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In Bhutan, citizens’ happiness is the measure of the country’s development, rather than GDP. How ...
2021-07-01 09:00:00
healthy living

The Happiest Country in the World
Life in the Kingdom of Bhutan

Taktshang Goemba Monastery [Tiger’s Nest], Paro, Bhutan. Photo by Sagarnil Das/Getty Images
The Happiest Country in the World
The Happiest Country in the World

There was once a king who saved his people from delusions. Instead of wealth, he measured satisfaction with life. To this day, there are no advertisements or beggars in this land, but plenty of per capita satisfaction.

Read in 13 minutes

Half a century ago, the ruler of a small Himalayan kingdom proclaimed that the measure of his country’s development wouldn’t be gross domestic product, but national happiness. At the time, this was considered the whim of an eccentric, a despot. And yet, 30 years later, Time included Bhutan’s leader in a list of people who, with their imagination, talent and moral strength, are shaping and changing the world.

Jigme Singye Wangchuck was educated in India and Great Britain. He travelled extensively, so he learned about the world and the effects of poor states uncritically imitating the wealthy West. But Bhutan was not only poor: surrounded on three sides by powerful mountain massifs, and an impenetrable jungle on the fourth, it existed for centuries in almost complete isolation. Thanks to this, Bhutan retained its unique culture, but in terms of social and economic development, it stopped at the feudal stage. Too rapid a leap into modernity would lead to similar effects as in other countries: mass migration from villages to cities, the breakdown of local communities, the emergence of slum districts, unemployment, corruption, crime. No authority would be able to stop these processes, because no-one can dispel the fantasies of a better life. King Jigme Singye attempted to prevent delusions even before they emerged.

What the eyes don’t see…

“Life satisfaction does not only depend on material improvement and increasing wealth. Adopting such an attitude leads to the annihilation of many priceless values: tradition, culture, the environment, the heritage of our ancestors,” said the king following his coronation in 1972. He announced: “That is why we will only make decisions that, apart from money, will improve the sense of life satisfaction. National happiness is more important than gross domestic product.”

A school in Ura Village, Ura Valley, Bumthang, Bhutan. Photo by Peter Adams/Getty Images
A school in Ura Village, Ura Valley, Bumthang, Bhutan. Photo by Peter Adams/Getty Images

When he spoke these words, there was no television, schools, industrial plants or hospitals in his country; no newspapers were published. Just 10 years previously, the first asphalt road had been built, reducing the journey time from the Indian border to the city of Paro to six hours. Earlier, the passage through forests, swamps and mountains took a week. At the beginning of the 20th century, British colonial administrators in the Indian tea state of Assam reported to London: “Nobody wants to venture into the tangle of rivers, wetlands and malaric hills full of mosquitoes, flies, and leeches. Even the bravest explorers avoid such places.”

With the opening of the first road, the first car entered the capital Thimphu. Residents, who had never seen a mode of transport aside from animals, assumed that the strange creature needed food, and brought it hay bundles. A few months later, the Interior Minister received the country’s first jeep and instructed the driver on how to care for this valuable vehicle. He told his inferiors to drive exclusively in the first gear, and when that wore out, to use the second gear, then the third…

Today these stories are just anecdotes, but Bhutan is still perhaps the only country in the world where there is no traffic light system. In 1983, the first plane landed at Paro airport. There was no hay, but no Bhutanese person would board without first consulting an astrologer. Most do it to this day. If the prophecy is bad, and the trip cannot be cancelled, you need to cheat destiny. The easiest way is to pack your bags the day before, go out with them, and then come back after a few minutes, as if you abandoned your travel plans. Then you can really set off on the set date. I was assured that everyone uses this trick, including government ministers.

These few examples show what a cultural shock it would be for Bhutan to suddenly open up to the world, or even let some of it in through the medium of television. The first TV programme was broadcast in the last year of the 20th century. “The king gave us time to familiarize with modern civilization and become resistant to its temptations,” Pema Denkar of the Bhutan Times explained to me. “As long as you don’t see how others live, you don’t feel any lack, and you can be happy despite being poor.” Therefore, in the first years of his reign, the king allowed only 200 foreigners to enter the country each year. At the beginning of the 21st century, he increased this number to 20,000. Currently, this limit has been lifted, but the authorities continue to control the number of visitors by introducing additional fees and regulations (for example, environmental). National television still doesn’t show ads that tell viewers that true happiness can only come from the purchase of a snack or perfume.

The breakdown of autocracy

In our culture, politicians and economists fetishize the growth rate of domestic product (GDP), surrounding it with an almost godly reverence. This indicator reduces millions of statistics to one figure that everyone can understand. GDP was developed after the great crisis of 1929 by economist Simon Kuznets in order to objectively assess the health of the American economy. In a special memorandum to Congress, however, he warned: “National income should not be confused with the prosperity of the nation.”

His caution was ignored, and GDP growth came to be widely regarded as synonymous with improved prosperity. But these are not synonyms, as is particularly evident now during the COVID-19 crisis, when the sense of comfort and life satisfaction has undoubtedly decreased much more than the few percent decrease in GDP. Once restrictions are lifted, the situation will reverse and the level of life satisfaction will increase at a faster rate than even the fastest-growing economy.

King Jigme Singye was the first politician to break out of the GDP tyranny. He replaced it with the controversially-named Gross National Happiness (GNH) index. The few economists who heard of this idea brushed it off – how can one possibly measure something as immeasurable as happiness? The Bhutanese people I asked about this replied that one doesn’t need to measure anything, because it can be felt. Pema Denkar quoted a fragment from official documents: “Our doctrine of national happiness is based on four pillars: good governance, the protection of cultural heritage, the protection of the environment and equitable raising of our citizens’ living standards.”

It sounded like a cliché repeated by politicians in every corner of the world. Except that in Bhutan, actions follow the words – and they really do speak for themselves. I drove across the country and did not meet a single beggar, drug addict or a homeless person; I didn’t see slums or concrete apartment blocks. No officials or security service followed me; I could talk to whomever I wanted to about anything I wanted. The only barrier was language, but there was always someone speaking English nearby. I found the answer to the most intriguing question with the Gross National Happiness Commission. It turned out that the level of happiness can indeed be measured, and it can be measured with precision.

Converted liberals

Every two years, the Commission conducts a nationwide survey. Respondents answer nearly 300 questions divided into six categories: economic (income, employment, prices), political (assessment of local and central authorities), social (sense of security, family situation, equality before the law), environmental (clean air and water, noise pollution), physical condition (level of medical care, state of health) and spiritual (religious practices, participation in rites, celebration of holidays). Interviewers ask about such details as the frequency of seeking advice from an astrologer, the amount of time spent telling children or grandchildren fairy tales, watching films and playing sports (especially the national discipline: archery).

Archery (‘dha’) is the national sport of Bhutan. A tournament in Phobjikha Valley. Photo by Andrew Peacock/Getty Images
Archery (‘dha’) is the national sport of Bhutan. A tournament in Phobjikha Valley. Photo by Andrew Peacock/Getty Images

Each response is assigned a certain number of points; the data is processed by a computer programme and compared with the results of previous years. In this way, the percentage increase or decrease in gross national happiness is determined. According to the Commission, this rate is steadily increasing in Bhutan. The biggest drawback of GNH is the inability to compare the level of happiness in other nations using the same method. Bhutanese officials estimate that their country ranks in the top 30.

The UN World Happiness Report hasn’t confirmed this. Scandinavian countries regularly come first. In the latest edition, Poland ranked 44th. Bhutan was not included due to the pandemic, but it came 97th in 2018 and 95th in 2019.

The Bhutan Times found that this was not accurate, and reminded readers who proposed the competitive list for the traditional GDP-per capita ranking. In 2011, Bhutan’s representative at the UN called for a change in the way in which prosperity is measured; one that would take into account, besides material factors, the quality of life and feelings of happiness. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on the governments of Member States to take an interest in this proposal. A few months later, economists from more than a dozen renowned universities met in the Bhutanese capital Thimphu and decided to prepare the first World Happiness Report. Ever since, the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network has announced it annually. It was headed by Jeffrey Sachs (who in the 1990s supported Leszek Balcerowicz in liberalizing the Polish economy), and 10 years ago, after visiting the extremely illiberal Bhutan, confessed: “I have just returned from Bhutan, the Himalayan kingdom of unmatched natural beauty, cultural richness, and inspiring self-reflection.”

The World Happiness Report is based on indicators such as GDP per capita, technological advancement, life expectancy, value of social assistance, sense of security, rights and civil liberties. The first two mean that Bhutan – with a GDP per capita almost 40 times lower than Luxembourg, 15 times lower than Finland (ranking leader) and five times lower than Poland – performs very poorly in this ranking. But in life satisfaction studies conducted by researchers at the University of Leicester, Bhutan came eighth. This study ignores purely material criteria and focuses on what the Bhutanese ruler considers to be the pillars of national happiness. In these categories, the Himalayan kingdom can compete with the best.

Green and colourful

If the visions of environmentalists have materialized, it would primarily be in Bhutan. The 2008 Constitution requires that at least 60% of the country’s area be covered by forests. This has eliminated the threat of pilfering trees, from which the jungles of the Amazon and Borneo are not protected. This provision is rigorously respected. Forests still occupy about 70% of Bhutan’s surface, more than 40% of which are areas under additional protection, such as through he status of national park or reserve. The government does not issue permits for the construction of industrial plants and mines that could contribute to environmental damage.

At the 2015 Paris Climate Conference, Bhutan’s representative announced that his country would prevent a situation whereby the volume of carbon dioxide emissions exceeds the capacity of local forests to absorb it. The carbon neutrality that the richest countries are just introducing has already been achieved by Bhutan!

The countrywide smoking ban is another element of this strategy. Foreigners can observe their addiction in a secluded place, but risk a fine for offering cigarettes to the locals. Cultural heritage is protected just as judiciously as nature. The Indian-Bhutanese border passes through a town named Jaigaon on one side and Phuentsholing on the other. One only needs to enter through the so-called gate of Bhutan to enter a completely different world. Jeans, flip-flops and T-shirts vanish and instead you can see colourful national, traditional clothings, which the Buthanese are obliged to wear by the 1988 Driglam Namzha law, which can be translated as ‘Principles of etiquette and good manners’.

There are no penalties for violating the order, but those who do not comply with it will not be employed in government offices or even be served, nor will they be able enter Buddhist temples. Men wear gho, or a white jacket with long, folded-back cuffs. When tied at the waist by a cloth belt, a large pocket is created at the breast, where money, documents, a mobile phone and other necessary items can be kept. Black knee-high socks and dress shoes complement the outfit. On public holidays, the men hang a long, wide scarf tied on the right side over their left shoulder. This is an important part of Bhutanese dress, as its colour indicates the status of the owner. Only the king has the right to wear a saffron shawl. His family members wear red, ministers wear blue, and ordinary citizens wear white.

Taktshang Goemba Monastery [Tiger’s Nest], Paro, Bhutan. Photo by Sagarnil Das/Getty Images
Taktshang Goemba Monastery [Tiger’s Nest], Paro, Bhutan. Photo by Sagarnil Das/Getty Images

The women’s outfit is kira – an ankle-length dress from a rectangular piece of woven fabric, wrapped and folded around the body and pinned at both shoulders with decorative brooches, complemented by a colourful blouse, a short jacket and a strand of beads. These original costumes give Bhutanese streets a unique look and blend perfectly with the equally traditional architecture.

Democratic absolutism

A typical Bhutanese house – the construction of other types of houses is not permitted – consists of three levels. The ground floor was once a room for livestock and storage for agricultural tools, the first floor was living space, and the second floor – with partially exposed walls – was for drying hay, meat, cheese, etc. All buildings are decorated with intricately carved shingles, door- and window frames.

Nothing has changed in the villages; in cities, the ground floors of buildings now house shops and workshops instead of livestock. The interior can be decorated freely, but from the outside even the most modern buildings must reference the national tradition.

King Jigme Singye also lived in such a traditional house in the middle of a forest. He demonstrated what he meant by ‘good governance’ in a way that is completely unintelligible for the majority of contemporary politicians. He was an absolute sovereign, seen by his subjects as a divine being. When he visited mountain villages, he sat with the locals at a common table, who – following the meal – collected the leftover crumbs as if they were relics. No one dared to question his will. He ruled without disruption until his death, but earlier he announced that the fate of the country could not depend on one man. And despite social resistance, he did limit his powers.

Not only did he furnish Bhutan with its first-ever constitution, but he also introduced an article allowing the removal of a king who had let down his subjects. Of course, it could have simply been an autocrat’s trick, but Jigme Singye did not cheat his people. He personally demanded that the constitution include an article ordering the ruler to retire at the age of 65.

Later, he forced high-ranking state officials to form political parties and conduct the first elections in the history of Bhutan. At first, this was such a novelty that the opposition leader began his speeches with a public apology for criticizing the government while the situation in the country was rather good. His party won just two seats in the 47-seat parliament, but political reform became a fact. Bhutan has evolved from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional one and has taken its first steps towards democracy.

After this one-of-a-kind, anti-royal revolution induced against the king’s subjects, Jigme Singye could have reigned until retirement – that is, until 2020. However, he decided that his most important goal was achieved, and without waiting for the elections, on 14th December 2006, he handed over power to his son. He moved to a modest country estate to enjoy what he called gross national happiness: peace, family, and proximity to nature.

Less is more

The new king, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, continues his father’s policy and cautiously modernizes the country. Changes are already visible everywhere, even in Buddhist monasteries. At the sanctuary in Trashigang, where I was allowed to enter, I saw monks staring at a TV. The doctrine of national happiness also applies to them. Not everyone has to practice asceticism and pass the difficult test of spending three years, three months, three weeks and three days in complete seclusion. A popular saying is that today you know a real monk if he has a shaved head, purple robes, and a mobile phone in his hand.

Like everywhere else, everyone uses smartphones. More and more Bhutanese people dream of having a car – and more and more people have one. Society is therefore beginning to diversify in terms of wealth, but the doctrine of national happiness still protects them from the temptations of the ‘rat race’.

Bhutan has its problems; it is not the mythical land of Shangri-La, where everyone lives happily ever after. Its king, however, was able to translate the most important principle of Buddhism into the language of modern politics: the fewer desires and wants, the less we suffer. Jigme Singye wasn’t a fanatic; he never intended to take away the people’s right to dream of a better, more prosperous life. But he wanted these desires to be adapted to the level of the country’s development and for people to be able to satisfy them.

In realizing this idea, the ruler of one of the smallest and poorest countries turned out to be a global visionary. Yet we are still waiting for many of the leaders of much richer countries to recognize that sustainable development measured in gross national happiness is more important than the GDP.


Translated from the Polish by Joanna Figiel

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