Thursday, May 14, 2009

Are Bhutanese genuinely happier than other nationalities?

If you want happiness for an hour -- take a nap. If you want happiness for a day -- go fishing. If you want happiness for a month -- get married. If you want happiness for a year -- inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime -- help someone else. (A Chinese proverb)

Bhutan is on top of my list of places to visit. This small Himalayan Kingdom is so isolated that not many people know much about this country with only 700,000 inhabitants. If you follow the news, you’ll know that it is known for two things.

On 24 March 2008, Bhutan held its first democratic election which officially ends its system of absolute monarch to constitutional monarch without executive power. Unlike its Nepalese counterpart, the election came as an aftermath of the Bhutanese King’s voluntary resignation and urge for his people to pursuit democracy. According to the Secretary of Information and Communications, “They resonate well, democracy and gross national happiness. Both places responsibility on the individual. Happiness is an individual pursuit and democracy is the empowerment of the individual.

This change in governance is part of Bhutan’s pursuit in gross national happiness (GNH). This term was first created by former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972, soon after the demise of his father. It signalled his commitment to building an economy that would serve Bhutan’s unique culture based on Buddhist spiritual values.

According to Buddha’s teaching, the cause of suffering (as opposed to happiness) is want or desire. By rejecting such want and desire, one shall attain happiness. Which is why, when calculating gross national production of Bhutan, the criteria used is not economic benefits but by the happiness it produces.


The Bhutanese government has developed a unique and intricate model of well-being when measuring the gross national happiness, conducted every 2 years through its nationwide questionnaire.  The model consists of four pillars, nine domains and 72 indicators of happiness. The four pillars of a happy society involve economy, culture, environment and good governance, which then branches out to 9 domains; psychological well-being, ecology, health, education, culture, living standards, time use, community vitality and good governance.

The nine domains are then assessed using 72 indicators. An example given is from the psychological well-being domain where the indicators include the frequencies of prayer and meditation, feelings of selfishness, jealousy, calmness, compassion, generosity, frustration and suicidal thoughts.

While I feel that such “scientific formulas” are no doubt interesting and unique,  I feel that some of the questions asked are too subjective and not to mention unrealistic. For example, under the emotional experience indicator, respondents are asked how often they feel angry, guilty, jealous, forgiving, etc. in the past few weeks (see picture above). Unless each Bhutanese actually keeps a daily diary religiously, I think it would be difficult, if not impossible, to measure such state of emotion accurately.

Bhutan is the only country where cigarettes are banned (making it the first country to be tobacco free) and the television was introduced only 10 years ago. It is also probably the only country which makes it mandatory for its people to wear traditional clothing. Amongst these laws, laptops are being banned from parliamentary sessions for fear of representatives playing computer games.

Generally, I do agree that economic development is not indicative of a population’s happiness and hence, the gross national happiness is a better reflection of the overall well-being of a nation. The problem is, how does one define happiness and whether the concept of happiness can be accepted and agreed upon by the majority? When you look at the case of Bhutan, I also think that it is important to differentiate between what’s “forced happiness”; i.e. standards imposed by the government and a general consensus of what should represent happiness.

Going back to Buddha’s teaching, it would be difficult to discredit  wants and desires manifested by the internet and television (which incidentally are not banned in Bhutan) which often “market and sell” various forms of desire as well as dissatisfaction. If Bhutan’s standard of happiness is to reject the causes of suffering, then the government should also ban the media as well as its nationals from travelling abroad.

The last criticism I have about the GNH brings me back to the Chinese proverb at the beginning of this post. Today, the government of Bhutan is yet to answer for the hundreds of thousands of nationals with Nepalese ethnicity who have been stripped off their citizenships and deported to bordering Nepal, making them stateless. Many children have been borne and brought up in refugee camps without any identity or nationality. Neither the Nepalese nor Bhutanese governments want to have anything to do with them.

According the the Bhutanese government, these refugees are not Bhutanese but at the same time, is unable to explain why many of these refugees possess formal documents to prove their Bhutanese nationality.

I then question this, if a nation is able to feel proud of its GNH while hundreds of thousands of its people are being cast off on grounds of ethnicity, then something is terribly wrong. Either that, or we haven’t got a clue at all about happiness.

p/s: How would you define or understand happiness?


  1. Happiness is a temporal emotion. doesn't last. You can feel happy one minute and yet be sad the next when you hear or see something that upsets you. I've always wondered wny people place so much emphasis on such a transient thing?

  2. Maybe because for many, it's an unattainable concept.

    I think the fact that you don't place so much emphasis on it may very well shows that you're generally happy. It's people who constantly chase after it who will end up feeling unhappy.

  3. If one can find total happiness, then one is in utopia. However, in reality we live in a world which is full of heartaches and disappointments. I always wondered why some people are more blessed than others. Life is not fair and that's a fact.

  4. I tend to see life as being fair because the older I get, the more I realize and see the imperfections of humankind. I begin to look beneath the surface and discover that there is a sort of unhappiness hidden in every single person, every couple, every family, every child, etc.

    We may not see this unhappiness upfront but I tend to believe that there is a sort sadness beneath the exterior. Unhappiness does not discriminate.

    As unfortunate and sad as it seems, I think we need to try to look pass all the things which might make us unhappy and try to look on the bright side and count the blessings that we possess.