August 19, 2014

Gross National Happiness: On the Ground in Bhutan

A Q&A with journalist Madeline Drexler

In the fall of 2012, journalist Madeline Drexler, editor of Harvard Public Health magazine and a senior fellow at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, traveled to Bhutan to take a close look at the country’s concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH), an alternative measure to gross domestic product (GDP). Her article, “The Happiness Metric: Bhutan’s experiment in turning principle into policy,” is featured in the Fall 2014 issue of Tricycle.

Martha Henry


Why did you want to go to Bhutan? It had been on my mind for decades. When I was in college, I had read a little squib in the newspaper that said the Himalayan nation of Bhutan permits only 2,500 visitors a year. Looking back, it must have been around 1974, when Bhutan started to allow foreign visitors into the country. For whatever reasons—its remoteness, its beauty—I knew I had to go there.

What did you go to investigate? I was intrigued by the governing policy known as Gross National Happiness, or GNH. I wanted to understand it from every perspective—the reality of how it was playing out, not just the upbeat propaganda. My plan was to talk to people across the spectrum of society: government officials, religious leaders, artists, activists, farmers, students, young people, old people, men, women, and even some expats who were living there.

And secondarily—maybe not so secondarily—my intention was to directly experience a Buddhist culture. Since 2000, I had been studying Theravada Buddhism and living it as much as I could. The Bhutanese practice Vajrayana Buddhism. I wanted to understand it, not just from the studious Western perspective but also by spending time with people who, for the most part, hadn’t learned it in a book later in life but were nurtured on it from birth.

In your article you write, “the question is how the nation can become modern without losing its soul.” What do you mean by that? The Bhutanese are proud of their culture. They recognize that they have something precious. A visitor like me recognizes it, too. Traditionally, the society has been infused with the tenets of Buddhism: a deep understanding of interdependence, an emphasis on compassion, a natural simplicity and self-sufficiency.

But today, it’s a complicated picture. Bhutan suffers the problems of any developing nation: bad roads, rudimentary healthcare, a weak business base, and inequalities of all sorts. It started using the Internet in 1999 and only became a democracy in 2008.

It’s a nation that’s changing rapidly. When I asked people how Gross National Happiness was faring, they often talked about the dangers of materialism. Many Bhutanese fear that the out-of-control American-style shopping spree is encroaching on their way of life.

So those are the dangers, but what exactly would be lost? What already is starting to fray is Bhutan’s social cohesion—the sense of the nation as a family and, in some cases, the family itself.

For many reasons, both ecological and economic, there’s been a dramatic migration from rural agrarian areas—which used to hold the vast majority of the population—to the cities. One of the consequences is that extended families are being broken up. Once they land in a city, both parents often work outside of the home and so have less time to spend with their children. Later, when kids graduate from school, they frequently can’t find a job because the economy is sluggish. Drug use and crime, which used to be rare, are on the rise. Bhutan is seeing a social anomie that’s unprecedented.

Your article in Tricycle is adapted from your recent book, A Splendid Isolation: Lessons on Happiness from the Kingdom of Bhutan, which came out earlier this year. What do people in Bhutan think about your book? I’ve gotten positive responses from Bhutanese readers. They’ve commented on blogs and on other social media that they feel the book captured GNH in an objective and even-handed way. One person wrote that it was a breath of fresh air from both the preaching of GNH advocates and the cynicism of nonbelievers.

How do the citizens of Bhutan view GNH? It’s a mixed bag. Virtually everyone I met respected—I would even say, revered—the Fourth King’s original conception of Gross National Happiness, which he articulated in the 1970s. But today, a lot of Bhutanese are skeptical—not of the Gross National Happiness vision itself, but of the way it is being carried out and the way that Bhutan has advertised itself to the West as a GNH nation. They feel that if leaders haven’t nearly perfected the policy at home, they shouldn’t be boasting about it abroad.

Some people told me that in order to persuade the West to accept the concept of GNH, Bhutanese leaders were forced to quantify its benefits, just as the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund rely on quantification to measure progress. For many Bhutanese, this Western fixation on measurement is antithetical to the spirit of GNH.

Do you think there is an inherent conflict between Buddhism and capitalism? If capitalism means consumerism—the endless hunger for things and novelty and distraction—then of course there’s a conflict. In my mind, if you want to compare Buddhism and capitalism, what might be considered Buddhist “capital”—and Buddhist wealth—are the brahma-vihara: lovingkindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. They don’t fit in a capitalist scheme. After all, they’re called the four immeasurables.

I’ve known you for a long time. I think that I can accurately say that you’re an ambitious workaholic, albeit a nice one. Did Bhutan change you? Not really. I am dubious when people say that a place changed them after a single visit. To me it suggests that either they’re projecting a false image onto the place or a false image onto themselves.

Bhutan didn’t change me—but it moved me. The questions that the Bhutanese are asking are profound. They are trying to reconcile a brilliant, idealistic vision with the complications of reality and human foibles. To me, self-transformation—in nations and in human beings—is always fascinating.

In Bhutan, I worked flat out—which, for me, is completely enlivening. I was probably a comical figure to my hosts. Bhutan is the land of the laid back. Here I was, this hyper-productive American reporter who had scheduled scores of interviews, day after day, back to back to back. My hosts were sort of astonished and a little concerned. They kept saying, "Madeline, don’t you want to eat something, maybe have lunch?"

Looking back, I’m glad I pushed myself beyond the point of exhaustion. I returned with priceless conversations and experiences, all this rich material on which to draw for the book and for this Tricycle article. It’s hard to explain, but in Bhutan, even as I was madly dashing about, I felt quiet inside, almost as if I was vibrating with the place. It was journalistic one-pointedness.

Were you happy in Bhutan? I was really happy in Bhutan.

Read Madeline Drexler's "The Happiness Metric" in the newest issue of Tricycle.

Martha Henry asks questions and writes essays in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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carterthad's picture

awesome to travel and absorb another culture, a place where Buddhism is strong, I envy you and applaud your determination for truth, your insights are an inspiration to me. Thank you.