20 June 2012

Bhutan: At the edge of the Earth

Perhaps the notion of Gross National Happiness was a bit lost on us at first. Not in a bad way but simply in the sense that we were thinking about the idea of happiness from our own frame of reference. What is happiness in the west? Security? Family? Wealth? On a day-to-day basis maybe it is avoiding rush hour traffic, taking a hot shower, or eating an amazing meal. The further you get from comfort the more you realize just how "happy" those small comforts make you.

 

The last two days we have been scaling hillsides (with the kid on our backs) to reach stupas and temples and monasteries dangling ever so gently from the peaks above. We have had tea with monks and shared snacks with little old ladies who can't help but feel the foreign and surreal porcelain skin of Indigo, who they endearingly refer to as "baby." Every moment and every encounter has been filled with a sense of joy and calm that now, after several days, feels quite normal.

 

It got me thinking about how, exactly, this Gross National Happiness is measured and whether or not it is something that can be universal. Bhutan is, in many ways, exactly as we expected. It is remote, on the bottom end of a traditional "development" scale, not terribly westernized, and almost frozen time. 1958 with cell phones, to be exact. It is our western idea of "Shangri-La:" A place we go to fall off the edge of the earth and reconnect with whatever utopian idea we have of what our society once was.

 

In other ways, we completely forgot about the less-than-perfect aspects that come with being all of those things I just mentioned. You can't drink the tap water. The roads are in dire straights. Not every one has electricity. Life expectancy is just 65. None of these would increase our "gross national happiness" and yet here, whether it is because it's just normal or because these values are not particularly important, The Bhutanese remain incredibly happy. When asked about the road quality our guide told us "no big deal. Just drive a bit slower. Why the hurry?" I mean, yes, good point. On electricity, it was a sort-of "and so you just use candles." Again, yep. As for life expectancy? Well, "the years they have will be very happy with lots of family and then they go on to the next life, which is exciting!" I mean, talk about being positive.

 

That is not to say Bhutan doesn't have problems that are real regardless of context. Crimes are committed sometimes. People do drink too much on occasion. Access to health care, while improving, isn't brilliant. Having a government that provides also means having less choice in our traditional sense.

 

It seems that happiness is, as you may already know, entirely relative. The actual "things" that bring joy can and do vary greatly. The difference I have found, however, is in the approach to finding happiness. Here, it is a conscious daily effort that is regularly considered, debated, discussed, and valued. It is the objective. At home, could we all say the same? I'm not entirely sure but it's certainly worth considering. I know it is what I'll be doing tomorrow as we careen up and down the sides of mountains in our rather aged van bopping and weaving with every pothole, sharp bend, and enormous truck zipping past.

 

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