As I mentioned in a post last week, I recently watched a TED Talk by Tshering Tobgay, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Bhutan, where he discussed Bhutan’s status as a carbon neutral country and touched on how that remarkable achievement aligned with his country’s belief that increasing Gross National Happiness (GNH) is a greater priority than increasing Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It’s a fascinating talk by a fascinating man about a fascinating country; I highly recommend you watch it and I’ll add the link at the end of this blog post.
For a landlocked Himalayan nation of just 770,000 people, Bhutan has certainly caught the world’s attention, not only for its focus on GNH but also for such forward-thinking initiatives as the 2010 ban on the sale of all tobacco products. As someone who is intrigued by spirituality and the personal search for meaning, this largely-Vajrayana Buddhist country (the only one in the world) is of particular interest to me.
Descriptions of Bhutan often refer to it as a poor country, yet I question that label. What is ‘poor’? If it is defined by purely economic means then fair enough, it’s a ‘poor’ country. Yet I don’t believe that it’s as black and white as that. In fact, I think to call a country like Bhutan ‘poor’ is Western-centric and, frankly, arrogant. Because if the citizens of Bhutan truly are the happiest in the world, then are they not richer than the rest of the world combined? Is money really that important? It’s not as though the Bhutanese are living in their own filth – far from it. Every citizen has access to free healthcare and free education, and the government continues to focus on making life better for its people.
To my mind, there is a lot that we can learn from Bhutan. If we all valued happiness more than we value the almighty dollar, Western society would be very different. I’m yet to be convinced that capitalism is the best economic or social system for the benefit of humankind; that mind sound a bit socialist or even communist for some people’s tastes, yet it’s not meant to, because I don’t think that those systems are the answer either. I’m certainly not saying we should give it all up and live in poverty – definitely not! – however we really should be prioritising our happiness over the accumulation of wealth. You can’t take your wealth with you, so why should it have a higher priority than true happiness? Personally, I’d choose happiness over affluence any day. Money is nice but it can’t buy genuine, lasting happiness.
Maybe it’s a symptom of my pending transition from my thirties into my next decade, or maybe it’s because I’ve experienced the loss of almost everything in terms of material wealth and realised that life does go on; either way, what used to define ‘affluent’ to me no longer cuts it. Today, I measure my affluence by two key factors: am I happy, and am I doing something meaningful with my life. Anything above and beyond that is a blessing, but I will not sacrifice happiness and meaning in order to achieve it. That’s why I haven’t returned to my career in the corporate world – I certainly have the skills and experience to jump back in and earn the big dollars if I want to, however that kind of work no longer makes me happy nor does it give me a sense of meaning, so I have closed the door on that chapter of my life.
I’m keenly researching Bhutan and the concept of Gross National Happiness at the moment, so it’s quite possible I’ll write about it more in the future. I am hungry to learn more about this unique nation and it’s definitely somewhere I’m keen to visit, in order to experience what it’s like to be in a place that values happiness over economic gain and which puts its citizens above profit.
Perhaps that is what Bhutan has to teach us about happiness at its most basic level; that putting happiness before profit is a genuinely viable means of being.
If you’d like to watch Tshering Tobgay’s February 2016 TED Talk, This country isn’t just carbon neutral — it’s carbon negative, follow this link: http://bit.ly/1tnxOK2
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