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April 24, 2014
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Bhutan, the land of gross national happiness

The tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan is the last surviving paradise on Earth. This legendary Shangri-La, now a member of the United Nations, is home to over 700,000 people. Until 1958, it was practically closed to visitors. When Nehru, the Indian Prime Minister, visited Bhutan during that year he rode in on a horse from neighbouring India – no paved roads existed then. The postal service made its début in 1962.

Just recently, the first traffic light was installed at a busy traffic circle in Thimphu, the country’s capital. The traffic light did not last long – citizens complained that its design was too ugly. Indeed, its metallic body stood in marked contrast to the sublime background of imperial mountains carpeted with lush green forests.

What makes this small country (also known as the Land of the Dragon) the realm of happiness on earth? Is it the fact that Buddhism shuns the killing of animals (even fishing is not allowed)? Is it that foreigners can never become citizens? Or is it the regard for natural resources and the environment the main contributor to Gross National Happiness?

My guide, Chencho Tshering, believed that inter-generational living is a plus in pursuing happiness and wellbeing. Young and old share living spaces. Segregation by age, common in the West, is regarded as barbaric and unhealthy in Bhutan.

Moreover, the ego is seen as an obstacle in the path to attaining happiness, since desire blinds people to the true meaning of life. The Buddhist ritual of prostrating oneself at the temples, or a the ubiquitous home altars, is a signifier of the need to crush one's ego.

On my journey, I often asked civilians and monks, “Have you heard of Argentina?” Answers varied, and educational level did not correlate with the degree of knowledge.

Some had never heard of Buenos Aires or the River Plate, wondering about its location. A few associated the name with football, beaming at memories of Maradona’s golden age. Surprisingly, just a few years ago, the image of a long-haired, bearded Argentine began to be paraded on the T-shirts of teenagers. What does the ordinary person know about Che? Not much. Che Guevara’s cradle and his historical significance were a mystery to most.

What about Perón or Evita? – I dared to ask: “Never heard of either,” remarked a 46 year old University graduate. “Not even the famous song, Don’t Cry for me Argentina?” Nope.

This is not surprising. Bhutan was so isolated from the rest of the world that World Wars I and II came and went without the country even being aware of their vicissitudes. Chencho learned about the wars in High School. His parents, who lived during that time, had no clue about what was happening in Europe or Asia either.

Technology has begun to bring the outside world to remote corners of Bhutan. I witnessed monks checking their iPhones while engaged in the study of sacred manuscripts. The Internet is becoming an asset – and a liability. Under its influence, will the country be able to maintain its formidable isolation and Happiness level? The winds of change are blowing, and development is a reality in the construction that is happening in cities and on country roads.

Bhutan claims to have discovered the secret to a happy life. Yet, can development be carried on with due respect for cultural, spiritual and environmental values? Can the human aspiration for happiness be sustained under industrial advances? So far, all of Bhutan seems immersed in the ideology of Gross National Happiness (GNH). The GNH Commission hosted a conference on Happiness attended by representatives from both East and West. The first world seems to be in need of studying Bhutan’s phenomenon. It needs to import some of its policies to preserve the Earth’s resources for future generations and to achieve a modicum of happiness.

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