When You Think Of Bhutan, What Comes To Mind?

In the Bhutanese language, the name means “land of the thunder dragon.” So when we had the chance to gain rare access to this fascinating place for our health show “Vital Signs”, we knew we had to take it.

When you think of Bhutan, what comes to mind? Monasteries clinging to cliffsides, stunning mountain landscapes, and perhaps, happiness.

This ancient land has only recently opened up to the outside world – cautiously, slowly, with a premium on preserving both its unique culture, and the environment around it. Some 750,000 people call it home. In the Bhutanese language, the name means “land of the thunder dragon.” So when we had the chance to gain rare access to this fascinating place for our health show “Vital Signs”, we knew we had to take it.

While the world continues to learn more about Bhutan, the small mountain kingdom nestled high in the Himalayas between China and India had already been making waves when its king introduced the idea of "gross national happiness" back in the 1970s. It helped set off a trend about the importance of happiness, and how we quantify it.

You've probably heard of gross domestic product, or GDP, the worth of a nation measured in wealth. But gross national happiness, or GNH, is a measure of progress in a different way.

Every five years, a team from the Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research surveys a selection of the Bhutanese population. Questions include “How happy did you feel yesterday?” and “How often do you practice meditation?” – in an effort to measure what they have identified as nine key areas of happiness: psychological wellbeing, health, education, good governance, ecology, time use, community vitality, culture, and living standards.

If some of those categories surprise you, consider this: The research shows that the intangibles considered less easy to quantify – like happiness and social relationships – are often no less important to our wellbeing than measurables like diet, exercise, alcohol consumption, and smoking habits.

In Bhutan, those intangibles show up in some unexpected ways. Archery, the country’s national game, is as much about social interaction as it is about sport. The prime minister’s office fields a football team that has games against a team from the Bank of Bhutan – providing much-needed exercise and again, social time. Sure, when the country’s population is as small as Bhutan’s, it is easier to put a more personal emphasis on the social factor. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all strive for it, too. After all, our health can depend on it.

The country has seen an increase in overall lifespan, with life expectancy at birth now over 70 years old for both men and women, nearly double what it was in the 1950s.

Bhutan continues to learn from its GNH surveys, even though there have been only two conducted so far, five years apart, with another one due next year. The surveys are expensive, and time consuming, but they have yielded some fascinating results. The components like living standards and access to health care are improving in Bhutan, according to those questioned in 2015. But other factors like psychological wellbeing and trust, especially in urban areas, are decreasing. What does that mean exactly? People are less trusting in 2015 than they were in 2010. And you could see how a lack of trust could negatively impact an overall sense of wellbeing – and happiness.

The goal is to take these results, present them to government officials, and ultimately influence policy in Bhutan with a focus on wellbeing.

Even with this effort, Bhutan isn’t perfect – no country is, of course. But because of Bhutan’s strong connection to the idea of happiness with GNH, there’s a common misconception that the country is among the happiest in the world. In fact, in the latest UN World Happiness Report, Bhutan is ranked #95.

But the emphasis on happiness, and the other factors that influence not just the length of our lives but the quality of those years – is what helps set Bhutan apart, with lessons for all of us. As Dr. Lotay Tshering, a practicing surgeon and Bhutan’s current prime minister told me, “We believe in satisfaction and contentment of our needs and wants of life.” The measure of a country, and the lives of those who live there, could and should be about more than money and GDP.

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