Searching for happiness
in the lost land of Bhutan

Bhutan is the only country in the world to enshrine happiness in its constitution. And this is wonderful. But behind the happy hype there is a complex reality.

By Andy Round

Outside an altar room, inside the most sacred Buddhist monastery in the Kingdom of Bhutan, I respectfully place my battered boots next to a bright pair of red plastic Croc shoes decorated with yellow Pikachu cartoons.

 

The shoes belong to 26-year-old Tashi Lhendrup who lives in the monastery and has been a monk for nine years. The granite floor is freezing and Tashi’s cheeks are as rosy as the red fleece he wears under his robes. He is the ideal person to ask the most important question in the world.

 

What’s the secret of happiness?

 

He smiles. Pulls his robes tighter and says…

 

I’ll tell you what he says in a moment, but first let me set the scene. We’re in Taktshang Goemba — better known as the Tiger’s Nest Monastery — impossibly perched on a vertical cliff, 3,000 feet above the town of Paro. Founded by Guru Rinpoche who anchored it to the Himalayas with celestial hairs after arriving on a winged tiger, Taktshang Goemba is the photogenic cover star of every travel bucket-list you’ve ever read.

 

Inside it’s the final scene of an Indiana Jones quest. The altar is populated with giant multi-armed golden statues and crammed with ornate wood carvings painted in dazzling colours. On the altar are giant silver plates filled with sacred offerings of crisp packets and plastic tubes of sweets. Wintery light seeps through the incense-flavoured gloom illuminating Tashi’s shaved head.

 

So, here’s the secret: “The secret of happiness is no secret,” he says. “Thinking about death all the time reminds us that life is impermanent. We might never see tomorrow. That is why we can’t fill our lives with anger, hatred and greed. We are here for such a short time, we should do good. This is happiness.”

 

Tashi’s day, from 5am to 10pm, is filled with prayer, organising those crisp and sweet packets, wood collection, religious studies and the meditations on death that underpin his happiness. Still, he is a modern monk and, like all his friends, has a smart phone. “I don’t have time for Facebook. Time is precious for me so I rarely use my phone. But I like to use it before I got to sleep to message my family or friends to check their well-being.”

 

***

 

Of course, Bhutan is the perfect place to learn about happiness. Famously, in 1971, the king of this tiny landlocked Himalayan country with a population of just 800,000 — sandwiched between China and India — declared that it would focus on Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than Gross National Product.

 

Now GNH is enshrined in the constitution, five-year plans promise compassion rather than capitalism and national surveys assess the national mood by examining the nine ‘domains’ of health, education, living standards, governance, ecological diversity, time use, psychological well-being, cultural diversity and community vitality.

 

Over the years, rhetoric converted into the reality of major development. In the 1960s Bhutan had no roads, schools or hospitals and harsh subsidence farming ensured average life expectancy was 33 years. Today that age is 68, education, healthcare and medicine are free and freshly tarmacked roads snake across mountain passes featuring roadside signs that remind speeding drivers, “Bro! Be Mr Late. Not Late Mr.”

 

According to the constitution, at least 60% of the country must be covered in forest (today the percentage is 72%), plastic bags and the sale of tobacco are banned. Electric cars are subsidised and national energy comes from huge hydro-electric plants powered by Bhutan’s pristine rivers. The country removes more CO2 from the environment than it creates and is the only carbon negative country in the world.

 

Cultural identity is fiercely protected. Every Bhutanese is expected to wear 14th century national dress during working hours — a sort of kimono-kilt-type Gho robe for men (with the world’s biggest pocket) and an ankle-length wrap-round Kira dress for women. Garish advertising billboards are banned to protect the appearance of traditional facades and tourism is strictly controlled.

 

The first foreign tourists were only allowed into the country in 1974, and today they must pay US$250 minimum per day per visit. The fee sounds initially expensive but it includes guide, driver, hotel and a US$65 royalty that goes towards sustainable development. Unsurprisingly, Bhutan is not backpacker central.

 

Seismic political change came to the country in 2007 when Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the hugely popular king who conceived GNH, decided to ‘impose’ democracy. He stated, “Monarchy is not the best form of government because a king is chosen by birth and not by merit.” The first parliamentary elections were held a year later.

 

Democracy and GNH now seem to be paying dividends. The Economist reckons Bhutan will have the world’s fastest GDP growth this year (2018) and in the last GNH survey in 2015, a total of 91.2% Bhutanese reported “experiencing happiness” with 43.4% stating that they were “deeply happy”

 

***

 

I’m pretty happy as well touring round this Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. Bright temples and ancient Dzong fortresses punctuate the dramatic snow-capped landscape with splashes of red and flashes of gold. Time-worn prayer bells tinkle and spin constantly as Bhutanese pay daily respects at busy temples. Endless fairy-tale forests tumble down valleys towards glacier cold rivers navigated by ancient iron bridges; ‘good luck’ paintings of giant phalluses are ornately inscribed on the walls of rural homes; thousands of prayer flags flap across hillsides and monasteries cling to the peaks of cloud-cloaked mountains.

 

It’s that sort of place.

 

But for all its medieval charm, Bhutan is not locked away from the 21st century. Monks jog through forests wearing bright new Nikes; children are hunched by the side of the road playing games on mobiles; a band thrashes out Radiohead covers in a bar and football fans feverishly stroke their phones’ Premier Division apps. Wifi is everywhere. Facebook is everywhere. Youtube is everywhere.

 

Bhutan’s come a long way fast. Television was only allowed into this closed kingdom in 1999 and the first internet café only came a year later. Now 87% of Bhutanese people have a mobile phone and a window on the world. What impact will these developments — and all those Katy Perry Youtube videos — have on Gross National Happiness in a couple more years?

 

It depends how old you are.

 

Seventy-year-old Tshering Om, for instance, doesn’t care. For her the fundamentals of happiness are simple. As a young girl she collected firewood and searched for branches to repair the family roof. She grew up uneducated working in the fields as a cow herder, got married in her teens, had six children and experienced an early adult life that was plagued by periods of forced manual labour ‘contributing’ with other villagers to back-breaking construction projects.

 

Returning from religious rituals in the town of Punakha with hundreds of others, this enthusiastic chewer of blood-red beetle nut says there are plenty of reasons to be happy today. “Community work was stopped by the king in the 1970s and I now have electricity at home. And a tin roof. My six grand-children have health and schooling. I don’t need anything else.”

 

At market in Bhutan’s capital of Thimphu, Karma Deki, 65, explains how the happiness of her week is shaped by rice sales. “Thursday, Friday, Saturday I am here, but on Sunday I go to Paro market. Monday and Tuesday, I collect the rice and start again. The work is hard, but life is better than before and there are proper roads. My children went to school.”

 

Naturally, for Bhutan’s younger generations, the past of their grandparents is unimaginable. What makes them happy extends way beyond tin roofs and rice markets.

 

Warming up by the wood-burning stove in the clubhouse of Paro’s archery range, 28-year-old Jigme Lhaden says: “I think people in remote villages are happy with less, but in the cities if someone’s got a new iPhone you want one too. If someone’s got an Indian car you might want a Toyota. My generation is definitely more materialistic because we compare online.” Another archer in his thirties, who prefers to remain nameless, says: “My parents don’t care about these things. They are happy to go night fishing [which is illegal] or just get drunk with their friends.”

 

A civil servant with a lavish ponytail, who will only give one name — Jamtscho — laughs when he remembers the happiest moments in his life. “I was so happy when television came to Bhutan. I used to bunk off school all the time to go and watch it at my friend’s house.”

 

Archery is Bhutan’s national sport and watching Jamtasco firing an arrow into a skinny metre-high target 145 metres away is extraordinary. He explains you need meditative breath control, a powerful arm and a supernatural ability to judge wind direction by sensing the breeze on your cheek. Still, an imported US$2,300 carbon-fibre from North America is handy too. “We use traditional bows as well, but these are more fun.”

 

***

 

Carbon bows and smart phones may have improved many Bhutanese lives but this is still a developing country and it is ‘material well-being’ that has made the biggest difference to lives. In the last GNH survey, 20% of the population reported improvements in access to electricity, clean water, waste disposal and health care from 2010 to 2015.

 

However, the report also highlighted issues that would be recognisable in any other country in the world. In 2010, 59% of Bhutanese “reported positive emotions such as contentment, compassion, forgiveness and generosity a few times a week”. This had fallen to 51%, five years later. In 2010, 35% “struggled hard with negative emotions such as anger, fear, worry, selfishness and jealous”. By 2015 this had risen to 45%.

 

Bloggers, newspapers, commentators, politicians and even the Prime Minister, Tshering Tobay, consistently stress that although GNH is a wonderful thing there are plenty of challenges facing Bhutanese. “Bhutan has been called the last Shangri-La, but we’re not,” says Tobay. “My country is not one big happy monastery populated by happy monks. The reality is that we are a small underdeveloped country doing our best to survive.”

 

Issues such as unemployment cast a shadow over the happiness factor. During my visit, the front-page news is that youth unemployment has increased from 10.7% to 13.2% and male unemployment has doubled to 16.4%.

 

“I think there are jobs,” says my guide Yongten Jamtsho. “It’s just that they don’t pay so well. There are a lot of Bhutanese people who go abroad to Australia or the Middle East to study and take menial jobs like cleaning. It’s expensive to get to these countries, but after three years or so when they come back they can afford to buy a house.”

 

And that contributes to another issue, increasing urbanisation. “In some towns land prices have increased four- or five-fold in the past 15 years. In Paro the number of buildings has doubled in the past 10 years,” says Chencho Dorji, 37, taking a break from his tourism company with a tea in the lobby of the National Museum.

 

“The young generation is more materialistic and obsessed with their phones. When I was young I didn’t have proper shoes, now young people expect a good life. We have so much to be thankful for, the third king abolished exploitation of the landless by the landed. Happiness is definitely a place in Bhutan but it’s under threat from materialism and social pressures.”

 

Pressures like addiction. An editorial in the Kuensel national newspaper describes alcoholism as “the biggest threat to the country’s progress, socially and economically” with “no will at all from any quarter to address the issue of abuse”. Other issues include the trafficking of prescription painkillers know as SP+ and solvent abuse particularly the inhalation of paint thinners. Marijuana grows wild throughout Bhutan.

 

***

 

Overlooking the main road in Thimphu is Ambient Café, which is run by Junu and her partner Letho who support recovering addicts by offering them jobs and places to stay.

 

I’m served a fierce ginger tea by a teenage former addict. He says that happiness for him is the stability of a full-day shift at the café, working his 12 steps and avoiding the peer pressure of addicted friends who could track where he was on their phones.  Juna refuses to be drawn on the causes of addiction in Bhutan. “It’s a huge spectrum. It’s impossible to blame one aspect of society.”

 

Over lunch the next day, Nima Yeshey Seldon, 21, lists what makes her happy. Her main priorities are the 264 friends in her phone’s Wechat messaging group. She also loves singing and helping her sister transform a small restaurant into a successful business — ideally at the same time. Bottom of her list is getting married. “Too many of my friends have been through divorces and they’ve been left alone with babies,” she says.

 

Prime Minister Tobay has spoken about this issue often. “We say the Bhutanese extended family is the basis of GNH yet we are in a phase where there are unprecedented divorce rates, domestic violence, drug abuse and suicide.”

 

RENEW is a Civil Society Organisation — supported by the Royal Family, government and a huge network of volunteers — that aims to tackle many of these challenges. It’s mission statement is embedded in its name, ‘Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women’, and it speaks to its audience through the language of GNH which enshrines the concept of gender equality.

 

There is a lot of work to be done. On my flight to Bhutan I listened to a BBC podcast that charted the plight of an unmarried pregnant woman who was thrown out of her rural home in Bhutan because her circumstances will bring ‘bad luck’.

 

“Many villages in Bhutan are isolated high in the Himalayas and it can take several days to get there on foot,” explains Community Outreach Director Meenaksi Rai. “Even women can have a bad opinion of themselves because of cultural stereotypes. They need to be educated and empowered to make their own life decisions.

 

“We face family problems caused by alcoholism, increasing divorce, teenage pregnancies and the same challenges of any developing country — inflation, urbanisation, unemployment, changing values and materialism. Sometimes we don’t know what is enough. We want more.”

 

Since it was founded with a team of just three in 2004, RENEW has grown to encompass a volunteer network of 3,000 and been influential in the creation of laws such as 2013’s Domestic Violence Prevention Act. There are now RENEW counselling services, safe houses, medical support systems, micro-finance schemes, scholarships, educational workshops and publicity campaigns.

 

“When I was young we never heard about issues such as domestic violence,” says Rai. “Now children know through our videos on their phones. It’s important. We all want to be happy, but if we don’t keep our families happy, everyone fails.”

 

***

 

So, what about those young people who follow the world on their phones? What does the next generation of volunteers, prime ministers and night fishing enthusiasts make of Gross National Happiness?

 

Those I speak to under the age of 16 see it as something that sets their country apart from others. They are proud of their identity and although their ambitions to be CO2 neutral sustainable farmers or their daily meditation sessions before school may seem otherworldly to the West, their preoccupations are the same in Bhutan as they would be in Belgium. “What makes me happy is following English football,” says Kinley Tenzin, 14. For Nikita Sanyasi, 13, “I just like to spend time with my friends.”

 

Happiness may be subjective, but there is clearly a lot to learn from Bhutan. During my visit, I hear international discussions about the return on investment of carrying out employee happiness audits and someone tells me there that is an Australian governmental delegation on a happiness fact-finding trip. What’s so appealing for these people is not that the pursuit of happiness has just appeared on a PowerPoint presentation — in Bhutan, it’s been around forever.

 

Inside the staggeringly beautiful 17th century fortress-monastery of Punakha Dzong — all high white walls, wooden balconies and golden towers — a guide discusses a humongous painting that traces Buddha’s life from spoiled young prince to enlightened inspiration. It’s hard to hear because the monks are noisily hoovering up behind us, so we step outside where it’s wonderfully quiet and another wall picture gets my full attention.

 

It’s a giant Wheel of Life, an image Buddha himself designed to help people understand his teachings. The focus, of course, is life, death and Karma. How you live today will determine where you end up on the wheel in your next life. The top three sections are pretty decent — gods, demi gods and humans — in the bottom three are the fires and torture of hell, the realm of constantly hunted animals and the horrendous land of insatiable hungry ghosts with spooky thin necks. “The bottom three are where you end up if you fill your life with greed, anger, hatred, selfishness and ignorance,” says the guide. “You should always do good. No-one wants to end up down there.”

 

Back in Europe I email Lama Shenphen Zangpo, an extraordinary monk from Swansea, Wales, who studied Buddhism in Taiwan and Japan and was recently awarded the National Order of Merit by King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck for his rehabilitative work with addicts in Bhutan. I ask him what the world could learn from Bhutan’s commitment to happiness, he sends back a quote from the Dalai Lama’s teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. “Those who seek happiness in pleasure, wealth, glory, power and heroics are as naïve as the child who tries to catch a rainbow and wear it as a coat.”

 

Indeed.