WORDS | Cassandra Teo
In the United Nation’s World Happiness Report of 2013, it listed ‘happiness’ as an aspiration of every human being. The happiest countries in the world in 2013 were Denmark followed by Norway and Switzerland. They were given the titles considering earnings, living standard, employment, mental health and family stability. However, there is another, new idea of measuring happiness based on, well…happiness. It’s called ‘Gross National Happiness’ and it was started in a fascinating, little country called Bhutan. It is there in Bhutan that the culture, based on Buddhist, spiritual values are believed to be happier than those of Denmark or Norway. If you haven’t heard of Bhutan, that’s quite normal, it’s only recently started to invite tourists and make a mark on the world map.
A little kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between India and Tibet, Bhutan is one of the last countries in Asia to be brought into awareness of the world. The steep and high mountains of the land have allowed it to be hidden. Due to its isolation, Bhutan missed the industrial Revolution, slept through the two World Wars and unlike Tibet , it remains untouched by the Chinese.
Bhutan is unique, as it was never colonised. It has, however, maintain a strong relationship with the British since the late 1920s and then with India. They have kept to themselves, closed off from the world, and are the happier for it. This makes Western accounts of experiences in Bhutan quite rare.
Prior to 1961, the country didn’t use a monetary, market-based economy but rather ran off a trade and barter system. Different to Western ideas of economy and success, the Bhutanese were able to enjoy every moment as they were not plagued by the day-to-day rush. In the Land of the Thunder Dragons time was near irrelevant. However, over the last 60 years the country has moved towards modernisation out of necessity but still maintains its values.
U.S. born author, Linda Leaming, shares her experience from a holiday, to work, and then to a life and family in this hidden kingdom in her book Married to Bhutan. Always feeling out of place while growing up, Leaming found her place in Bhutan. She compares her current life to her former life constantly, describing the US as having a “frenetic level of energy” while Bhutan moves at it’s own pace.
“For the Bhutanese, time is less about quantity than quality. They are masters of living in the moment,” writes Leaming. “What they lack in physical energy (don’t take this the wrong way – they are stronger than most due to daily physical labour) they make up for in increased mental energy.” This has been attributed to the level of awareness that comes from paying attention, from having less stuff around and having less on our [their] calendars.
While the rest of the world has been developing and touting ‘individuality’, Bhutan emphasises community. Leaming describes it as a “groupthink” where they are always looking out for one another. Wealth in Bhutan is not measured by monetary worth as much as it is by the more intangible aspects in life – family, friendship, and happiness.
Many visitors have found that the history of Bhutan peppered with magic – such as flying lamas. It is so full of magical accounts that the line separating fact and fiction is blurred. Leaming found that to the Bhutanese, the distinction isn’t very important or necessary or real.
Why or even how this laid back lifestyle came to be such a distinguishing feature of this country is based on their whole history and way of life. For modern times, Bhutan has their fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck to thank. In the 1970s, he observed that the rich are not always happy while the happy generally considered themselves rich. This broughtthe decree that Gross National Happiness (GNH) was more important than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) that is so prevalent in Western societies. Every single government policy goes through Bhutan’s GNH Commission who then evaluates its effectiveness in helping the country and people culturally. It also considers the environment while providing good governance and economic benefits. To achieve GNH, all four criteria have to be met. This decision to pursue happiness helps instill in Bhutan’s people an immense sense of wellbeing and permeates all facets of life.
Former Macquarie University lecturer, Bunty Avieson, also had the chance to visit Bhutan when her partner, a film producer was invited to work on Travelers & Magicians. Released in 2003, it was Bhutan’s first feature film. Avieson describes the kindness and welcoming nature of the Bhutanese family she stayed with despite being a stranger, landing on their doorstep in the middle of the night. While her partner had to film instantly, Avieson was left to settle in, she jokes, “their English was slightly better than my Dzongka.”
Avieson began to write to her friends about her daily experiences. With help from the family, these chatty letters were then transformed into a book, Baby in a Backpack in Bhutan. Avieson was present when the first Dzongka dictionary was finalised. The important men of Bhutan gathered in the living room of her host family to work on the dictionary. She compares it to “witnessing something akin to our forefathers writing the Australian constitution.”
While Bhutan is opening up to the world, it is doing its best to sustain its traditions and to avoid being corrupted by external influences. One measure is a strict policy that ensures that its visitors always have a guide when traveling throughout the country. This is covered by the $200-$250 per night tourist fee.
They are also taking great pains to blend age-old customs with more modern influences. One of these adaptations is seen throughout their use of two separate calendars, the Gregorian calendar and their own lunar calendar, which acknowledges holidays such as the “Blessed Rainy Day” and “The Meeting of Nine Evils.”
Their traditional lifestyle makes life seem more simple and sincere, not bogged down by the routine and demands of Western ideals. While Australia ranks tenth happiest in the world, perhaps there is something to learn from a tiny, resilient kingdom hidden by mountains in-between India and China.