Happiness is like a field you can harvest every season. — Luo proverb
When you hear the phrase ‘the happiest place on earth’, your mind may immediately turn to one of the many Disney amusement parks around the world. Or you may think of some scandinavian nation that has held the top spot in the World Happiness Report for the past few years. But what if we told you that the happiest place on earth is an often overlooked country nestled snugly between India and Tibet?
Bhutan has an area of only 38,394 km². Globally, it ranks 160 in GDP and 132 in terms of Human Development. And yet this small Himalayan nation has been considered the happiest country on earth for more than a decade now. So what’s its secret?
GNH over GNP
Better an ounce of happiness than a pound of gold. – Yiddish proverb
You may be surprised to learn that in Bhutan, unlike in other countries, the biggest indicator of progress and development is not Gross National Product (GNP). Instead, the Bhutanese government is guided by the philosophy of Gross National Happiness (GNH). The term was coined in 1972 by Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the then king of Bhutan. It is distinguishable from Gross Domestic Product because it values collective happiness as the goal of governance, emphasising harmony with nature and the honouring of traditional values. This concept of happiness is not quite the same as in the West. And in its most plain interpretation, it is defined simply as contentment. Are the people’s basic needs met? Is any socio-economic development sustainable? Is the nation keeping a low ecological footprint? Do the people work to preserve their culture? If all of these requirements are met, the GNH score increases.
GNH has been part of Bhutan’s governing policy since 2008 when the first GNH index was conducted. This survey helps measure the progress of Bhutanese society and informs the nation’s governing body (now a parliament, rather than a king) on matters concerning policy. This cycle of survey and policy change has been the major force that has kept the country so happy over the years, so much so that in 2011, the UN General Assembly passed the ‘Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development’ resolution that urged other nations to follow Bhutan’s example.
How to stay happy, the Bhutanese way
Contentment is happiness. — Romanian proverb
While the GNH measures the overall happiness of the Bhutanese people, it does not create it. The innate sense of contentment comes from the people themselves. And it is easy to see why.
A question of control
The Bhutanese way of life follows Buddhist philosophies, which preach equanimity in times of hardship. Basically, it asks that you go with the flow. It accepts that some things simply come down to luck or fate, and that one can not control every aspect of life. As such, the Bhutanese people aren’t bogged down by the same worries and social stigmas of the West. Divorce rates, for example, are quite high in Bhutan, as it doesn’t carry the same negative image in the country. If a marriage crumbles, it is often simply accepted, and life goes on.
What we can learn: In much the same way, to be happy, we must actively choose to change the things we can, and accept the things we can not. Simply put, the key to contentment should always be in our own hands.
Bhutan has one of the lowest ecological footprints in the region, with conservation closely tied to development and governance. It is no surprise then that the Bhutanese way of life is deeply rooted in sustainability. The people understand the link between nature and society as well as the importance of aesthetics on the human psyche. They work not only to maintain ecological balance, but preserve the country’s natural beauty. This means that there is limited strain on the environment, reducing man-made problems such as pollution while enabling a healthier, happier life.
What we can learn: A sustainable lifestyle is a happy one. It both helps the environment, and decreases the stress that comes from depleted natural surroundings. Staying happy may be as simple as reducing our waste and surrounding ourselves with green spaces.
Stay true to your roots
The Bhutanese way of life is intrinsically linked to its culture and traditions. Even when societies around them adopt more and more foreign ideas, the hill folk still fervently hold on to their cultural roots. What does this have to do with happiness, you ask? Well, this reverence to culture translates to a strong sense of identity, which allows them to remain content even in times of turbulent change.
What we can learn: We invite happiness when we stay true to ourselves. While it is okay to try new things and even reinvent ourselves to an extent, we should not lose sight of our core identity.