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