“We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realizing our innate wisdom and the true and brilliant nature of our own minds,” the prime minister said in 2008.
Happiness in Bhutan, the UN report explains, is reached when people achieve “sufficiency” in at least four domains, which together encompass 33 indicators that range from housing quality to time spent sleeping to cultural participation. Here’s why that last one is important, via the World Happiness Report:
Culture is not only viewed as a resource for establishing identity but also for cushioning Bhutan from some of the negative impacts of modernization and thereby enriching Bhutan spiritually. The diversity of the culture is manifested in forms of language, traditional arts and crafts, festivals, events, ceremonies, drama, music, dress and etiquette and more importantly the spiritual values that people share.
The World Happiness Report authors think Bhutan can be a model for the way other nations track their progress:
“Bhutan is on to something path breaking and deeply insightful,” they write.
But looking at the data, it’s not clear that all Bhutanese are reaping the benefits of this strategy. The GNH poll found that 49 percent of Bhutanese men are happy, while only one-third of women are, “a result that is both striking and statistically significant.”
And despite the intensive focus on merriment, Bhutan isn’t as happy as most European countries surveyed in the report (they’re the happiest in the world), though it is happier than its neighbors, Nepal, China and Bangladesh.
A look at the country's “unhappy” people further reveals how unevenly happiness is distributed in Bhutan. In fact, it looks much like you’d think contentment would present itself in a developing country: Those with economic and educational opportunities are glad; those that lack them aren’t. Here’s the World Happiness Report:
69 percent of the unhappy people are women and thirty one percent are men. 84 percent of unhappy people live in rural areas. Although the unhappy come from every age cohort, 57 percent of the unhappy are over 40 years old. ... While 90 percent of unhappy people have no formal education..., there are zero unhappy people who have completed a diploma or postgraduate studies. 79 percent of unhappy people are farmers...
This fits with existing research showing that richer, better-educated people are happier, in every country, regardless of whether it installs cheery road signs or ensures its people have access to the right ceremonial garb.
Now, even Bhutan is beginning to acknowledge that simply emphasizing happiness doesn’t translate to people living better lives. As Bhutan has progressed from a hermetic kingdom to a more developed nation, it has seen a rise in other symptoms of modernity, as well—drugs, gangs, and unemployment. With that has come an increase in mental illness, as the Toronto Star reported earlier this week, which is treated by the country’s sole psychiatrist.