The road through central Bhutan rises through frost-dusted evergreens reaching a pass where travelers pause to take in the Himalayas majestically stretching across the north. Steep forests descend into valleys coursing with crystalline rivers and pine-scented air. The wind howls down the canyons furiously flapping prayer flags, and setting temple chimes to sing.
Shades of Shangri-La?
Perhaps, but don’t tell the Bhutanese that.
Bhutan as a mystical kingdom, trouble-free and blissful, lives in the imagination of the West, Dorji Penjore says. Penjore is an anthropologist who has been researching Bhutan’s biggest soft-power export: “gross national happiness.”
He says “GNH” is an attempt to live in a way that’s “holistic,” not restricted to merely measuring economics like the gross domestic product, or GDP.
When Bhutan’s prime minister introduced GNH to a United Nations forum as a paradigm for alternative development in 1998, it turned heads, and spawned a global industry in happiness. Think tanks dissected it, and governments grappling with improving social policies took a serious look.
After the 2008 financial crisis, Penjore says, “People started to question the viability of Western liberal capitalism, the corporate world, and we were bombarded” with questions.
Today, experts and dignitaries attend World Happiness Summits. The U.N. has declared a World Happiness Day. Students enroll in happiness courses. Yale reported its most popular class ever this year: how to live a happy life. And this past week, the Delhi school system announced it is adding happiness to its curriculum — citing Bhutan.
Yet when the United Nations released a report ranking countries by happiness last year, Bhutan was nowhere near the top. Norway took the crown. The U.S. ranked 14th. Beautiful Bhutan came 97th.
Still, the landlocked South Asian kingdom intends to keep a close measure of the public mood, and it’s famous for it.
Divining gross national happiness is a matter of minutely categorizing and carefully tracking the lives of Bhutan’s 800,000 citizens. Every five years under the direction of the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research, survey-takers fan out across the country to conduct questionnaires of some 8,000 randomly selected households.
The complex survey is broken down into nine “domains,” 33 “indicators” and hundreds more variables. The broad categories include psychological well-being, health, time use, education, culture, good governance, community vitality, ecology and living standards.
This is no Western-style satisfaction survey on a scale from zero to 10, Penjore says. Bhutan asks about 300 questions.
“In the beginning” the survey “took about nine hours,” he says. “Now we have refined the questions” and it takes about three hours. Happily, the participants are compensated a day’s wage.
As one of the center’s lead happy index researchers, Penjore says, “We try to measure … all forms of capital. So that is the difference between GDP and GNH.”
He says, for example, the government asks people about their spirituality: “Do you meditate?” says Penjore. “How frequently do you pray?”
They ask how much time and money you devote to your community, how many hours you sleep and how many hours you work.
Some questions might startle an American: How often to you quarrel with your family? How long do you stay away from them? Do you trust your neighbors?
For Namgay Zam, 32, who hosts a radio show on the mental health challenges of the Bhutanese, the glowing image doesn’t always square with the reality. She points out, for example, there are only a handful of psychiatrists in the entire country.
Bhutan’s unique selling point is “we are all happy people, from the land of happiness,” she says. But the country is having difficulty living up to the “brand.” “It’s expensive, it’s tiring, and it’s making a lot of us cynical,” Zam says.
Trouble in happy land
Needrup Zangpo, executive director of the Journalists’ Association of Bhutan, says the outside world glamorizes Bhutan but overlooks a list of problems besetting the country. For starters, youth unemployment stood at 13.2 percent in 2016, up from 10.7 percent the previous year, according to government data reported by leading national newspaper Kuensel.
“We have an increasing income gap, we have increasing youth unemployment, environmental degradation,” Zangpo says.
Bhutan is facing climate change, he adds, with melting glaciers, potentially affecting the hydropower plants that provide the nation’s energy and a big chunk of its revenue. “We have a lot of things to worry about,” Zangpo says.
Radio host Zam says the idea of GNH may have put Bhutan on the map, but the concept has been hijacked by the West — and quantified to a degree that makes it unrecognizable to ordinary Bhutanese.
Gross national happiness is rooted in the principles of the country’s religion, Buddhism, with its focus on compassion, contentment and calmness. And Zam insists, “You don’t quantify Buddhism.”
Yet, she says she has an abiding belief in the philosophy underlying GNH, if not the packaging.
Bhutan’s image as a contented country has fueled an influx of international travelers. The government is aggressively pursuing high-end tourists, who it claims have a low impact on the environment and culture. The increasing footfall, especially from China, is stimulating a construction and restoration boom.
Modeling Bhutan on a development path that was more than material well-being was the brainchild of the country’s fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who ascended to the throne in 1972. He declared, “Gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product.” He also framed Bhutan’s constitution and drove the political reforms that introduced a parliamentary democracy in 2008.
His son, current King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, has energetically embraced his father’s philosophy, fine-tuning the GNH index.
The king and his commoner wife, Queen Jetsun Pema, are described as the “Will and Kate of the Himalayas.” But the British royals might envy the affection the Bhutanese hold for their own royal family.
Pansang Dema, 61, lavishes praise on the monarchy and credits its largesse for her happiness. Nineteen years ago, under royal policies, she was granted 5 acres of land — the government’s standard allotment — and “all the basic necessities to settle down in that new place.” Sitting among her piles of fresh eggs and vegetables, Dema says she’s “very happy” to be on the land and self-sufficient, something she can share with her children.
Bhutan offers all of its citizens free education and free health care. Villagers get much of their electricity at no cost. A mother of seven, Dema is grateful for all of that.
But she worries that traditions are being eroded — men nowadays wear their hair too long, in her opinion, and so do women. “During my day,” she says, it was “cultural for us to keep short hair.”
Amid rapid modernization, she’s also unhappy about Bhutan’s young democracy. “Given the choice, I would prefer a monarchy any day,” Dema says. “Under the monarchy things are plain and simple … and very effective.”
Farmer Sonam Tshering, a father of three, laments the loss of Bhutan’s driglam namzha or etiquette. “People are losing this sense,” he says citing, for example, the casual clothes young people wear, like jeans and a T-shirt, rather than the traditional dress: the knee-length, kimono-like gho robe for men, and the ankle-length dress worn by women known as the kira. “It is a challenge to our culture,” he says, “it is saddening to see.”
As for the lengthy questionnaire plumbing the state of his general well-being, Tshering says, “Personally, I will not give three hours of my time for a survey.” But he assures us, he’s most content.
Bhutanese generally seem to derive happiness from the fact that, in a region beset by conflict, their country is at peace. At 70, a farmer who goes by the single name Thoeba says, “My time is almost over. But I would offer my prayers that my younger generation would enjoy the same kind of peace and prosperity that I have seen.”
But filmmaker Tashi Gyeltshen doesn’t see much point in the exercise of measuring happiness. In his view, it’s an “abstraction” that defies quantifying. “What is so happy about life,” he says. “You just have to endure it.”
The title of the last Bhutan Gross National Happiness survey, in 2015, sums up what the country believes its experiment can provide: “A Compass toward a Just and Harmonious Society.” The findings showed that 8 percent of the people were “deeply happy,” 35 percent identified as “extensively happy,” and 47.9 percent registered as “narrowly happy.
If those numbers are anything to go by, Bhutan would actually be a ringing success — with more than 90 percent considering themselves “happy,” to one degree or another.
But with nearly half of the Bhutanese falling into the “narrowly happy” camp, that’s a sizeable chunk who are well short of bliss. And that might mean that Bhutan is just about as content as the rest of us.