Sunday, April 02, 2023

Searching for Happiness in Thimphu


From the moment you land in Bhutan there are constant reminders of this country’s smugness about achieving happiness for its citizens. All the souvenir shop trinkets talk about Gross National Happiness. How exactly does one go about increasing this metric? All through my time at Thimphu I kept wondering about this question to see if there are easy answers and takeaways.

At the surface, many things about Bhutan seem first-worldish. The urban planning clearly is more evolved than in our country. The building codes seem to enforce some common architectural motifs - like the use of traditional window frames - that give the cities a harmonious feel, unlike the chaos of our own hill towns. The road infrastructure seemed adequate, and the people using it seemed exceptionally well-mannered. Drivers seemed to strictly adhere to lane discipline and I didn’t hear a single honk in my entire time at Thimphu. In fact, I even learned that there are no traffic lights in the whole of Bhutan. Only one intersection in the city is deemed complex enough to necessitate a traffic policeman directing traffic, making it such a novelty that people stop and take pictures of the officer (and thus complicating the flow of traffic in the process).
The annual per-capita GDP is nearly a thousand dollars more than in India, and you can sense that relative prosperity in some ways. There is no sign of abject poverty even in the biggest cities. The only visibly poor people I saw were migrant workers from India. I did ask a few people (by which I mean our driver and a couple of our guides) about what makes Bhutan happier than other countries, and their answers didn’t indicate any silver bullet. They all seemed to view the royal family very favourably, and they talked about free education and healthcare at all times, and about how the government helped them out with handouts during the pandemic. They all seemed especially proud of their culture and heritage.

In the end I don’t know if there are easy takeaways. To my eyes, people in the Himalayas seem, on average, happier than the rest of us. The people especially in the Buddhist belts (Ladakh and Sikkim definitely, and parts of Arunachal) seem even happier. Maybe it comes with having a benevolent ruler. Maybe it's to do with being a small nation with relative cultural homogeneity. Or maybe the slogan itself - “Gross National Happiness”- serves as a self-fulfilling placebo, as opposed to more negatively worded ones like Garibi Hatao. Whatever the reason, Thimphu did seem like a happy place and it really set the tone for the rest of the trip

1 comment:

Uma Rajanna said...

Very interesting. I believe it has something to do with Buddha's preachings, for even in an impoverished country like Srilanka, people seemed lot more happier than us! And a lot less angsty!