding joy in your own customs’. You can witness all of this here in Bhutan.”
Harvard MBA alumna Ms. Hai also sensed this unique contentment. “I don’t have many specific memories of Bhutan, but I remember a strong sense of contentment and happiness throughout the entire nation which was truly compelling. It makes you crave the same thing, that satisfaction with life. Their satisfaction isn’t a result of being sheltered in their own world, or living in an undeveloped environment, Bhutanese are very well educated and their media is not censored. But even after seeing what the outside world offers, they choose the simple life.”
In their contentment, they are also compassionate. This scene of strangers offering help in a time of need is commonly seen everyday life in Bhutan.
An American friend of mine living Bhutan shared this story of compassion he experienced from the Royal Family. 14 years later, he still resides in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu.
What exactly is GNH? There are multiple factors that come into play. The Bhutanese government outlines 9 official criteria, with 33 factors. Every one of them is equally important.
- 1. Psychological Wellbeing (The satisfactory level of life, positive and negative emotions, intelligence)
- 2. Standard of Living (family income, equity and assets, housing situation)
- 3. Good Governance (Political participation, political freedom, services, government achievements)
- 4. Health (physical health, days of wellbeing, disability, mental health)
- 5. Education (literacy, knowledge, value system)
- 6. Community Vitality (social support, social relationships, family, crime)
- 7. Cultural Diversity and Resilience (language, skills and artery, social culture and participation, harmony)
- 8. Time Use (working time, sleeping time)
- 9. Ecological Diversity and Resilience (Pollution, environmental responsibility, wildlife, city and urbanization)
Standard of living (wealth) is only one of the 9 factors of happiness and ranks equally as important as the rest. I do see how a good eight-hours of sleep every night is important to happiness. It is no wonder that everywhere we went, the Bhutanese people seemed to be content. A WildChina client, Ms. Gao, observed that however remotely you venture into rural Bhutan, kids are still dressed in clean school uniforms, with the purest smiles on their faces.
This simple life in Bhutan reflects what China had once upon a time. However beyond it there is a contrasting story of a modernizing Bhutan. Bhutanese culture is being influenced by Indian and Western cultures; the young flood into cities for new opportunities; real estate developers build high-rises for the rich; exports of clean Bhutanese products are traded for processed junk food from India, endangering the environment.
GNH skeptics believe that it’s a savvy marketing tool for the government to make money from tourism. Although they do not doubt the contentment and compassion of the people, they believe it may be better attributed to their strong belief of Buddhism.
Is Bhutan truly a happier place because of GNH? There are many ways to look at it, but whatever way one may choose, a visit to Bhutan will be sure to prompt pondering on the idea of happiness, refining or even redefining our understanding of the word. It may be a short moment of enlightenment, or a life changing epiphany. There are many stories to explore, simple yet touching, and because of these narratives, these people, Bhutan is Bhutan.
Because of this, I will continue to go back time after time. And because there are ever more stories to discover, we would like to invite you to join us.