Last week on Environment Day when the world was reaffirming its intention to save the planet, my mind wandered to Bhutan and how this Carbon negative country is different from the rest of us. I had a chance to visit this quaint land with college friends recently. We were making good a promise we had made to ourselves three decades ago. We had plenty of reasons to rejoice on this five day holiday away from family and responsibilities. But the happiness of the locals and the uniformity of the land intrigued me. All houses and buildings, whether new or old, have the same traditional exterior, an effort to protect Bhutanese architecture. There is a certain serenity, a contentment as people go about their business wearing the traditional gho and kira. Yes, they have a national dress which they wear every single day of their lives. More surprising than the fact that this code exists is the unflinching reverence with which it is followed. Being a non- conformist myself, I couldn’t believe that people could willingly give up their individuality and be happy about it. Furthermore my logical mind could not accept their claim to happiness despite an abysmally low GDP.
So I questioned the citizens I met, repeatedly, persistently and extensively. I asked our guide, our driver, the hotel manager, the shopkeeper selling pricey stone jewellery, the lady selling cheap knickknacks, the life guard on our raft and the woman who put red hot stones in our bath. I asked the pretty girls who gave us a traditional ‘ara’ welcome, performed a Bhutanese dance and served us breakfast. I inquired the old couple who packed our picnic lunch and the poor vendor selling yak cheese and cucumbers. And I looked for answers in their answers. What do they know about happiness that we don’t?
My study may not stand the scrutiny of a panel of social scientists, nevertheless the results were a revelation for me. Though the answers varied, the undercurrent theme was the same, they believed in what they were doing. They felt that their culture and environment was worth protecting and they were duty bound to preserve it. They trusted the system, both their democratically elected representative as well as their young king, the descendant of the ‘dynasty’. They had faith that their interests will be looked after, that the state would be by their side in face of adversity. As our guide succinctly put it, “People have hope.”
In these times of collapsing financial systems, gross inequity and wide-scale environmental destruction Bhutan’s concept of Gross National Happiness and the pledge to remain Carbon Neutral till perpetuity makes sense.The four pillars on which this ideology is based are good governance, sustainable socioeconomic development, preservation and promotion of culture and conservation of the environment. Health and education is free. Electricity is subsidised. Plastic bags and tobacco products are banned. Not that Bhutan’s determined and methodical pursuit of a concept as elusive as national happiness has been free of challenges. One of the last kingdoms in the world, citizens learned to vote as late as 2008. The tiny nation remains secluded from the world, television arrived at the turn of this century and internet much later. Foreign tourists were not allowed until 1974, even now tourism is tightly regulated. The infrastructure is still developing, there were no paved roads till 1960, roads and electricity have still not reached parts of this sparsely inhabited nation. The truth is Bhutan remains one of the poorest countries on our planet. So how can our neighbours be happy with so little when we aren’t with so much.
Has our focus on GDP been our undoing? Growth has been the mantra of our economy. How can there be contentment when we constantly strive for more? Economic growth brings happiness if it is equitable and doesn’t encourage disparity. This is difficult in a consumerist society which is probably why even the American constitution promises its citizens only the pursuit of happiness not its actual possession.
Is it the bliss which accompanies ignorance ? Are they happy because they don’t know better? Bhutan has had limited exposure to the outside world. To become a consumer one has to know what is on offer. Will things change now that technology has broken down their frontiers ?
Is it the pride in their culture and the sense of purpose to keep it alive? Many would insist that we value our culture too. But the similarity ends here. While Bhutan puts a code of conduct on its citizens, it imposes no restrictions on the visitors. In India most of our energy is spent in coercing others to do what they don’t want to.
Is it the religion which they follow? The Buddhist way of life preaches austerity and renunciation. Our gurus preach this too but themselves build business empires and whiz around in swanky cars. This confuses their disciples. In any case we are not religious people, we are at best ritualistic. True religion would redeem us. Rituals further aggravate our misery.
Is it the confidence they have in the state? A trust which is lacking in the average Indian? We have no faith in the political system and when misfortune strikes we don’t know where to go for solace and reprieve. Much of our resources are used in planning for this eventuality and sadly, much of our time is spent in dodging the system which was put in place to help us.
Perhaps happiness comes from what the Bhutanese see and not what they hear. Perhaps it is watching their King step down from the throne and voluntarily give his power to the people. Perhaps it is seeing the royals proudly wear the national dress and happily chop onions to make Ema Datshi. Perhaps, it is the realisation that their happiness matters to their rulers and all policies are designed to achieve it. Or perhaps it is just the belief that they are doing the right thing.
On my flight home, as I saw the magnificent and pristine Mount Everest poke through the sea of gloomy grey clouds, I found the answer to my quest. If you are determined to be happy, you’ll find a reason. As Leo Tolstoy said, ” If you want to be happy, be”
(Published as a part of my column in the Sunday Tribune on 12/6/16)