In search of happiness – Bhutan to Glasgow

Monks and dog crossing a swing bridge in Bhutan

Monks and dog crossing a swing bridge in Bhutan

Do you want to be happy? Are you on a journey? The search for happiness and wellbeing has turned into lifestyle aspiration. But do we really want to be happy in the way we think we do?

It’s other-worldly this place. A Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between India and China. Once shut-off from the world, not so long ago a place without roads, a feudal society. There are no traffic lights, no skyscrapers, no brands, no McDonalds and no advertising hoardings. None of those things in the entire country (as far as I can make out during my brief stay). Its people are friendly, humorous and still wear the traditional dress.

The landscape is serene in its beauty – by law 70% of it must be covered in forest. In Thimphu, the capital city, traffic is directed by the graceful, robotic movements of the white-gloved traffic police. (Traffic lights were once installed but were removed after protests about their inhuman nature).

Bhutan is a land of dragons and gurus, legends and prayer flags. Bhutan feels different, looks different and wants to steer the development of its society in a different way through its famous  idea, Gross National Happiness Index (GNH).

Monk crossing a courtyard in front of colourful Bhutanese dzong or monastery decoration

Monk in Punakha Dzong, Bhutan

Gross National Happiness – a quick introduction

Gross National Happiness was first coined in 1972 when the then king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, said “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product”. GNH is based on the four pillars of sustainable and equitable socio-economic development, environmental conservation, preservation of culture and good governance. In 2008 Bhutan rejected joining the World Trade Organisation and it decision was based on the principles of GNH.

The Bhutanese approach to happiness is based on Buddhist thought, with a more collective view than western individualism. It’s a reflective concept that the happiness is the meaning and purpose of life with compassion for all living things. It’s not something that can be broken down into numbers, or bolted on to fix the problems of capitalism, it’s simply the heart to everything.

Western governments have been influenced and charmed by the ideas of Bhutan’s GNH, aware that they need to do more for their citizens and the environment, even though many still cling to traditional economic growth. Earlier this month, New Zealand announced it would use wellbeing to influence government policy. Even the UK government has worked with a so-called ‘happiness czar’, Richard Layard.

Away from governments you can’t avoid the blizzard of content on happiness and wellbeing; to the point that some argue that the pursuit of happiness has become a Black Mirror style tyranny, squatting over the convergence of social media, wellbeing and influencers who plunge to their deaths adopting yoga positions on the edge of cliffs for more likes.

But here’s the thing.

Bhutan, for all of its noble intentions and influential success, is still only ranked 97 in the UN’s latest World Happiness Report. (You would need to be an expert to appreciate the debates over whether the UN’s model of measurement is reliable and limited).

It’s a mistake to think that Bhutan, despite its wonders, is some kind of Shangri-La, a mystical heaven attractive to westerners with anxiety status and materialism on their minds. The Bhutanese themselves are proud of GNH, but still debate its principles and success. It has, for example, been criticised for having a top-down focus.

Bhutan has worked hard to lift itself out of rural poverty and provide healthcare and education for its citizens. Women are in a much better social position than other comparable countries. It’s very aware of the dangers of modernisation but it can’t escape everything, humans are still humans after all. The country suffers from youth unemployment, drug abuse, domestic violence and the strain of urbanisation on resources. It still battles poverty and gender inequality, and nor does Bhutan score highly on human rights, especially for its ethnic Nepalese minority. GNH is still based on the top-down conformity of an organised religion, even if Buddhism is attractive to many, and a dominant mono-culture, difficult principles for secular and humanist thinkers.

Nor should we think that all is bad in the west, to take for granted how our culture, and capitalism bustles with energy, innovation, curiosity, ideas and cosmopolitanism. Globalisation has become a dirty word for those who forget they drink Belgium beers, support teams with international players, watch Norwegian thrillers and eat Thai curries.

Furthermore, GNH may inspire and demonstrate a different way to western consumption, but if it’s culture is so traditional what happens to the thrill and creativity of rebel counter-culture? If all buildings in Bhutan conform to their distinctive architecture, however charming it may be, how does it innovate and develop new ideas?

Nordic happiness

The happiest places to live appear to be the Scandinavian countries, especially Finland. The ingredients of their success appear to be strong social safety nets, relative equality, good education, progressive family and women policies, a sense of collective equal identity but enough personal freedom to make choices. There is a generosity of spirit and nurturing of social connections. Finland, like Bhutan, actively wants to address its social problems, and not shrug its shoulders, abandoning them it to market forces.

It goes without saying that these countries such as Finland and Sweden do not suffer from war or famine, and have enough levels of income, though earning money isn’t everything. It is well-documented that earning more money, beyond satisfying basic need, rarely makes you happier. The UK’s levels of happiness have remained static while its wealth has increased over the last few decades.

Colourful temple decoration

Colourful detail at Kamsum Yul Le Namgyal Choten, Bhutan

Happiness the Glasgow way

Switzerland is ranked 6th in the index, nine places above the UK. It’s a happy country. When I once travelled through Switzerland for work, it was lovely – the finest of old bourgeoise central Europe. After three days of charming architecture, polite locals, clean air and grand mountain scenery I began to yearn for urban grit, for dry miserablist humour, for a Brutalist tower, a thumping bass from a passing car, some graffiti. That British rough, our rainy gothic ways, our haunted blighted land, our grime, has contributed some wonderful poetry, music, ideas and culture to the world. It defeats and raises us. So does it make us weirdly happy? Or, put another way do we really want to be happy in the way we think we do?

I was at a Kathryn Joseph concert just before I left for Bhutan. Kathryn Joseph is brilliant, talented and funny as she sings and jokes with a dark humour familiar to those who have suffered from personal tragedy.

“Who wants to be happy?” she said at one point in between songs. “Going through life like some idiotic zombie not feeling any other emotion. It must be so boring.” (This has been heavily edited to remove the swearing as many Scots and pretty much all Glaswegians reach their level of zen like happiness through the poetic mantras of their swearing).

Her call to embrace life, and its full spectrum of emotions and incidents returns full circle to happiness and Buddhism. My knowledge of Buddhism is more limited than it should be, but it seems to respond very well to the reality of life. The first Noble Truth: you’re going to experience unhappiness and suffering. So here’s what you have to do.

How to be happy (from what I’ve read)

Decades of research have concluded that happiness is determined by the quality of our relationships, our health and having a purpose in our life.

Find meaning. Find purpose. Find authenticity. Exercise. Nourish your social connections, unless you love your solitude in which case treasure that.  Volunteer. Stay healthy. Talk. Have sex. Find a hobby. Connect to nature. Go walking. Think collective. Pick up litter. Plant a tree. Do stuff for others. Don’t worry about earning more money because it won’t help.

Stop trying to be happy.

Further information

Happiness may be a choice – except that it’s constrained by vested economic interests

The money, job, marriage myth: are you happy yet?

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8 thoughts on “In search of happiness – Bhutan to Glasgow

  1. Great post. I may be wrong but I seem to remember reading a few years ago that someone got into trouble in Bhutan for NOT wearing traditional dress. Enforced by law, what might appear charming on a superficial level takes on a different meaning when it becomes compulsory rather than personal choice. Bangladesh, I recall, has a high happiness quotient, despite its obvious poverty and environmental problems. My own experience of Bengalis on either side of the border is that they have a very positive and upbeat outlook on life. Perhaps the world would be a happier place if everyone was educated in Finland before being sent to the Mediterranean to live out their adult lives before spending their final days in Japan – or perhaps Bhutan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • When I was there, I was sure there were some people wearing non-traditional dress but it was certainly a minority. The vast majority do wear traditional dress and very natty it looks too but it does of course call into question enforced conformity and choice. I do have issues with the Bhutanese approach, as well as respect and admiration. I think teenagers are pushing at the limits for dress, as they are supposed to!

      I too much enjoyed Bengali culture, identity and conviviality when I was in Kolkata and I think that all contributes to happiness. I entirely agree with your recipe for world happiness although I would suggest a place for the phase of youth where you can party and go wild for a bit before you assume a more Mediterranean relaxed lifestyle!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Do we really want to be happy in the way we think we do?” Such a great question. I think the issue is rejecting some emotions in favor of others. All emotions exist to serve a purpose, and stifling those that are unpleasant only leads to more unhappiness. And let’s face it, a happy -smiley -rainbow -sunshine -kitty cats- ice cream world all the time lacks personality. Hence your craving for some grit. I’m right there with you. Fantastic photos of Bhutan.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Julie! The photos were taken with a pretty low-spec camera so pleased with what I got out of them although Photoshop post-production always helps as well.

    I read an interesting piece the other day that even anger, the emotion that seems to be causing so much trouble at the moment, is still useful and can have benefits for both society and the individual. Anger can serve as a powerful motivator – for both good and bad. We need grit! Glad to hear from all those who acknowledge that.

    Liked by 1 person

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