Bhutanese happiness, getting closer

by Andrew Stein

We still haven’t cracked the case: why is Bhutan widely considered one of the world’s happiest countries?  But we hope we’re inching our way forward.  Among many other things, Bhutan’s happiness (also interpreted as ‘contentment’) stems from its major religion, Buddhism, and its politics, a constitutional monarchy.

The Buddha said: `Contentment is the highest wealth’, meaning that when we are content we do not need to get anything, go anywhere or be anything to be happy because we already are.  This was again reflected in Madeline Drexler’s book “A Splendid Isolation”, where she is pressing several Bhutanese on what makes them happy.  In response, one Bhutanese woman explained, ‘I would say that what makes me happy is to understand things. There are always three truths: yours, mine, and the truth.  If I can get closer to yours, it’s interesting. If I can get closer to mine, it’s liberating. And if I can get closer to ‘the’, it’s enlightening.”  Even in this woman’s response, she returns to Buddhism for direction on what is most noble to seek in life.

Religion can play lots of different roles, and if one of those roles is instrumental in making us feel happy, making us feel content, religion may be serving its ultimate goal.

Along with religion, the constitutional monarchy also plays a central role in happiness.  Bhutan’s 1829 legal code declared that if the Government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.  Drexler puts it succinctly in the following quote:

“Why did the concept of Gross National Happiness spring up in Bhutan? Because of an inspired monarch, uncommon political unity, and what many refer to as a ‘splendid isolation’ that enabled policymakers to learn from other nations’ mistakes.  But mostly because it is almost impossible to separate Bhutanese culture from the spiritual riches of Buddhism. Bhutan was a GNH country before there was GNH.”

My main takeaway from this one step closer to understanding happiness is that happiness is a team sport.  The coach (Buddha), the team captain (government), and all of the players (citizens) need to buy in for winning (‘happiness’) to be possible.  Even with all the right pieces, however, the team still might not win, but I feel at least the fundamentals are there.

Link to the Madeline Drexler’s book: A Splendid Isolation: Lessons on Happiness from the Kingdom of Bhutan