Bhutan: The Happiest Place on Earth?

Bhutan: The Happiest Place on Earth?

was the last nation to turn on the TV in 1999, it is the only
country with a national park devoted to preserving the natural
habitat of the yeti and its government shuns international
franchises such as Starbucks and McDonalds. Bhutan preserves an air
of magic and mystery, despite being sandwiched between rapidly
developing powerhouses India and China. Even in the capital
Thimphu, national dress – kira for women and gho for men – prevails
over western clothes.

The tiny Buddhist kingdom is most famous for rejecting GDP and
favouring the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH) a notion that
was introduced by the country’s former monarch, the Fourth King
Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972 and has been fawned over by
international media since.

My first impressions of the country certainly suggest a simpler
life. There are no garish backlit yellow signs or soulless white
corridors at Paro airport, just the sun setting over a traditional
pagoda-style arrivals hall and surrounding pine-clad mountains. The
air is clean and there is a strong sense of space; having spent the
previous month travelling between Indian smog and overpopulated
Chinese cities, I feel like a weight has been lifted. Bhutan didn’t
become the “happiest nation in the world” overnight, and this is
perhaps in itself a misleading statement – how can you reduce
something so subjective by quantifying it? When I ask Bhutanese
newspaper editor Needrup Zangpo about the label, he says: “We are,
undoubtedly, a happy country. I feel this overwhelmingly whenever I
come back home from my visits to other countries. But to believe
that we are the happiest place on earth is dangerously naïve. We
are a nation like any other nation in the world grappling with a
number of problems.

To believe that we are the happiest place on earth is dangerously naïve

“Happiness is an individual pursuit and it can’t be shaped by
anyone. But conditions for it can be created,” Zangpo adds. “I
think Bhutan has political, economic, environmental and social
conditions most conducive for happiness. Political stability,
well-meaning monarchs, and social harmony has so far created good
conditions for happiness.”

Leaders have made citizens’ wellbeing a top priority. Each year
the government undertakes a happiness survey, taking into account
lifestyle factors that affect wellbeing such as working and
sleeping hours, as well as earnings and education. This year’s
figures, released in November, found that nine per cent of people
are “unhappy”, while the remaining 91 per cent of people in the
Himalayan kingdom are “happy”, including over eight per cent who
are “deeply happy”.

My guide KP also believes national happiness is easier to
encourage because Bhutan’s population is a mere 754,000. For a
small nation, Bhutan has social models to be proud of: the profits
from tourism pay directly for free healthcare and education up to
university level for all, which perhaps heightens the sense of
equality, in contrast to neighbouring India and Nepal’s caste
systems. It is still a developing country, but Bhutan’s figure of
12 percent living below the (relative) poverty line is,
interestingly, much lower than a third in the UK.

Statistics are one thing, but I want to ask more locals how they
really feel. In Punakha, a town in a beautiful rural valley
surrounded by farms and rice paddies, KP takes me to a bar called
Hang Out – with pink peeling walls and a killer atmosphere, where
punters take it in turns to choose songs to dance to on stage. I
make friends with a 20-year-old woman named Sonam, and ask her if
she thinks Bhutan is a particularly happy place to live.
“I love living in Bhutan,” she says. “Our King is like our

An 18-year-old student makes the same association between
happiness and the monarchy: “We have no problems here, and we have
a great King.” As a Westerner, it’s easy to be cynical about the
way the country’s royal family is idealised. Pictures of the King
are everywhere: up on lampposts, all over badges and postcards in
souvenir shops and presiding over tables in restaurants. But the
more people I speak to the more genuine the adoration seems. It
could well be sound evidence of an awareness among the Bhutanese
that their monarch – who in 2008 quietly installed democracy of his
own accord, having witnessed unrest in other countries such as
Himalayan neighbour Nepal – genuinely has their wellbeing in

Modernising at its own pace, the King and government have
closely guarded Bhutanese culture, while Buddhism also remains
strong. Young people dressed in Western clothes solidify
friendships, as their parents did, chewing betel nuts; tarmac roads
are in the process of being built over dirt tracks across the
country, yet are still lined with red, white, yellow, green and
blue prayer flags; apps tell people the best days to hang prayer
flags; red-robed monks walk around texting on smartphones.

We have no problems here, and we have a great King

Buddhism has, throughout its 2,500-year history, placed great
importance on happiness. A large part of that belief is based on
the idea of trying not to desire things that you don’t have – a
concept many Bhutanese people are raised with. So perhaps it’s a
no-brainer that a Buddhist kingdom is happier than other parts of
the world.

The story Sonam (the woman who I met at Hang Out) told me sticks
in my mind, particularly because of her resilience. At 20, she has
already lost her parents, has a five-year-old son, and has been
married and divorced (divorce rates in Bhutan are increasing). She
is nonetheless tremendously outgoing and, despite it all, is still
smiling and content with what she has. It seems indicative of an
acceptance that Bhutan isn’t exactly the utopia the label of
“happiest place in the world” would suggest – that it’s just like
any other country with a raft of positives and negatives – but that
a focus on being happy with what you have, and having a government
that places wellbeing first, give its people a significant