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The Happiest People on Earth

When strolling through the cities and villages in Bhutan, one sees primarily happy faces. Smiling eyes greet you and you often hear a happy “Kuzuzangpo” or “Hello”. But are Bhutanese really the happiest people on earth?

What a question. How can one answer such a question? To do so one would first need to know what happiness is and how it can be measured. There are several approaches to quantifying a population’s happiness around the world. For example, the Happy Planet Index (HPI) attempts to measure happiness  in terms of feeling content, life expectancies, all based on the ecological footprint. Costa Rica introduced this measure in 2012. Bhutan was not listed. The World Happiness Report 2015 by the UNO, evaluating data from social systems and job markets combined with results from questionnaires about subjective perspective of the populations, Switzerland ranked first while Bhutan was listed on place 79.

That being said, Bhutan is the ‘inventor’ of governmental happiness indices. It all started when the young IVth king of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, was asked about the development of the weak gross national product by a journalist in India in the 1970s. He answered that he valued the gross national happiness more than the gross national product. That surprised the journalists a fair bit, even though Robert F. Kennedy had already questioned the gross national product as a measure of wealth in 1968.

What does the gross national product say about wealth? In principle, it only measures the monetary value created by a country’s markets within one year. But do we benefit from an increase in the gross national product? As an example, gross national product also increases as a result of a large car crash on the highway, as it requires material and services, which raise the gross national product.

Bhutan did not want to go down that path. It has been working for long time on a happiness concept (gross national happiness) and has found an astonishing result. Originally the concept was built upon four pillars:

  • Good Governance
  • Sustainable Socio-economic Development
  • Preservation and Promotion of Culture
  • Environmental Conservation

Now 151 variables from 33 fields and 9 domains are used and scientifically evaluated to measure the gross national happiness (living standards, education, health, environment, community vitality, time-use, psychological well-being, good governance, Cultural resilience and promotion). Every two years the survey is conducted, for which volunteers sometimes hike for days into the last corners of the mountains. Again, this survey reveals that not everyone is completely happy or happy at all but the government takes the problems of its population very seriously.

What does it mean for the average Bhutanese?
When you get in touch with a Bhutanese you immediately notice how friendly and joyful they are. They take life as it comes and try to make the best of it. I rarely have been in other places on earth where I saw so many smiling people that all seem in balance with themselves. That may in part be due to Buddhism, which aims to overturn unhappiness, hate, and greed, and to reduce suffering. When you talk to Bhutanese on the street about their opinion on the gross national happiness concept, you generally receive a hesitant answer or some even reject it, but it does not change the fact that the people, despite all the problems that you will obviously find in Bhutan as well, even without riches seem happy.

One thing is certain and supported by many studies: money alone does not make one happy.