Happiness is …
The story of one man whose endeavours could give a new meaning to Bhutan’s GNH index.
Since 1972, Bhutan’s measure of prosperity has been through the formal principle of Gross National Happiness (GNP) instead of the more commonly known and monetary-related Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Experts describe GNP as the physical and spiritual health of its citizens and environment. While Bhutan may not be a great world player, it is certainly home to some very big ideas because its program of modernization is not based on amassing wealth but on the happiness of its people. Incredibly, doing so has not just improved the quality of life of its people but has also brought vital infrastructure and facilities to the most neglected corners of the country. In fact, Bhutan’s economy was the world’s second-fastest growing economy in 2007.
This transformation can be credited to none other than Dr Saamdu Chetri. Saamdu was born in a cowshed of one of the most neglected parts of Bhutan; an area where phone and power lines have only recently been laid. While he had a successful career in the private sector, Saamdu found himself become a part of Bhutan’s political life when he was handpicked for service by Bhutan’s first democratically elected Prime Minister. Today, he oversees the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC) and has taken on the responsibility for the construction of a center dedicated to improving the wellbeing of the nation’s citizens. Saamdu says this center is going to serve as an example of sustainable development and function as a selfsustaining NGO, running courses for locals as well as international visitors.
However, for a man tasked with bringing happiness to a nation, Saamdu’s own tale is one of immense suffering and pain. Born into an impoverished household, Saamdu was one of eleven siblings all of whom had no choice but to work to make ends meet. Saamdu says he didn’t go to school till he was nine when his older brother took him to school – something that worried his father a great deal. Saamdu says his parents loved him a great deal and did not want him to leave the house. In fact, he adds, his father was so worried about his health that he would send a cow with Saamdu to school. At the age of 14, however, he had to quit school because by that point, all his brothers and sisters had moved out and Saamdu felt it was his duty to help his parents. His day on the farm would begin at four in the morning when he would have to walk at least a kilometer to fetch water after which he would feed the ox and begin to plough.
Saamdu wanted to continue studying but his parents had other plans for him. When he turned 15, Saamdu’s parents took him for pilgrimage in Nepal where they tricked him into getting married. Saamdu says he had no idea he was about to get married till the girl was brought in front of him and the ceremonial rites began. Saamdu tried to resist but it was futile. Not about to give up easily, Saamdu decided to make a run for it but his father-in-law caught him and begged him to reconsider because his daughter’s life would be ruined.
Saamdu relented and eventually he and his wife went on to live with his parents and had two children. He continued with his education at a college in India. One day, however, she disappeared leaving Saamdu to take care of the two children. A friend from college offered to help and eventually he ended up marrying her only to have his first wife reappear briefly. Today, she lives in Nepal and is struggling with mental illness.
In spite of his sufferings, Saamdu says he never let life bring him down. He always had a smile on his face but never in his wildest dreams did he think he would be the man responsible for Bhutan’s happiness. As a fresh college graduate, Saamdu was offered a job by the government to fulfill the king’s dream of developing Bhutan’s private sector – a task that was challenging to say the least. The king had high expectations and there was very little room for error. In fact, every time Saamdu said he made a mistake, he was given a severe dressing down by the royal family.
Finally, after working for several years in the capital, Saamdu retired to his village so that he could go back to living among nature. But fate had other plans for him. When Bhutan’s first democratically elected government came to power, the Prime Minister summoned him to the capital once again where he was asked to work for the cabinet office. Five years later, he was chosen to head Bhutan’s first Gross National Happiness Center in Thimpu.
Saamdu says the center conducts nationwide surveys to improve people’s lives and find out why they were unhappy. Once the causes are determined, solutions are provided to change the way people live, thus making them happier and at peace with their environment.
Today, Saamdu is on the verge of realizing his dream of building a center in a beautiful natural setting where people from Bhutan as well as other countries can learn how to lead happier, well-adjusted lives. The center, which will open on October 18 this year, will educate visitors about three basic principles -- to be part of nature, to serve others with kindness and compassion and to discover their innate value. This, says Saamdu, is the only way a country can prosper – by taking care of the well-being of its people.