In the afternoon of October 8, Charlie and I along with seven other intrepid travelers landed at the airport in Paro in Bhutan, fulfilling a long-held vision that we had shared for many years to visit that remote Himalayan country. As our plane slowly descended into the narrow valley which holds the country’s only major airport it seemed as though it’s wing-tips were mere inches away from the adjacent mountains. In truth it was actually more like meters, but still…. Bhutan is known as the Land of the Thunder Dragon, in fact the name of the airlines that brought us in from Bangkok was Druk, Bhutanese for “dragon”. When we first heard some years back that there was an entire nation that used a guideline of Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross National Product as their indicator of success, we were both intrigued with this extraordinary idea. So you can imagine how exciting it has been for us to have spent the last two weeks traveling around the country, meeting and speaking with many Bhutanese people and generally being immersed in the Bhutanese culture. The concept of Gross National Happiness has been present in Bhutan since 1972 when the then king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck declared it to be Bhutan’s measurement of cultural and national well-being. Ever since then, the idea of gross national happiness has been at the forefront of Bhutanese policy making.
The king was a visionary, who was a generous and honest man, who was deeply loved and respected by the people. His son, who is the present king, has been co-leading the country cooperating with a parliamentary democracy since 2008. They are working together to implement the same policies begun by his father prior to his stepping down from the throne three years ago. (The present king was married during our stay in Bhutan and the whole country celebrated for days after the ceremony.) Seventy-five percent of Bhutan’s population is made up of practicing Buddhists (The remaining 25% are primarily Nepalese who reside mostly in the southern part of the country and practice Hinduism). Buddhist philosophy holds that knowledge, wisdom, and compassion are better indicators of conscious citizenry than are material wealth.
Consequently, Bhutan has instituted a national policy that views the delusions and distorted perceptions that arise from fear, ignorance, aggression, and greed as being the source of the compulsive acquisitiveness, consumption, and exploitation of natural resources that plague many of the world’s developed nations. As a country that has been, until recently, very isolated from most of the rest of the world, Bhutan’s current challenge is to come into and engage the rest of the world without losing the essence of what makes this place so unique in it’s commitment to promote principles over profit. The gap between the level of development of Bhutan compared with most of the rest of the world is formidable. Until very recently (around 1990), there was very little electricity available in the entire country. There were very few paved roads (there still are), no public schools, few hospitals or health clinics, and no TV. As a local person told us during our trip, “When TV came in 1999, it changed everything…and not necessarily for the better”.
Bhutan’s answer to the challenges that stood before the country was to set and abide by a different standard of excellence, one that is not based upon material or economic development, but rather has to do with quality of life and the degree of personal and social fulfillment that is experienced by the population in general. Despite the associations with the concept of happiness that most of us share, that it is about one’s level of personal fulfillment of desires, the Bhutanese definition of GNH is transcultural and is defined by a social, environmental, and political, as well as personal sense of well-being. It has to do with a “beneficial development of human society takes place when the material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other. The four pillars of Gross National Happiness are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance.” Our trip to Bhutan gave us a direct experience of this policy in action and illuminated the underlying nature of the Bhutanese people who we all, practically without exception, experienced as kind, generous, respectful, and deeply caring human beings, They move at a serene pace, and without rushing, accomplish a great deal. In a few short years they have made huge strides in the areas of income, health care, education, life expectancy and environmental preservation.
One notable example of this occurred during our visit to a sanctuary for the rare black cranes, who migrate each year from Tibet to Western Bhutan. When they were bringing electricity to the area in which the sanctuary is located, just a few short years ago, the local government went through a great deal of extra effort and expense to lay the electrical lines underground instead of above ground in order to eliminate any chance of harming any of the birds. While Bhutan is certainly not the utopian mystical Himalayan paradise called Shangri La portrayed in books and Hollywood movies such as Lost Horizon, it is undoubtedly a place of beauty and enchantment in which its leaders and and general population are making a heroic effort to preserve a culture and way of being that embodies kindness, mindfulness, spirituality, generosity respect for all living beings, and responsibility in the face of powerful personal impulses and international influences towards materialism and self-centeredness. Though this tiny nation represents only one one-hundredth of one percent of the earth’s population, it can and is making a difference in the larger global picture. We all returned from our trip enlightened, and inspired by what we witnessed and experienced being in the beauty of the land and the presence of the Bhutanese people. There is no doubt that the world would be a different and better place if all nations embodied the principles of Gross National Happiness. May we live to see the day.