Think living on a tropical island paradise will make you happy? In fact, the most important factor for happiness may be whether you live in a wealthy democracy or an impoverished dictatorship, according to US psychologist Martin Seligman. Perhaps that’s why Denmark comes top in the 2010 Gallup Wellbeing Survey, and Zimbabwe falls to the bottom. Even so, wealthy, democratic South Korea has the second-highest suicide rate in the world, and Cuba stars in the top 10 countries of the 2009 Happy Planet Index. Think carefully before you make your move.
“Happiness is a place” declares the new slogan for the Tourism Council of Bhutan. A tiny kingdom lying between India and China in the eastern Himalayas, most of Bhutan’s mountainous land is covered with trees (60 percent of it, at least, by law) and dotted with Buddhist temples. Endangered birds like the black-necked crane fly through the clean air, safe since the government made hunting them punish-able with life imprisonment. Even Bengal tigers, facing imminent extinction in India and China, come to caper in the safety of the Bhutanese countryside. Entry for other outsiders has been less easy. The measures to protect Bhutan’s purity are as strict for its culture as for its wildlife; there is a quota on the number of tourists permitted into Bhutan, and tourists must each pay US$250 for every day they spend there. Happiness is a place, but it comes at a cost.
Bhutan has a special claim to happiness. From Aristotle to the speeches of 1960s US politician Robert Kennedy, the idea that collective well-being should determine how a government measures its success has cropped up time and again, but it took a Bhutanese teenager to put it into practice. In 1972, the then 17-year-old fourth Dragon King of Bhutan made an offhand remark that, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.” How seriously he meant it hardly matters; when you’re king, people listen. The government saw the logic of trying to make people happier instead of just richer, and Bhutan began to aim at improving its citizens’ wellbeing, defined through a combination of economic, environmental, cultural, social and spiritual factors.
“A strong sense of identity is critical for a sense of well being”
Karma Tshiteem, Secretary, Gross National Happiness Commission, Thimphu, Bhutan
The idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH) proved popular in economics faculties the world over, but while GNH notionally lay behind government policy for three decades, no one actually asked the Bhutanese people how happy they were. Then, in 2007, Bhutan held its first Gross National Happiness Survey. Limited funds meant that only 950 Bhutanese citizens were visited by the first team of “enumerators”, so, in 2010, the survey was held again, this time in earnest, with detailed answers taken from 7,142 Bhutanese – roughly one percent of the population.
In April 2010, 55 enumerators set out from Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital. Over the next nine months, they struggled through Bhutan’s countryside on a mission to find out how happy people were in isolated mountain villages, where families typically have no electricity and most people don’t go out after dark because they’re scared of ghosts. The interview process took between three and five hours, as 40 percent of Bhutanese cannot read or write and needed to have the questionnaire read to them – not to mention interviewees taking frequent breaks to attend to their livestock – slowing the flow of 750 questions such as “Have you ever seriously thought of committing suicide?” and “Do you think that gossip can be justified?” Most questions asked if people felt satisfied with their lives, worried for the future, and how much they trusted institutions like the police and judiciary.
A general thread through the survey checked to see whether the traditional Bhutanese way of life was being followed. “Studies on happiness show that a strong sense of identity is critical for a sense of well-being,” says Karma Tshiteem, the Secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission, “and culture and tradition are the main pillars of one’s identity.” This belief in the benefits of a homogenous culture has led to legislation compelling architects to design buildings in the traditional style only, a ban on Coca-Cola, and restrictions on advertising billboards.
In place of advertisements, the image seen throughout Bhutan is that of the much-loved fifth Dragon King, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, whose face appears framed on the wall of every shop, office and communal room. But another sort of image has been let into Bhutan. In 1999, Khesar’s father, the fourth Dragon King, lifted Bhutan’s ban on television as a concession to those who had not been able to watch the 1998 FIFA World Cup. “Not everything you will see will be good,” he cautioned. Perhaps he was right – television seemed to have a profound impact on the Bhutanese, as 50 channels began streaming in American wrestling, Bollywood movies and Korean pop. In 2002, Bhutan experienced its first-ever crime wave, which many ascribed to TV’s corrupting influence.
“Desires can have a very negative impact on your happiness”
Kaka Tshering, Editor-in-chief, Bhutan Broadcasting Corporation, Thimphu, Bhutan
“Our desires are increasing,” suggests Kaka Tshering, chief editor of the Bhutanese Broadcasting Service, “and desires can have a very negative impact on your happiness.” The creeping influence of the outside world seems even to have reached the head patriarch himself. When he married last summer, the wedding ceremony was accompanied by the traditional blend of elephants, archery and drumming monks, but the bridal kira referenced recent catwalk trends from Burberry and Fendi.
As much as it challenges the preservation of traditions, perhaps this touch of Western European femininity should be welcomed. The 2007 GNH survey revealed that two out of three Bhutanese women think it is right that their husbands beat them if they neglect their children, burn the dinner or refuse to have sex. Other parts of the population have been explicitly cut out of the GNH plan. Llotshampas – ethnic Nepalese living in Bhutan – counted for a fifth of the national population before they were asked to leave as part of a “one country, one nation” campaign in 1991. “The police came to our house and asked for our papers,” remembers Devi Charan Dhungana. “They said, ‘You aren’t speaking Bhutanese or wearing Bhutanese dress. You have to leave.’” Refugee camps in Nepal still hold some 85,500 Llotshampas. Many, including Devi Charan, have resolved to resettle abroad.
Just 50 years ago, Bhutan had no paper currency, hospitals, or public schools. Today, the UN Development Index ranks it 133rd out of 177 world countries for living standards. And yet in the same year that the GNH survey came into practice, 2007, Bhutan became the world’s second fastest growing economy. Happiness seems to sell. So are the Bhutanese happy? The 2010 GNH survey recorded that the average Bhutanese answer to the question “from one to 10, how satisfied are you with your life?” was a mediocre 6.2. Asked the same question, the Swiss, who live in a mountainous country roughly the same size as Bhutan, scored an average of 8.1. Chocolate can’t be the only reason why.
When in Bhutan: Do
All buildings in Bhutan must be designed in keeping with traditional Bhutanese architecture, featuring traditional cornices, colors and decorative patterns, such as the flying penises painted on external walls to bring good luck and deter evil spirits.
The Bhutanese constitution stipulates that every citizen must protect the environment for the benefit of present and future generations. By law, a minimum of 60 percent of the land must be forest; it is currently more than 70 percent covered in trees.
Buddhist funeral rites usually require at least 21 days to complete. To foster the family unit, the Bhutanese government guarantees any public servant an immediate three weeks of leave if they lose a family member.
The government mandates that all civil servants must wear the national dress at work. The same applies to students and to people visiting temples and dzong fortresses. Gho, the male dress, is a kimono-like, knee-length robe secured at the waist.
When in Bhutan: Don't
The government banned plastic bags in 1999 in order to preserve the environment, as well as the health of people and animals. People have largely ignored the ban, however, and today, over 13 percent of the waste generated in Thimphu consists of plastics.
Following Buddhist beliefs, wild animals in Bhutan cannot be locked away. The exceptions are takins, Bhutan’s national animal, which are kept in a park in Thimphu to prevent them from wandering around eating rubbish.
In an attempt to strengthen its visual identity, Thimphu introduced a regulation requiring all commercial billboards to follow standard sizes and colors: white on blue for private enterprises and yellow on red – the colors of the national flag – for public billboards.
Actually, you can smoke, but you can’t buy cigarettes, and if you bring more than 300 cigarettes into the country you will be fined. If you import 1,200, you could be imprisoned without bail for three to five years.
Where would you be happy?
The United States is famously devoted to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” but according to the 2009 Gallup poll on well-being, the USA is only the 14th happiest place in the world, below Venezuela, Canada and Israel.
Dreaming of lying on a tropical beach with iguanas tickling your feet? Costa Rica is the place for you. According to the 2009 Happy Planet Index, which measures the balance between human development and conservation of nature, Costa Ricans have the highest life satisfaction in the world.
Over 50 years of war between the government and leftwing rebel group FARC have left Colombia ranking 139th in the 2011 Global Peace Index. But the country came third for happiness in the 2008 World Values Survey, maybe due to the fact that 95% of its citizens feel respected by others (Gallup/Invamer).
Sub-Saharan Africa dominates the bottom halves of happiness polls. One in six Africans is Nigerian, and although Nigeria ranked 95th out of 151 countries in a 2009 Gallup happiness survey, Nigerians were named the most optimistic people on Earth by Gallup in 2011.
There is no literal translation for hygge, the Danish word for things that are cozy, familiar and comfortable. Along with being a well-run social democracy with a small population, hygge is perhaps the secret to Denmark’s happiness – many surveys find it to be the happiest country in the world.
How happy the Chinese are depends on who’s asking the questions. China comes 121st out of 151 countries in the 2009 Gallup happiness survey, but first with a perfect 100 rating in a 2011 Global Happiness Index compiled by North Korean Central Television.
If money is key to your happiness, move to Qatar, which has the highest GDP per person in the world (according to the IMF). Don’t go if you are either gay (accusations of sodomy are punishable with five years in prison), a bad Muslim (apostates can still be sentenced to death), or both.
Three out of four New Zealanders claim to be satisfied with their lives according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Such contentment may explain why the anti-corruption group Transparency International found New Zealand to be the world’s least corrupt country in 2011.