Bhutan: What GNH Taught Me About Gross Personal Happiness

As the first country to measure its health in national happiness (GNH) over domestic product, and a leader in international dialogs on sustainable development and wellbeing, a trip to Bhutan wouldn’t be complete without reflecting on happiness. I’ve discovered a new energy from spending 7 days in a country that feels like a gentle mountain town, where stop lights in the capital have been rejected in favor of a traffic cop, and every bridge, no matter how small, greets your crossing with a simple sign that reads, “Thanks.” It’s a place where adoring photographs and slogans of the king and queen adorn everything from storefronts and sweaters to truck-beds and temples… and for good reason, given the family’s top-down democratic mandate in 2008, their passion for holistic development policies, and regular royal road trips to local villages and towns.

Now, Bhutan is not simply a shangri-la of smiling children and stress-less surroundings, as issues abound from unemployment and external economic dependence to increasing substance abuse and cultural dilution. Solutions based in Buddhist philosophy and the four pillars of GNH (good governance, environmental protection, preservation of culture and equitable social development) are popping up, infrastructures based on these principles are being built and social entrepreneurs are being groomed to help tackle the problems that come with the benefits of development. Even a superficial glance into this time of change and transition has taught me quite a bit about what leads to happiness… and discontent.

In my brief brush with Bhutan, I’ve learned from everyone from my driver (a Lama who has spent more years in silent meditation than a doctor spends pre-MD), to international policy makers and non-profits, and even a staff nurse in the Thimphu psychiatric ward. (Don’t worry, I wasn’t admitted…) These experiences have inspired me to draft my own four pillars of GPH (Gross Personal Happiness):

Embrace the pothole. Because life in Bhutan is centered on karma and the domino-like effect that one action can have on this life and the next, more attention is paid to how how we handle things, not to what we have. Every karmic journey is going to be pocked with more potholes than the Bhutanese East-West road, so happiness comes from how we drive on that road, how we deal with the bumps, cliffs and oncoming trucks, and how we adjust our driving with each kilometer. It’s not about finding smooth, open asphalt, but about who we are behind the wheel and what we do with each pothole.

Trust those that you entrust. The Bhutanese people love their king and royal family. The government seems to strive to constantly serve and improve, and is transparent in its motivations and decisions (based on the pillars of GNH). The king doesn’t indulge in the quintessential luxuries of his title either; he lives in a modest home, flies Druk air with yours truly, and endures long journeys across the country on the potholed road behind veering local buses. Trust and contentment continue to grow in an environment where needs are met and anticipated and where decisions deliver on the greater good, not on personal benefit. So, if we don’t trust those that we entrust, whether in work or love, true happiness is going to tough.

Connect beyond conversation. I’ve had my share of dark days in my youth, and much of my happiness today comes from helping others in similar predicaments. In a twist of events too Kafka-esque to outline here, I inadvertently visited a Thimphu psychiatric ward and spoke with a patient via the translation of a staff nurse. In two different languages and from two different worlds, two strangers shared their deepest hopes and fears in a small intake room. At times, translation wasn’t even necessary. From his shaking hands, blurry eyes, and choked voice, I began to well up, feeling such dense desperation that language seemed superfluous. And he began to smile and sigh at times when I spoke about my transformation before the nurse translated.

“It must be karma — I can’t believe you came here,” the nurse told me. “I was worried all day about [this patient.] He’s the only one here and has no one to talk to. It’s difficult in the city these days; young people move here, away from their villages, looking for jobs but have no anchor. Without their families and people who know who they are, they can get into very bad situations. It’s a big problem.”

The three of us parted ways, uniquely bonded by serendipity and candor. We need each other, friends and strangers, in a way that food, work, money and all of those fun things can never replace. And while tough in a busy urban life, diving below a “like” or a distracted hug can wash away those little pebbles of self into a pristine expanse of contentment.

Be the oasis. Typical Westerner that I am, I figured Tashi, Lama-driver extraordinaire, would know the secret to happiness. As we glided past a truck, his voice slowed and softened into a melody and he began to gesture from his heart with movements that resembled a flower opening and closing. I figured he was prescribing pre-dawn meditation and a purge of all items sparkley and shiny.

“Tashi says happiness is about surrounding yourself with happy things,” my guide translated. “Think good things, see good things, say good things and hear good things. Smell good things too.” While it may sound like a silent stint in a bucolic Bhutanese valley is in order, this wisdom can apply to even the most barren of wastelands. It’s about making a choice to create and nurture an oasis, apparent in the daily Buddhist practices of many Bhutanese and in the nation’s stringent environmental policies on the doorstep of its Indian and Chinese neighbors. There’s no need to be an island, but it doesn’t hurt to build a hut at the oasis.

As I consider my GPH pillars, I’ve also learned that they aren’t just things to measure, but an active, interdependent cycle that gets stronger with exercise. It’s a constant flow of giving and receiving, connecting and detaching, moving and reflecting.

Perhaps this is simple wisdom and I didn’t need to go half-way around the world to discover the benefits of self-care, collective karma and character-building. But being immersed, even for a short time, in a changing society and in the company of its people, some safe and some struggling, made me see how delicate these principles are, and how easy they are to break with as little as a thought. Happiness requires work and dedication, and as I’ve learned from Bhutanese friends, it’s what can spark or fizzle when aspiration and obstacles rub together.


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