The Hidden Meanings of Happiness in Bhutan

Happiness is at the very heart of everyone’s meaningful existence. It is experienced across all cultures, people, and by all sentient beings. It is been philosophized by the greatest thinkers in history, from Plato and Aristotle to Guatama Buddha himself. In contemporary times, it has been theorized and championed by John F. Kennedy, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, among many others. But perhaps nowhere in the world is happiness taken more seriously than in the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan. 

When Bhutan comes up in conversation, many people across the world associate the small land-locked nation with happiness. A common reaction accompanied by the unescapable beaming smile is, “oh, the land of happiness!”, or “oh, the country of Gross National Happiness!”. And of course, any trip to Bhutan is incomplete without the subject of happiness coming up. This is because Bhutan takes happiness to a higher level. His Majesty the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, and His Majesty the King of Bhutan Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck have placed happiness at the center of development, government planning, tourism, and approach to modernity from a distinctly indigenous perspective. There are a myriad of ways happiness is incorporated into the national fabric of Bhutan. 

Western Lens on Happiness

Although happiness is important to everyone, it can sometimes be difficult to achieve. It is also one of the most elusive of terms to define. This is because it means different things to different people, across diverse cultural contexts and academic disciplines. Across various historical time periods, it has also meant diverse things to people. When we take a non-human perspective, happiness is experienced differently by sentient beings we share our planet with and who enable our very lives (i.e. wildlife, animals, birds, insects, plants, trees, etc.). 

From a western lens, happiness is often associated with positive emotions and sense of life satisfaction and fulfillment. This tends to point to an individualistic focus. There is also a common tendency to conflate fleeting short-term concepts of happiness with deeper long-term understanding of the term. 

Western psychology is somewhat contradictory in the way it describes happy people. Some suggest happy people exhibit openness, creativity, sociability, flexibility, tolerance, and a willingness to reach out and help others. It therefore follows that their happiness is contagious and positively affects those around them. It also proposes that unhappy people tend to be individualistic, self-focused, socially withdrawn, brooding or even antagonistic. Their unhappiness tends to push those around them away. Yet others suggest that for extroverts, happiness implies socialness, openness, outgoing and expressiveness, while for introverts happiness implies quiet, reservedness, thoughtfulness, and deriving energy from inner thoughts and ideas. While the literature is bursting with concepts, theories and debates, some of these ideas about what makes people happy are contradictory. What western psychology had made considerable headway in diagnosing patterns and psychosis that affect people’s happiness or emotional wellbeing, it is less clear and lacks consensus about the ways or methods for achieving or measuring happiness. 

The Meaning of Happiness in Bhutan

In Bhutan, happiness has its roots in Buddhist philosophy. It is often associated with terms such as bliss, joy or flourishing – pointing to a deeper meaning of the term. 

In order to understand this deeper meaning of happiness, the term can be divided into two states of being. On the one hand, it is a feeling associated with short-term sense of personal pleasure or joy. Short-term pleasure is easier to achieve, but also short-lived and fleeting. For instance, this is the feeling we might have after winning a football match, or after buying a new pair of shoes, or eating our favorite desert. Buddhism cautions us about expecting a deeper sense of happiness with material and impermanent things. Shoes get old and lose their novelty or go out of fashion. After the sensory pleasure of eating chocolate, the sensation is gone. Winning a football match can proceed to losing the tournament, with the initial euphoric feeling forgotten. 

On the other hand, long-term happiness is associated with a broader meaning associated with a sense of deeper contentment and gratitude. According to Buddhist philosophy, the very purpose of our life is to seek happiness in its deeper form. This is simple yet profound.   

A deeper and more stable sense of happiness can be achieved through training our mind, spirit, intellect, and our feelings and hearts. This is attained through mindfulness, practice and inner discipline which can bring about transformations in our attitude, outlook, approach to living, and our approach to others and our planet. In his bestselling book “The Art of Happiness”, His Holiness the Dalai Lama wisely explains, “when we speak of this inner discipline, it can of course involve many things, many methods. But generally speaking, one begins by identifying those factors which lead to happiness and those factors that lead to suffering. Having done this, one then sets about gradually eliminating those factors which lead to suffering and cultivating those which lead to happiness. That is the way” (1998:15). 

The notion of separating patterns that make us happy from those that bring us suffering is again simple but profound. It also raises inevitable questions about irritating and tragic events that are out of our control which destabilize our emotions and cause us to be unhappy: from irritants such as the long queues of traffic, the loud neighbor, or barking dogs, to more deeply devastating stressors and tragic events such as war, illness, pandemics, death, divorce and betrayals. Buddhist philosophy tells us that how we deal with these negative challenges is associated with our mind: the inner peace, stability and wisdom we attain from mindfulness and practice. Several tools are offered to help us achieve a calm frame of mind, such as meditation, teachings, rituals, mantras, inner-reflection, as well as compassion, kindness and the notion of dana (giving to others and the practice of cultivating generosity), among others. 

One poignant Buddhist metaphor associates the calmness of the mind to that of the dynamics of the ocean. When the ocean is calm, there is clarity in what we can see, and we may be able to see with purity of vision for great distances around us. However, when a storm passes, the ocean is churned up and our depth of vision is made murky and unclear, as many things are churned up around us. However, storms are impermanent, and they eventually pass. Recognizing the impermanence of things, that all storms pass, helps us to keep a calm and happy mind. 

Nonetheless, long-term happiness is sometimes more difficult to attain, as it alludes to general state of experiencing wellbeing, inner peace or feeling contentment in a stable way. As opposed to short-term happiness, deeper long-term happiness is not necessarily associated with money or material things. This is backed by scientific research, which indicates that while material goods and money can induce happiness in the short term, they fail to do so in the long-term. 

In Bhutan, happiness is achieved through compassion, loving-kindness, and recognizing our common collectivity and inter-connectedness or interdependence with one another, with our environment, planet, the cosmos, and with all sentient beings. 

Happiness as Part of the National Fabric of Bhutan

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, or GNH for short is founded on a deeper definition and the more long-term sense of happiness. It is sometimes referred to as holistic wellbeing or overall contentment. 

Overall, as an alternative development conceptual framework, GNH is defined by four pillars of conserving the environment, preserving culture, good governance and sustainable and equitable socio-economic development. 

Academics, researchers and policy-makers from all over the world visit Bhutan to study and learn about GNH. They are inspired by the fact that Bhutan measures the nation’s happiness every five years, through an index of measurement that includes living standards, health, education, governance, environment, culture, community vitality, time use, and psychological wellbeing. This is more robust than the way progress is narrowly measured by Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, which externalizes environmental, social, cultural and informal economy costs such a women’s unpaid labour, or by conventional measures of development such as the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals or the Human Development Index which exclude cultural practices, contexts, values and indigenous knowledge. 

Most importantly, GNH is much more than an index of measurement or conceptual framework for development. It is also a moral concept, a set of guiding principles for alternative development, a policy screening mechanism, and the secularization of Buddhist concepts into an innovative and unique form of development policies and practices. This has real-life impacts. For instance, Bhutan is the only country in the world that is carbon negative – it absorbs more carbon than it emits through its vast forest cover. It has also pioneered the concept of low volume, high value tourism that limits the impact of tourism on its environment and culture. It prohibits mountaineering to protect its important indigenous cultural beliefs and practices. As we speak, and according to the United Nations, Bhutan is a “least developed country”. Despite its limited economic resources, it provides free health care and education to all its people, including in the remotest parts of the country – something that is enabled by the tourism sustainable development fee. There are many more examples of GNH – one just has to look at its architecture, food, rivers, mountains, dress, and the many things that make Bhutan one of the most unique and special tourist destinations.   

The practice of GNH ranges from individual practice to national policy-making, and has contributed to the world and many countries across the globe in influencing the way we think about happiness. However, in the end, GNH cannot make an individual happy. Rather, the multitude of ways GNH is conceptualized, enacted into Bhutan’s constitution, policies and national governance and sectors, ensures that Bhutanese women, men, children and all the sentient beings that inhabit the country have the conditions necessary to lead a happy life. This empowers us to pursue a happy life. In the wise words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “there is no way to happiness, happiness is the way”. 


Dr. Ritu Verma

A socio-cultural anthropologist, researcher, author and photographer, she has published extensively on GNH, the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, and beyond. She is a regular columnist in this magazine. Find her at rituvermapuri.wordpress.com, ucla.academia.edu/RituVerma and on facebook@NetworkBhutanAnthropologists