Truth or Dare

What Kind of Happiness Are You Ready For?

The World as We Know It

Our world seems to be pivoting on a precarious cusp. We have driven our economic systems, our environment and our capacity to deal with human needs and challenges to their limit. Stimulus packages for failing economies don’t seem to be having the desired effect. Any mobilization to protect and conserve our environment is overshadowed by large increases in population and the frail hope that more and more production and consumption will save our economies. Simultaneously, as individuals we are realizing that satisfaction, lasting happiness and peace of mind cannot be achieved through the mere endless accumulation of wealth and luxurious momentary pleasures.

Are we rattled enough by our current moment in human history to consider new ways? Let’s see. If you are arriving in Bhutan, you are probably intrigued by this tiny nation, with its population of just 700,000, perched in the foothills of the eastern Himalaya, and looking forward to experiencing what is different about this magical land, its people and their beliefs. Many visitors think of Bhutan as a last Shangri-La, a permanently happy place that is hidden away from the world. It evokes a nostalgic dream of a past and a place where people lived in harmony, free from worldly troubles. I’m sorry to have to crush this dream. What you will actually experience is a country that is making history by courageously pursuing a different and visionary approach to development and fostering the happiness of its people. This may not be readily apparent in a brief one or two-week visit, however.

Gross National Happiness – An Alternative Way

It all started in the mid-1970’s when the young 4th King of Bhutan was asked about Bhutan’s progress in terms of GDP – Gross Domestic Product. His Majesty responded that the “Gross National Happiness” (GNH) of his people would be a far more important measure of progress than merely counting dollars (or Ngultrum, in Bhutan’s case). This visionary statement, though intuitive and not quantifiable, became a guiding principle in assessing development in the Kingdom of Bhutan.

As the rest of the world began to wake up to the fact that this message from Bhutan might be important, so arose the questions: What does GNH mean?  How can you measure it? And so Bhutan in the late 1990s began to articulate what kind of “happiness” is embedded in GNH and what GNH means in real life.

How Does Bhutan See Happiness?

When Bhutan talks about happiness, we have to get our heads around the fact that the GNH definition of happiness is a grown-up’s version of that term. To us, happiness is an emotion or sensation caused by ever-changing external circumstances that makes us feel food. Each time we feel this kind of happiness we expect this state of mind to last forever but inevitably we come to realize that it can only ever be a temporary, even momentary state. And here comes the grown-up part: this perception of happiness is simply not enough for Bhutan’s vision. Happiness is not merely the presence of pleasurable circumstances and absence of unpleasant ones.

The Honorable Prime Minister of Bhutan, Lyonchoen Jigme Y. Thinley, defines happiness in the context of GNH with such clarity that is stretches our minds: “we know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature and realizing our innate wisdom and the true and brilliant nature of our own minds.” A courageous concept, one that could rub some of us the wrong way, were it not for the undisputed truth that it speaks.

Truth or Dare

If you’d like to play a game of truth or dare, I invite you to consider the following while you’re travelling to Bhutan: We have to accept that true happiness is entirely dependent on our own actions, words and thoughts. It depends upon our ability to help end others’ suffering. It depends on our deep respect for our environment and community as if they were a part of us. Most importantly, true happiness depends on our ability to learn to transform our tendencies toward greed, isolation, separateness and lack of awareness to generosity, compassion, patience and insight into the interconnectedness of life.

You may be wondering if this is really all the GNH is about. Actually, the true abiding happiness that the Honorable Prime Minister speaks of is the end result that GNH aims to achieve. And so emerged the next phase of Bhutan’s implementation of GNH: How would the result be measured and monitored over time? The Center for Bhutan Studies has been working tirelessly over the past 10 years to develop a GNH index that measures the conditions and satisfaction of the Bhutanese people in nine specific aspects of life or domains: psychological well-being, physical health, community vitality, work-life balance, living standards, civic engagement in governance, education, cultural diversity and ecological integrity. All these contribute to the human potential to achieve true happiness.

The endeavor to measure the GNH of Bhutan led to a national survey of more than 7,000 respondents in 2010. The survey asked some 250 questions and included more than 700 variables and 72 indicators, and was conducted throughout all districts of Bhutan. The following results of this nation-wide happiness pulse-taking are nothing short of fascinating. They are available from the Center for Bhutan Studies website (see link below).

Men are happier than women, on average. Bhutanese score highest in health, ecology, psychological well-being and community vitality. In urban areas, 50% of people are happy compared to rural areas where 37% of people say they are. Urban areas do better in health, living standards and education compared to rural areas, which report better scores in community vitality, cultural resilience and governance. Happiness is higher among people with a primary education or above than among those with no formal education, but higher education does not affect overall GNH very much.

The happiest people of Bhutan by occupation include civil servants, monks and nuns. It is very interesting to that unemployed people in Bhutan seem to be happier than corporate employees, housewives, farmers or the national work force. Unmarried and young people are among the happiest of all. The happiest geographic districts include Paro, Haa, Thimphu, Gasa and Punakha. The least happy district is the far eastern region of Samdrup Jonkhar. The greatest number of happy people live in Thimphu and Chuka – as do the great number of unhappy people! Thimphu scores higher in education and living standards than other districts, but worse in community vitality. Overall, in 2010 Bhutan’s GNH Index on a scale of 1 – 10 (with 10 being the highest level of happiness across all indicators) was calculated to be 7.43.

A Refreshing Approach

While much could be said about these results, the single most out-standing observation for me is the fact that here is a nation that is not afraid to measure its own happiness – and will do so again in another three years, when the next GNH survey will be conducted. The country is now under pressure to make sure that its policies address the unhappy districts, people and conditions over the next few years to ensure that the GNH Index does not decrease. Compare this to most other governments, which seem to be largely concerned with winning the next elections.

Two more recent initiatives deserve to be mentioned here, as proof of how GNH values, thinking, behavior and action are starting to be infused in the heart of Bhutanese society and life. In 2009 the Honorable Prime Minister brought educators from 16 countries to Bhutan to develop a plan for how to saturate Bhutan’s education system with GNH. He told the gathering: “To address the greed, materialism, and consumerist fallacy that have turned us into mindless economic animals, and are destroying the planet, requires nothing less than a change of consciousness and hence of lifestyle. Education is the key.” As a result, teachers across Bhutan are now being trained in transformative curricula and environments that will teach math, science, languages and even sports that fully reflect GNH values and behaviors.

Another interesting experiment resulting from the “Educating for GNH” initiative has been that some schools in Bhutan have introduced a daily secular meditation practice at the beginning and end of each day. As one school principals form Paro reports, since introducing the daily meditation for its students there has been a dramatic drop in disciplinary action at the school. While this is not surprising to me, it should hopefully raise a few eyebrows among the skeptics.

Aware that the nation (and possibly the world) cannot wait for an entire generation of young Bhutanese to pass through a GNH school system, the Honorable Prime Minister is committed to taking GNH education to the broader community. Since 2010, an inspiring plan to develop a GNH center for Bhutanese from all walks of life and international visitors has been taking shape. The experiential learning programs at the Center cannot be boxed into any particular discipline or demographic group. They aim to bring GNH alive by translating GNH values into living practice, embodying and modeling GNH principles in this design, functioning, activity and human interaction and practicing simple and sustainable living in harmony with nature and other beings. The programs will be open to anyone who wants to experience how to bring GNH values and practices fully into their daily work and lives and thereby serving their families, neighbors and country at large with genuine purpose, compassion, joy and effectiveness. The first programs will be conducted in early 2013.

Is Bhutan Leading the Way?

All this comes at a time when the United Nations, in July 2011, adopted Happiness as a stand-alone 9th Millennium Development Goal. That is, the UN has charged all of its member nations to come up with their own definitions, indicators, measures and initiatives for national happiness. What better indication that Bhutan’s journey over the past 35 years follows an inspired and maybe even enlightened path?

Today society seems to be yearning for nothing less than a miracle – or indeed an enlightened path. We need solutions to our economic and environmental crises. We also need remedies for the crisis of the human spirit. We need nothing less than a transformational shift of human consciousness. Here in Bhutan you are in the right place at the right time to explore what this could mean for each and every one of us. This is the perfect place to become more aware of the way we act and react, the way we think and speak.

Is it just me, or do you get the feeling that this tiny nation is being brave and leading the way for us to follow, if we dare? I leave you with this question to explore and reflect upon while you’re travelling throughout Bhutan. After all, travel is perhaps one of the best ways to open our minds to that which is new, unexplored and challenging – to find our own truth or dare.

 Isabel Sebastian, Sustainability Advisor, Thimphu – Bhutan 

From the Tashi Delek magazine, March / April 2012

Center for Bhutan Studies: