The Happiness Initiative
What do they know that we don’t? Mariellen Ward travels east to investigate the Bhutan Happiness Initiative.
EACH STEP UP THE mountainside was agony. I felt nauseous, weak and frequently stopped to sip juice, catch my breath or – once – vomit by the side of the path. I was in Bhutan and I was climbing 3,000 feet up to visit the country’s premier tourist attraction, Paro Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest) Monastery and I felt awful.
Taktsang is Bhutan’s Taj Mahal, a sublimely beautiful, man-made marvel inspired by faith. It’s a jumble of small, white, gilded oriental buildings clinging to a rock face high above the Paro Valley, built on the spot where Guru Rinpoche, the founder of Buddhism in Bhutan, is said to have landed on the back of a flying tigress in the eighth century.
But I had to go – it was the only opportunity in my schedule, and walking was the only way (aside from donkey back, which has to be arranged ahead of time). So I trudged, painfully, for hours, with the help of my caring guides from the Uma Paro, who carried my gear – and hopes. Finally, we reached the resting point, about halfway up, a café with a terrace directly across a dramatic chasm from Taktsang. I stopped, spent – and satisfied. I sat down facing the spectacular view, took out my camera, opened my thermos of tea and told Kuenzang that I didn’t need to go all the way up; I was happy here. And here, I learned the Buddhist definition of happiness.
“You are happy because you are at the mid-point,” Kuenzang said. “This is what we call the middle way; the halfway point between not enough and too much.”
And happiness was why I was in Bhutan. The country’s groundbreaking Gross National Happiness (GNH) policy has put an otherwise small, remote Himalayan mountain kingdom on the map. In the 1970s, the fourth king of Bhutan made the happiness of his people the guiding goal of development in Bhutan. He is quoted as saying, “Gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product.” The adoption of a GNH index was concurrent with the coronation of the fifth king, popularly known as King Khesar, in November 2008. The purpose of the index, developed by the Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS), is to reflect GNH values, set benchmarks and track policies and performances of the country.
I stopped by CBS in Bhutan’s capital, Thimpu, to speak with researcher Tshoki Zangmo, who was wearing a dark-blue kira, the traditional Bhutanese dress for women. “The GNH tries to achieve a balance of material and non-material aspects of life,” Zangmo says. By balance, I suggested she meant Buddhism’s “middle path,” and she agreed. “As a Buddhist society, we are trained to think this way, it’s in our culture.”
The purpose of the GNH index is to make sure that Bhutan’s material development is in line with the four pillars of GNH: environmental
conservation, cultural preservation, sustainable development and good governance. And, since the onset of the global economic contraction, Western nations were taking an increasing interest in Bhutan’s GNH.
In recent years, both Britain and France have begun to develop happiness indexes and, in April 2011, the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW) was launched. According to the website, the CIW will track changes in eight quality of life categories, or domains: democratic engagement, living standards, healthy populations, time use, leisure and culture, community vitality, education and environment. Reports are available about each domain, and the CIW is planning a single number indicator that will move up or down and provide a quick snapshot of whether the overall quality of life for Canadians is getting better or worse.
In Thimpu, I met with Canadian “happiness consultant” Ronald Colman, whose non-profit research group, GPI Atlantic, developed the Genuine Progress Index (GPI) – a type of happiness index – for Nova Scotia. He is in Bhutan to work on several GNH implementation projects. “The work I do doesn’t deal directly with happiness,” he says. “It deals with conditions of happiness.” When Bhutan’s king proposed the GNH, he did not mean happiness in the sense of a passing, subjective mood, he meant well-being, a deeper sense of contentment. Certain conditions have been proven to give greater opportunities for well-being, such as an adequate standard of living, clean water and a safe and peaceful environment. “People have to make personal efforts to be happy,” Colman says. “What a government can do is paint a canvas; and if that canvas is conducive to individuals realizing their own happiness, then it’s performing a very useful and important function.”
The indicator most nations use as a traditional measure of a country’s well-being is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which measures “everything except that which makes life worthwhile,” according to the late Robert Kennedy. Happiness and well-being indexes try to measure all the worthwhile stuff – and help governments with decision-making. In Bhutan, every new policy and development is screened to ensure it is in line with GNH pillars.
ARE THE PEOPLE OF BHUTAN HAPPY? According to tourism officer Thuji Nadik, at the Tourism Council of Bhutan (TCB), Bhutan has recently adopted the phrase “Happiness Is a Place” as their promotional tag line, after a proverb that says, Happiness is a place between too little and too much.