On Friday evenings in Thimphu, the capital of Bhutan, men, women, and children throng the main street, flowing together in a slow dance. Swaggering teenage boys, arms slung over each other’s shoulders, speak in surprisingly gentle voices. Stray dogs assertively cohabit the city. One often hears singing—on sidewalks, pouring out of windows, on construction sites. The melodies persist in the undulating countryside, where men engaged in matches of archery or darts break into congratulatory chants when the other side scores.
Article 9 of the Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan says: “The State shall strive to promote those circumstances that will enable the successful pursuit of Gross National Happiness.” In the fall of 2012, I traveled to this simple, complicated, lavishly lovely place to find out how GNH, as the policy is known, plays out in real life. My intention was to glean what makes for happiness in a fast-changing society where Buddhism is deeply rooted but where the temptations and collateral damage of affluence are rising. Bhutanese have practiced happiness, reflected upon it, debated it, dissected it, and legislated it—and they seemed to me, on the whole, happier than Americans. But if for no other reason than the nature of impermanence, that may soon change.
Sandwiched between the world’s two most populous countries, India and China, Bhutan is half the size of Indiana, has a population of about 740,000, and has never been colonized. The land rises from 300 feet in the southern lowlands to more than 24,000 feet in the mountains—some sacred and unclimbed—bordering the Tibet Autonomous Region. Bhutan is the only country in the world where Vajrayana Buddhism—deity-dense, merit-based, karma-focused—is the official religion, the only country in the world where Dzongkha—the soft, sibilant tongue closely related to Tibetan—is the national language. The four most common household assets are a rice cooker, a curry cooker, a water boiler, and a religious altar.
Bhutan’s constitution stipulates that 60 percent of the country must remain under forest cover forever; today, despite breakneck urbanization, that figure is 80 percent. The government bans plastic bags. Capital punishment was abolished in 2004. Bhutanese take off 16 public holidays and numerous local festival days. And the country is a global biodiversity hotspot.
Yet Bhutan is also rich in contradictions—paradoxes that undermine the promise of GNH. The country prohibits tobacco advertising, smoking in public places, and the sale or illegal possession of tobacco products, but there was a public outcry in 2011 when a 23-year-old monk received a three-year jail sentence for smuggling in $2.50 worth of chewing tobacco. Leaders have vowed to grow 100 percent organic crops, but most agricultural products are imported from India. The government strives for economic development, but offers few incentives for small, self-owned businesses, which are culturally perceived as ungenerous toward the collective. Bhutan has strict seat belt and anti-litter laws, but most citizens flout them. Homosexuality is illegal, but no one is arrested.
In Bhutan, every conversation about GNH became at some point definitional. Can a nation be happy if individuals are not? Can individuals be happy if others suffer? Will the country’s traditional foundations of happiness erode, to be replaced by a surfeit of stuff?
In the capital, many told me, happiness is increasingly being defined as consumerism. “People in Thimphu are getting competitive. If he has a house, I want a house. If he has a car, I want a car,” said a young Ministry of Health worker. “The ones who are making money think GNH is good. The ones who aren’t think GNH is bad.”
But in rural Bhutan, older villagers’ definition of happiness is starkly different. On the way to Punakha Dzong, the resplendent 17th-century monastery/fortress, I spoke (through a translator) with 79-year-old Sangay Lham, a smiling, gray-haired woman dressed in a checkered kira and fine silver brooch, selling fruit by the side of the road. What, I asked, does GNH mean to her? “As long as we have fire when we need it, water when we need it, warm food on the table, tasty curry, what else do we need?” she said. “Happiness is to be good at heart.”
“We talk about the economy, but the core Buddhist understanding of GNH, the reality of GNH here, is the realization of compassion,” said Lama Ngodup Dorji, a man with a beatific face who is the seventeenth member of his family over 15 generations to head the Shingkhar Dechenling monastery. I met him in Thimphu at the offices of the affiliated Ati Foundation, which gives economic assistance to poor citizens and rural communities. The foundation is housed in a brand-new glass-clad building with polished marble floors and an Italian restaurant on the second floor. The weather had turned chilly, and Dorji was wearing a down vest over his red robes. Happiness, he said, warming his hands around a fresh cup of coffee, is a choice. “You have to brew it in yourself. Even from a lump of food, we choose each grain to suit our need. Likewise, in the philosophical manner, we choose to be who we are.”
If the word “materialism” is earnestly bandied about here, much as it was in America during the counterculture half a century ago, it’s largely because, until quite recently, Bhutan was a medieval society.
In 1960, virtually the entire nation was rural. Thimphu, a collection of peasant hamlets situated in a valley on the banks of the Wang Chu river, became the official capital only in 1961. Average life expectancy was 33 years. The gross national product per person was $51. (By contrast, that same year in the United States, a comparable measure—gross domestic product per capita—was $2,935.) There was no centralized government administration. Agriculture was subsistence—people bred animals and cultivated only as much from the land as they needed. There were no roads and no motor vehicles—mules, yaks, and horses were the principal modes of transport. There was no electricity, no telecommunications network, and no postal system. Foreign visitors were not permitted. Bhutan had only four hospitals and two qualified doctors.
“The ones who are making money think GNH is good. The ones who aren’t think GNH is bad.”
Then everything started to change. The first paved road was completed in 1962. Schools and hospitals were built. Citizens gained free healthcare and free education. Internet and a national TV station arrived in 1999. Today, life expectancy stands at 67.6 years. Eighty-six percent of people ages 15 to 24 are literate. Per capita income is just under $3,000. More than 100,000 tourists visited the country in 2012. Ninety-three percent of households own a cell phone. About a third of the population is urban, and the government predicts that figure could rise to 70 percent by 2020.
This rapid development has brought new problems and exacerbated old ones. In Thimphu, there are 700 bars and one public library. The long-hidden issue of domestic violence has exploded in public discourse. Urbanization has put a strain on housing and sanitation. The economy is stagnant, the private sector is on the verge of collapse, and inflation is soaring. Youth unemployment is up, and along with it formerly rare violations such as drug abuse and vandalism. The country struggles with a dire shortage of doctors and nurses. When a recent government survey asked respondents how their welfare could be most improved, their top answers registered the stubborn needs of a developing nation, GNH or not: roads, water, commerce, transportation, and communications.
In Bhutan, which is ranked 140 of 186 countries in the 2012 UN Human Development Index, the question is how the nation can become modern without losing its soul.
When first conceived, Gross National Happiness was the enlightened guiding principle of development at a time when Bhutan was starting to emerge from cultural isolation and material deprivation. Since 1907, Bhutan had been ruled by a lineage of progressive monarchs. The most visionary of these was the Fourth Dragon King, a somber-looking man named Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who took the throne at 16 after his father’s death in 1972. Two years later, shortly after his coronation, the teenager coined the witty phrase Gross National Happiness. In 2006, as a logical extension of the policy, Wangchuck announced that he was voluntarily giving up the throne to make way for a parliamentary democracy in the form of a constitutional monarchy.
The Fourth King’s conception of Gross National Happiness rested on four “pillars”: good governance, sustainable socioeconomic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. The humanity of GNH is seen in the roomy definitions of what are known as the policy’s nine “domains”: good governance; psychological well-being; balanced time use; community vitality; health; education; culture; living standards; and ecological diversity and resilience. “Living standard” refers not merely to per capita income but also to meaningful work. “Environment” includes not only the measured quality of water, air, and soil but also how people perceive the quality of their natural surroundings. “Community vitality” reflects not only crime but also volunteerism.
To learn how these ideas play out in policy, I visited Karma Tshiteem, who at the time was Secretary of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission. I had first met Tshiteem at an April 2012 United Nations conference on GNH. He sat at my lunch table and impressed me as a jokester and a sharp observer—the class cut-up who was also the smartest student. Now, as we sat over tea in a modestly furnished anteroom to his office, he wore on his right hip an incongruous ceremonial sword, a reminder of his responsibility to the people.
I asked Tshiteem if a GNH society was really possible, and mentioned that though smoking is illegal in Bhutan’s public places, I had seen kids lighting up. “That’s OK,” he said. “There is no one ideal GNH human being. And we are not trying to define a GNH person. We posit GNH, but it doesn’t mean we won’t have these outliers and we will not have a problem with youth, because youth is a time of exploration and rebellion. GNH doesn’t mean that everything has to be picture-perfect all the time.”
In Bhutan, major policy proposals go through a GNH screening tool that has real teeth. In 2008, for example, GNH Commission officials were enthusiastic about joining the World Trade Organization. A preliminary vote showed 19–5 in favor of joining, based solely on economic criteria. But when the proposal was fed through the GNH policy-screening tool, which assesses draft policies based on their impact on GNH’s nine domains, the downsides far outweighed the benefits. Among other things, WTO membership would have compelled the green-centric and health-conscious country to open its economy to a phalanx of junk food franchises such as McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza. A second vote was taken, and the proposal lost 19–5. Bhutan did not join the WTO.
“What this tells us is that the decisions we make are very much influenced by the frameworks we use,” said Tshiteem. “When you use the same framework that every other government uses, even Bhutanese arrive at the same conclusions. But when we brought in the GNH framework, which made them think deeply about all the other aspects that are important, suddenly they did not see this as such a great idea. One of the results from the screening tool was that WTO membership would raise the level of stress. That’s something that would never be measured in the United States in anything having to do with economics.”
Every two years, Bhutan conducts a fine-grained survey that captures the texture of citizens’ lives and their sense of rootedness in the traditional culture. Among the questions: Do you consider karma in the course of your daily life? Is lying justifiable? Do you feel like a stranger in your family? How much do you trust your neighbor? The survey asks respondents if they know the names of their great-grandparents; if men make better leaders than women (gender equality is preached but not achieved); if they planted trees in the past year; how they rate their total household income (in 2010, 71 percent said “just enough” and 20.3 percent said “more than enough”); if they think Bhutanese have become more concerned about material wealth (87.8 percent said yes); if they feel safe from ghosts (“rarely,” 20 percent said).
Respondents are considered “happy” if they achieve “sufficiency” in at least six of the nine domains, not outsized achievement in one domain at the expense of another. As Tshiteem reminded me, in Buddhism happiness is balance. “You can’t make up for lack of personal time with community vitality—you cannot. Because each domain, in itself, is a necessary condition,” he explained.
In the 2010 survey, 40.8 percent of survey respondents in the land of Gross National Happiness tested happy.
The Centre for Bhutan Studies has devised a formula that purports to boil down national happiness into a single number:
GNH=1– (Hn x An)
Hn = percent of not-yet-happy people
= 1 – Hh or (100 – percent of happy people)
An = percentage of domains in which not-yet-happy people lack sufficiency
In 2010, the most recent survey, that calculation turned out to be 0.743—which means . . . well, I don’t know. It did seem to contravene what one Bhutanese friend remarked: “Isn’t it the simplest thing that makes you happy? Isn’t it the most complex thing that doesn’t make you happy?”
Around the world, happiness indexes are proliferating, but in Bhutan, the question of measuring happiness is divisive. Even the GNH Commission’s Karma Tshiteem disagreed with the idea of boiling down population-wide happiness into a number. “There is this misconception that, with our clever index and indicators, we are trying to measure happiness.” Rather, he said, Bhutan’s GNH parameters should be used like the gauges on a car’s dashboard, alerting leaders to problems. Others say that Bhutan wasn’t interested in measurement until the UN and World Bank caught wind of the idea, and the country faced international pressure to come up with hard numbers.
Former Prime Minister Jigme Y. Thinley conceded that Bhutan’s hand was initially forced by outsiders. In an election upset in 2013, he and his ruling Peace and Prosperity party were voted out, in part because of the country’s decline in that second P. “What the modern world wanted was a system of measures, indicators quantifying everything,” he told me. “At first, yes, I was not very happy with this, because the pressure was on Bhutan to adopt . . . the attitude of the material world: anything that is good must be measurable. And what is measurable and quantifiable has a price to it.
“Bhutan has achieved what it has, not because we had the facility of metrics. We simply believed in the idea of happiness being the meaning and purpose of life.”
“I thought it was demeaning the sublime value that human society should be pursuing. And I also worried that developing metrics could lead to pursuing what is measurable and what is quantifiable, thereby risking the possibility of leaving out what is not quantifiable—but may be far more meaningful and far more important to creating the conditions for happiness.”
Thinley changed his mind and acceded to the data-driven West, partly because he felt Bhutan’s evolving instruments to assess well-being did, in fact, extract the essence of GNH. But, he added, “Bhutan has achieved what it has, not because we had the facility of metrics. We simply believed in the idea of happiness being the meaning and purpose of life.”
Tshering Tobgay was Bhutan’s opposition leader in Parliament when I visited him. Today, he is Prime Minister. A tall, strapping man with a shaved head, his physical energy is barely contained. Soft-spoken, Harvard-educated, Tobgay at times answered each of my queries with a broader question. At other times, he was bracingly candid.
In American politics, Tobgay would probably be slotted as a libertarian brain with a communitarian heart. He heads the People’s Democratic Party, which believes in smaller government, decentralized power, and a strong business sector—another seeming contradiction in the land of Gross National Happiness, where the governing policy stresses nonmaterial values.
Outside Bhutan, GNH enjoys great cachet in liberal circles, as dozens of cities and countries dip their toes in the philosophy. Bhutan’s tourist logo, “Happiness Is a Place,” makes it a prized destination for spiritual-minded vacationers. But Tobgay is skeptical about the Western left’s glorification of Bhutan—“the people who tout and market Bhutan as a living Shangri-la.”
As he put it, “Bhutan is small, nonthreatening. This can be very cute. And people who are frustrated are desperately looking for alternate paradigms. . . . I want to tell them: Don’t misuse our philosophy for your own political agenda.” To illustrate, he mentioned an American working for a corporation in Bhutan who writes a blog about the country. “He recently took a picture of the only baggage carousel in the airport—and he is shocked. He is mortified to find that it’s packed with flat-screen LCD television sets. About three years ago, a whole team from Brazil—Brazil is very enamored by GNH—came here. They called me for an interview. And the anchor immediately pounced on me. She said, ‘We were disappointed. The airport was packed with television sets.’ My answer to that lady, my answer to the American, and my answer to you is: who on earth said Bhutan is a monastery?”
Each of Buddhism’s Four Immeasurables—lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity—has a “far enemy” and a “near enemy.” The far enemy is the virtuous mind’s polar opposite—cruelty is the far enemy of compassion, for example. But the near enemy is trickier to root out, because while it seems wholesome, it is tinged with “mental poisons,” or destructive emotions. The near enemy of compassion, for instance, is pity.
Traveling through Bhutan, I kept thinking that the near enemy of the country’s generosity and pride and abundant sense of time is complacency. Many of my contacts there also seemed disquieted by this shadow side of their benign culture. As a reader observed in The Bhutanese, “The truth is that GNH or no GNH we still struggle with our daily problems of corruption, indifference, and our general tendency to slack away at everything we do and give it the name of GNH.”
Until recently, the Royal Civil Service was the largest employer of the educated, and these undemanding office jobs were coveted. Despite a religion steeped in the idea of impermanence, citified Bhutanese had come to rely on permanent government employment and benefits. Now, however, government payrolls can no longer accommodate new college graduates. “We have been spoiled,” one official told me. Or as a long-term expatriate here explained, “The people have been infantilized. There is a sense of entitlement that is a time bomb for society.”
Bhutanese proudly abjure blue-collar work. In the construction sites that dominate the urban landscape, it is almost entirely Indians who hammer and saw, pour cement and lug rebar. And it is mostly Indians and Nepalese who make up the road crews that labor in broiling sun and biting cold with crude hand tools, repairing the damage from landslides. (The Bhutanese Citizenship Act of 1985—which raised the threshold for citizenship and erected bureaucratic hurdles for naturalization—hurt the Nepali-speaking residents of southern Bhutan, tens of thousands of whom were forced to move to refugee camps in Nepal. Oddly, the controversy is more conversationally alive in the West than in Bhutan itself, where people have been kept in the dark about the painful events of that time.)
“There are plenty of jobs, but the graduates don’t want to take them because they think the job is low for them,” a teenage boy told me. “They want to achieve greatness at a single step. They want to go to office carrying briefcases and laptops. They see people carrying iPhones and they want to carry them, too.”
In 2000 there was one newspaper in Bhutan—the government-run Kuensel. Today there are 11, though nearly all are struggling to survive on low ad revenue. More than 84,000 Bhutanese are on Facebook and 5,000 on Twitter. Lively blogs command thousands of followers. And GNH is jokingly said to stand for Gross National Haranguing or Gross National Harassment.
Democracy has helped the Bhutanese find their voices. As a result, some have conceived an admiration—perhaps reverse idealism—for the United States, which they perceive as culturally more upfront and politically more transparent. This is especially true of those who have lived in the States. “What I liked about people there is they don’t have a double standard,” said Chimi Wangmo, the feminist who directs the anti–domestic violence group RENEW, which stands for Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women.
As Wangmo knows well, domestic violence has been shrouded in silence. Bhutan’s 2010 Multiple Indicator Survey found that 68.4 percent of women ages 15 to 49 “believed that a man was justified in hitting or beating his wife if the woman was not respecting the ‘family norms’ such as going out without telling a husband, neglecting a child, burning the food or refusing to have sex with him.” When she began lobbying lawmakers for a bill banning domestic violence, Wangmo was met with incredulity. Opponents insisted that there couldn’t be domestic violence in Bhutan, because “Bhutan is a GNH nation.” She countered their tautologies with facts, inviting legislators to RENEW’s headquarters to view photographs and videos of battered women. (In February 2013, the National Council passed the Domestic Violence Prevention Bill.)
“Bhutan must come out of self-denial: It is not a Shangri-la,” said Wangmo. “No matter how much we flaunt GNH, no matter how much we picture ourselves as a happiness country, the hard reality remains that we are among the most backward, poorest countries in the world. GNH is a beautiful concept. But we could do better than this—not just talking about GNH, but living it. It’s basically fundamental human rights, which the Western countries have done much, much better than us.”
With Gross National Happiness, Bhutan has turned the metrics of the material into the metrics of the spirit. At the moment, however, the country is poised between centuries-long traditions and an understandable rush toward the security and comforts that the affluent West takes for granted. Will these ambitions subvert the poetic possibilities of GNH?
While preparing for my trip, I had read a number of blogs from Bhutan. One in particular struck me as smart and eloquent, authored by someone who deeply understood this cultural turning point. “Land of the Thunder Dragon” is written by Yeshey Dorji, a government bureaucrat-turned entrepreneur-turned-nature-photographer.
I met Dorji on the street in front of my hotel in Thimphu. Tall and bespectacled, dressed in jeans and a black quilted Patagonia jacket, he was gracious, impatient, cantankerous, and funny as hell. Everyone seemed to know and respect him. Wherever we went in Thimphu, people greeted him with a smile or came up to talk politics or gossip, and I thought of him as the unofficial mayor.
Dorji is highly attuned to the poignancy of impending loss. “We have jumped from one very strange period to another very strange period,” he explained. “Today, people have all the time in the world to talk to you. It’s not productive, but it’s the human side of life. Soon, development will change all that. Bhutanese people will be abrupt, fast-moving. They will no longer be Bhutanese.”
Yet he also believes that Bhutan could learn from the American example. “Times have changed. We have to change ourselves. But we aren’t willing to do that. I am convinced the Bhutanese mentality needs a makeover—total. We keep complaining about how fast your life is in New York. But without the development of that culture, you wouldn’t be where you are.” What he admires about American culture are its energy, innovation, drive, curiosity, cosmopolitanism, ambition—qualities, in fact, that are conspicuous in Dorji himself and have enabled him to be a shrewd observer/participant in his homeland.
Like many people I met here, Dorji feels caught between two ideals: the past perfect and the future perfect—that is, the Bhutan that was serenely remote and the Bhutan that somehow will negotiate modernity. “Development changes the way people move, talk, think, the way they look at value. If you keep the same old habits, then you can’t change the Bhutanese,” he said. “But the moment you change the Bhutanese, you’ve probably lost GNH.”
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.