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The Gross National Happiness of Bhutan

  • Written by  Stuart Butler
  • Published in Cultures
The Gross National Happiness of Bhutan
22 Dec
In the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, traditional Buddhist culture has helped shape government policies on the environment and the search for human happiness. Should we all follow suit?

‘It’s my father’s house, but I look after it while he’s away. He’s been gone a long time now.’

As she spoke, Mrs Chozam’s hands were awhirl with cotton threads and the slowly growing kira (traditional wraparound clothing of Bhutanese women) that she was weaving on a traditional loom. Pausing from her work, she waved a hand vaguely towards to the north: ‘He’s meditating in one of the caves about four hour’s walk further up that mountain.’

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In the direction she pointed, the mountain slope rose sharply upwards from the river valley. A few stone houses with brightly painted wooden window frames clung to the lower parts of the hillside. Yellowing heads of maize drying in the weak sun hung from roof beams and around each house were a couple of small, roughly terraced fields. Up above the last house though, nature reasserted herself. Forests of rhododendrons the size of oak trees and covered in fiery red and purple flowers mixed with straight-backed conifers. All were festooned in Spanish moss like a million tangled fishermen’s beards. All the way up the valley there was nothing but trees until, eventually, they died away among the empty scree slopes below distant snow peaks. It seemed like a pristine Himalayan environment. Mrs Chozam glanced pensively towards the mountains. ‘He won’t come back home now until he dies.’

The Phobjikha Valley in central Bhutan. Rare black-necked cranes overwinter on the valley floor and local people hold a festival to celebrate their arrival each yearThe Phobjikha Valley in central Bhutan. Rare black-necked cranes overwinter on the valley floor and local people hold a festival to celebrate their arrival each year


Landlocked and sandwiched between India and China, the tiny (it’s about the same size as Switzerland) Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan treads a fine balance both politically and socially. Until the 1950s, the country was sealed to the outside world and was one of the least developed countries on Earth. At the time the average life expectancy was just 33 years old, there were only two doctors in the entire country and the GNP per person was a mere $51. There was no electricity. No telephones. No postal service. No roads. No cars. Things have changed since then.

It shouldn’t have been at all surprising to hear that Mrs Chozam’s father was going to remain meditating in a remote cave until his death. Long periods of solitary meditation are common in Bhutan. I’d already met a number of people who’d recently emerged from meditation. But these weren’t casual, an-hour-or-so-before-breakfast meditators. Almost all of them commit to spending a solid three years, three months, three weeks and three days (3,333 being an auspicious number here) confined to a cave on a forested mountain slope. During this period they can have no contact whatsoever with the outside world.

A few days earlier I’d met a monk who’d recently re-emerged after just such a period of meditation. ‘The thing that shocked me the most when I returned to the monastery were the telephones,’ he said. ‘Yes people had them before I went to the caves, but now all the younger monks do is stare at their phones and play games on them!’

But why do it? And how do the families of those left behind feel when people go off to meditate? Mrs Chozam answered that for me: ‘My father is now 62. He went off to the caves for three years, came back for a few months and then went back to the caves. He’s been gone nine years now. Of course I felt sad when he went. We all did. It’s like you’re mourning the death of someone. But at the same time we are all proud. He is not meditating for himself. He is meditating for the happiness and peace of all sentient beings. People who go off to meditate do it for the good of all the people and all creatures on Earth. It’s a thing of great pride for a family when someone devotes part of their life to this. One day I too will go and meditate, but not yet. Someone has to make dinner for the children!’

A young monk of the Nyingma (Red Hat) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This is the predominate school of Buddhism in Bhutan A young monk of the Nyingma (Red Hat) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. This is the predominate school of Buddhism in Bhutan


When the country first creaked open its doors, peeked out at the rest of the world and contemplated how to catch up, it looked to its own culture and strong Buddhist faith for answers. The result was an emphasis not on GDP (though that’s increased hugely, as has life expectancy and almost all other barometers of development), but on the health and happiness of the country and all the creatures that live within its diminutive borders. It was like the entire government was following the path set by Mrs Chozam’s father. The government called it Gross National Happiness (GNH), striking a balance, it says, between material and mental well-being.

There are four official pillars to GNH:

• Sustainable and Equitable Socio-Economic Development
• Good Governance
• Preservation and Promotion of Culture
• Environmental Conservation

While most governments around the world protect the environment because it provides us with the essentials of life – water, food and energy – the official policy of Bhutan’s GNH is to protect the environment, according to the Centre for Gross National Happiness, because ‘the environment is believed to contribute to aesthetic and other stimulus that can be directly healing to people who enjoy vivid colours and light, untainted breeze and silence in nature’s sound.’

In many ways Bhutan’s environmental ethos evolved from the Buddhist concept of a sacred landscape. Buddhists believe that the forests, rivers and mountains should be left as nature intended. Such is this sense of the sacrosanct environment that Bhutan’s highest mountains remain unclimbed. Nor will they ever be summited. Mountaineering (but not trekking) has been illegal in Bhutan since 2003 for the express reason of preserving the sanctity of the summits where the gods reside.

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Young monks peer through a window at Punakha dzong, one of the most important religious  centres  in BhutanYoung monks peer through a window at Punakha dzong, one of the most important religious centres in Bhutan

That concept of a sacred landscape means that in Bhutan a tree is more than just a tree. It’s a symbol of long life, compassion and beauty. Needless to say, the Bhutanese love trees. In 2015, the country managed to plant 50,000 new trees in just one hour (breaking the world record in the process) and when the young, and much adored, king and queen’s first baby was born in 2016, the country celebrated by planting tens of thousands of trees.

But more importantly, because of the GNH policy and Buddhism’s non-harm to all living beings attitude, this is a place that values its forests. By law, at least 60 per cent of the country must retain its natural forest cover for future generations, but right now an impressive 71 per cent of the country is forested (and it’s not like the remaining 29 per cent is urban or agricultural land. Large parts of upland Bhutan are above the tree line and are pristine alpine wilderness).

In terms of environmental protection Bhutan is way ahead of most Asian nations – most nations of the world in fact. In 1999, long before it became fashionable, Bhutan became one of the first countries to partially (and now totally) ban plastic bags; it’s aiming to have 100 per cent organic farming in the coming few years, and, most impressively, it’s the planet’s only carbon negative country (although as development and the demand for cars increases this will become harder to maintain and so Bhutan is aiming to remain at the very least carbon neutral).

By 2030 the country also aims to be totally waste neutral. Almost half (47.3 per cent) of Bhutan’s surface area is classified (and thus protected) as national parks and sanctuaries. This makes it the fourth best protected country in the world. These parks are efficiently maintained and there are stiff laws in place for poaching or logging in such zones.

In May 2019, a UN report stated that one million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction and that nature across the world is declining at speeds never previously seen. The reasons? Our need for ever more food and energy. The report went on to state that these trends could be halted but that it would take a ‘transformative change’ in every aspect of how humanity interacts with the natural world. One of the ways the report suggested that things could change is for the world to move away from ‘the limited paradigm of economic growth’, i.e. to stop using GDP as a key measure of economic wealth and instead move to a system that measures the quality of human life and our long-term effects on the environment. That sounds a lot like Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness scale.

Masked dancers at one of Bhutan’s tsechus. These religious festivals are renowned for the elaborate costumes and masked dancesMasked dancers at one of Bhutan’s tsechus. These religious festivals are renowned for the elaborate costumes and masked dances


A week or two after my meeting with Mrs Chozam I was walking across the hills that ring the glorious Phobjikha Valley in central Bhutan. At the crest of one hill colourful bundles of prayer flags fluttered in the breeze. My guide pointed into a cluster of trees on the opposite hillside. ‘There are mediation caves among those trees,’ he informed me.

Just then a distinct, raspy squawk echoed across the skies above us. A flock of black-necked cranes circled once, twice and then a third time before landing in the marshes below the large Gangtey Monastery. My guide smiled. ‘The cranes are back,’ he said with a degree of pleasure. ‘Every autumn they come from Tibet. They always circle the monastery three times. They’re doing a Kora (religious circumambulation). The people here will be happy. They’ll hold a festival in a few week’s time to welcome the cranes back to the valley.’

In a 2016 TED Talk, the then prime minister of Bhutan, Tshering Tobhay, ended with a challenge to the global community: ‘I invite you to help me, to carry this dream beyond our borders to all those who care about our planet’s future. After all, we’re here to dream together, to work together, to fight climate change together, to protect our planet together. Because the reality is we are in it together.’

Meditating for the benefit of all life on Earth, protecting the natural world just for the inherent pleasure it can bring to us, and holding festivals to welcome migrating birds. As the cranes settled down to feed I couldn’t help but think that this little-known nation has much to teach the world.

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• Geographic Location: Eastern Himalaya,South Asia
• Latitude/Longitude: 27°31’53”N, 90°26’9”E
• Land Area: 14.824sq miles
• Highest Point: 7,570m (Mt Gangkhar Puensum – world’s highest unclimbed mountain)
• Lowest Point: 97m
• Population: 807,610 (2017)
• GDP: US$2.512 billion (2017)
• Literacy Levels: 66 per cent (93 per cent for the 15 to 24-year-old age group)
• Life Expectancy Male/Female: 68.8/71.7yrs
• Urban Population: 38.6 per cent (2015)
• Language: Dzongkha
• Currency: Bhutanese Ngultrum (Nu)


1907: Ugyen Wangchuck is unanimously elected as the hereditary ruler of modern Bhutan
• 1910: Treaty signed between Bhutan and Britain guaranteeing Bhutan its sovereignty. Bhutan is never colonised
• 1953: The third king establishes a national assembly to promote democratic governance
• 1956: Serfdom is abolished
• 1961: Bhutan ends centuries of self-imposed isolation and starts to develop
• 1974: First tourist group enters the country
• 2005: Fourth King abdicates and is replaced by his son (coronation in 2008)
• 2007-8: First elections are held
• 2013: Second free and fair elections are held. Opposition wins
• 2016: Prince Jigme Namgyel Wangchuck is born


Look the Tibetan Blue Bear (Ursus arctos pruinosus) up online and you’ll find little but a few hazy references and perhaps a sepia-tinged century-old photo or two. A strange and terrifying apparition that can stand and walk on its back legs like a giant, it’s a hairy, human-like creature thought to haunt the misty high forests close to the tree line in the remotest corners of Bhutan. It’s generally described as being, ‘like a bear but not a bear’.

   The website of the Bear Conservation Organisation (bearconservation.org.uk) states only that it is: ‘Very rare and could be extinct in the wild’. However, in the past two or three years there have been a number of confirmed sightings of the blue bear in remote forested areas of Bhutan and eastern Tibet (including one by this author in June 2019) and there have been recent attacks on secluded farmsteads by the creatures. The exact reason for this sudden surge of sightings and attacks is unknown.

   But what is known is that the blue bear, with its apparent ability to hide in plain sight, fondness for remote mountain regions and ability to walk on its back legs is often considered the living, breathing source of the yeti legend.


With altitudes ranging from an oxygen-rich 97m to an oxygen-starved 7,570m, Bhutan has a huge array of radically different eco-systems. The southern lowlands comprise steamy jungles where Asian elephants share roaming rights with tigers, sloth bears and one-horned rhinos. Bhutan’s showpiece (but difficult to access) protected area, the Royal Manas National Park, is found in this region.

   In the central highlands, housing the capital, Thimphu, and the majority of the population, there are great strands of conifer and broadleaf forests. This area is the home to Bhutan’s national animal: the takin. This bizarre-looking creature is like an oversized cross between a cow and a goat but with a face that’s apparently been squashed flat. It’s said to have been ‘created’ by one of Bhutan’s most loved saints, the Divine Madman who used highly unorthodox methods (often sexual) to get his messages across to the common man and woman. One day, after eating an entire cow and a goat at a village feast, the Divine Madman took the skull of the goat and stuck it onto the torso of the cow before clicking his fingers and bringing the creature to life.

   With the environment being such a key aspect of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness policy the ecosystems here are better cared for than in any other Himalayan country, though an ever-increasing human population and climate change are both threats to Bhutan’s wildlife.


The tsechu is a ritualised series of masked dances held in monastery (or dzong – fortified monastic and administrative building) courtyards across Bhutan. Although masked dances are held throughout Buddhist regions of the Himalaya, Bhutan takes them to extremes of colour and flamboyance and they are normally the highlight of a town’s social calendar. The dances are a way of passing on Bhutanese mythology, spiritual belief and values. Many of the performances commemorate the deeds of Guru Rinpoche, Bhutan’s favourite saint. The elaborate dances are supposed to help rid a town or valley of any lurking evil demons. The most important aspect of the tsechu comes right at the end when a giant, building-sized thangka (religious scroll painting) is displayed on the side of the dzong or monastery wall.


The author travelled to Bhutan with the expert assistance of UK and Bhutan-based specialist tour operators Blue Poppy Tours & Treks (www.bluepoppy.com), Windhorse Tours (www.windhorse.com) and Keys To Bhutan (www.keystobhutan.com). In the Phobjukha Valley the author stayed at the beautiful Gangtey Lodge (www.gangteylodge.com).

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