Bhutan: Lessons from the hap­pi­est place on earth, what ev­ery trav­eller can learn

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - Nick Abra­hams

Thim­phu, Bhutan: Given sig­nif­i­cant lev­els of dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the per­for­mance of politi­cians in West­ern democ­ra­cies, what can we learn from a coun­try that as­sesses all of its gov­ern­ment poli­cies based on how much they con­trib­ute to the hap­pi­ness of its peo­ple?

Look­ing at the stats, Dis­ney­land may have to give up its claim to be­ing The Hap­pi­est Place on Earth. Bhutan’s re­cent Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness In­dex found 91 per cent of its ci­ti­zens are happy, with al­most 50 per cent of peo­ple be­ing deeply happy or ex­ten­sively happy.

Come to the think of it, Dis­ney’s claim to be­ing The Magic King­dom also gets a run for its money from Bhutan. With its mist-shrouded moun­tains, ubiq­ui­tous monks and univer­sal ac­cep­tance of rein­car­na­tion, there is a real sense of magic here.

The story of the monar­chy ri­vals any Cin­derella, Mu­lan or Poc­a­hon­tas tale. A benev­o­lent king de­volves his power to a demo­crat­i­cally elected par­lia­ment. He then re­signs early to hand over the role to his hand­some son and his glam­orous, hum­ble and com­pas­sion­ate princess. To­gether the fam­ily lives in a cou­ple of sin­gle-level bun­ga­lows in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal, Thim­phu, hav­ing re­fused over­tures from the par­lia­ment to build them a grand palace.

Photos of the young king, his queen and their new son adorn most houses and busi­nesses. These are not stiff monar­chi­cal por­traits, rather they could be snaps from a fam­ily al­bum, with the young cou­ple kiss­ing, hold­ing hands or, to­gether with the for­mer king, play­ing with the young prince.

This is not a place caught in time warp – there has never been any­where like Bhutan. This is a unique Hi­malayan king­dom whose bor­ders have never been in­vaded and who only opened to the world some 40 years ago.

In 1979 the then-king cap­tured the world’s imag­i­na­tion when he said in an in­ter­view “we do not be­lieve in gross na­tional prod­uct. Gross na­tional hap­pi­ness is more im­por­tant”.

This is dif­fer­ent to the World Hap­pi­ness Re­port a sur­vey of the state of global hap­pi­ness which ranks 155 coun­tries by their hap­pi­ness lev­els, and this year put Nor­way at the top of the list, with Aus­tralia in ninth.

The re­sults of Bhutan’s fo­cus on the hap­pi­ness of its ci­ti­zens speak for them­selves. Bhutan is one of the top 20 fastest-grow­ing economies in the world (6.5 per cent last year). It was the only coun­try in South Asia to meet all of the UN Mil­len­nium Goals. It has a free press, a good ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem and there is univer­sal free health­care.

Not bad for a coun­try that, up un­til the 1960s, had no na­tional cur­rency, no tele­phones, no schools, no hos­pi­tals, no postal ser­vice and no pub­lic ser­vices.

It is the only coun­try in the world that is ac­tu­ally in­creas­ing its level of for­est cover – 72 per cent, with the con­sti­tu­tion en­shrin­ing that the level can never drop be­low 60 per cent.

While it has its share of trou­bles: high na­tional debt, stub­born youth unem­ploy­ment and a re­cent bor­der dis­pute with China, it does make a claim to be­ing a real-life Shangri-La.

Bhutan has no traf­fic lights and no ad­ver­tis­ing bill­boards. Cars are banned from city roads one day each month to re­duce car­bon emis­sions. The coun­try ab­sorbs three times as much car­bon as it emits. On the food side, the gov­ern­ment is close to achiev­ing its goal of be­com­ing the world’s first wholly or­ganic coun­try.

Just cel­e­brat­ing the eighth birth­day of its par­lia­ment, it is one of the youngest democ­ra­cies in the world and, ac­cord­ing to the Global Peace In­dex, it has very low lev­els of cor­rup­tion.

Bud­dhist philoso­phies are at the core of this coun­try. Its na­tional pros­per­ity and se­cu­rity over the cen­turies is put down to not so much their “external sol­diers”, as the army is known, but the power of the “in­ter­nal army”, be­ing the 12,000-strong Bud­dhist monk pop­u­la­tion. While there is a sharp de­cline in num­bers join­ing re­li­gious or­ders in the West, in Bhutan more peo­ple than ever are join­ing to be­come monks and nuns.

A core value is the good treat­ment of all sen­tient be­ings, in­clud­ing an­i­mals. Stray dogs are ev­ery­where, but un­like mange-rid­dled street dogs in other de­vel­op­ing coun­tries, these dogs are sur­pris­ingly fit and healthy, bark­ing not to be men­ac­ing but in the hopes of pick­ing up a friendly pat. They used to have a zoo but it was closed down as it was not a nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment for the an­i­mals.

The con­cept of Gross Na­tional Hap­pi­ness is a ma­jor driver of gov­ern­ment pol­icy and the GNH In­dex done in 2010 and most re­cently in 2015 is a tan­gi­ble way of mea­sur­ing suc­cess.

The GNH In­dex is not a sim­ple sur­vey of well­be­ing. It is not Phar­rell Wil­liams eu­phoric danc­ing in the street-style hap­pi­ness that is be­ing mea­sured. Rather it mea­sures pros­per­ity, us­ing nine do­mains in­clud­ing the phys­i­cal and emo­tional health of its peo­ple, the strength of com­mu­ni­ties and the con­di­tion of the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment.

Bhutan’s 10-year plan states “the GNH In­dex is a critical eval­u­a­tion tool for re­sults-based plan­ning … to en­sure that devel­op­ment truly con­trib­utes to the achieve­ment of GNH”. This has been echoed by the Prime Min­is­ter, Tsh­er­ing Tob­gay, in­clud­ing in a TED talk.

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