A Day of Gross National Happiness (GNH) in Bhutan

Bhutanese Gho and Kira
Until at least 5pm, Bhutanese women are encouraged to wear a Kira, men a Gho (New Balance runners were the closest thing I had to dress shoes!)

How could we not be happy on International Happiness Day, our third morning in Bhutan, finishing our coffee and delicious dosas, those thin crepes served with spiced potatoes? After driving in Oman for 17 days, Magellan was enjoying the prospect of Tashi, our driver from Wind Horse Tours, Treks & Expeditions, at the wheel on the climb up to Dochula Pass. And at making Tashi and Namgyel, the Wind Horse “boys”, laugh at his zany approach to speaking their language.

Despite the attempts of Namgyel, our guide, to teach us a new word every day starting with “hello” (ku-zu-zang-po), Magellan wasn’t mastering Dzongkha. However, “rasha,” their word for cooked lamb, had caught his eye on a dinner menu. So instead of learning cursory phrases, he substituted “rasha” for everything, frequently causing the four of us to burst out laughing at its absurdity. “So what do you know about GNH?” Namgyel asked us that morning. “Rasha,” Magellan replied.

Before we tell you about one of our many days of happiness in this little country (Nova Scotia is larger), here’s what we learned about Bhutan’s main commodity, Gross National Happiness (GNH).

Can you imagine a country so enlightened its legal code declared that “If the Government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist”—in 1729?

In past centuries, Bhutan’s happiness was described by the phrase “Gakid Pelzom”—the holistic union of happiness, peace and prosperity. When the hereditary Fourth Dragon King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, introduced the term “GNH” in 1972, the world wasn’t paying much attention to this mountainous country landlocked by China and India with a population of less than 300,000 and fewer than 300 visitors annually.

The country became a democracy in 2008 under the young King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, and in 2012, Bhutan led the proposal to the United Nations that resulted in the General Assembly adopting March 20 as International Happiness Day. This made GNH more of a globally recognized acronym as well as a hallmark of this Himalayan kingdom.

In A Splendid Isolation: Lessons on Happiness from the Kingdom of Bhutan, the best resource we’ve found on GNH, Madeline Drexler says what makes GNH so brilliant is that it turns the term Gross National Product on its head….

We measure what we value. GNH reminds us that we can’t rely on an assessment of quantity to reflect our quality of life…. Bhutan took the novel stance that what was important was not the pace of development, but the reflective deliberation behind it. GNH turns the metrics of the material into the metrics of the spirit.

With the UN and World Bank wanting quantification, Bhutan came up with nine domains to measure GNH:

  1. Good governance (like Canada, Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy and has been since 1907. The 35-year-old King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk was revered by everyone we met)
  2. Psychological well-being (we’ve never seen so many smiling faces in one country)
  3. Balanced time use
  4. Community vitality (including relationships with others and rates of volunteerism)
  5. Health (healthcare is free)
  6. Education (also free)
  7. Culture (theirs is über unique)
  8. Living standards (including having meaningful work, not just per-capita income. In the past, with 70% of the population in rural areas, a civil service job was easy enough to get for urban dwellers. With the recent migration to the cities, this is changing)
  9. Ecological diversity and resilience (including how people perceive the quality of their surroundings)

Residents are asked to respond to 33 questions categorized under 9 domains, such as: “Do you feel like a stranger in your family?” “Do you own a mobile?” “Is lying justifiable?” Residents are considered happy if they achieve “sufficiency” in at least six of the nine domains. Based on a formula developed by the Karma Ura’s Centre for Bhutan Studies, 41% of Bhutan’s population tested happy in 2010.

If Magellan and I were tested for happiness on March 20, our results (as per the first accompanying video) would be on top of the world (literally and figuratively) thanks to Namgyel and Tashi.

Namgyel (pronounced Nam-gay), at the tender age of 29, already spoke five languages and was about to learn Mandarin because of the increasing number of Chinese tourists in Bhutan. He grew up on his parents’ potato farm in southwestern Bhutan before going to boarding school at the age of 10, followed by college in Dajarling, India. His sister was one of the people who went door-to-door this year to survey Bhutanese residents on GNH. Namgyel lives in Thimphu, where he says “it’s harder to find an apartment than it is to find a wife” as more Bhutanese migrate to the capital and larger centres.

Tashi, younger and newly married to the lovely Chimi, was raised in the more remote Eastern Bhutan, his prowess at the wheel matched by his canny sense of humour. “It will be a long massage,” he said, with a knowing gleam in his eyes and grin on his face. The twisting, mountainous, Lateral Road (equivalent to our Trans-Canada Highway)—but with up to 12 bends per kilometer—can have a pummelling effect on your body despite an average speed of ~30 km/hr. With his careful driving, Masseuse Tashi delivered a gentle two-hour massage.

Instead of following the detailed itinerary we’d compiled with the invaluable assistance of the Wind Horse team and hiking to the Cheri monastery near Thimphu, Namgyel suggested an alternative. Hiking to Lungchu Tsey Temple, a pilgrimage trail maintained by Wind Horse (the first company to adopt a trail in Bhutan) that begins at the top of Dochula Pass. Brilliant, as were all his suggestions.

The forested trail, our first hike in Bhutan and one of our favourites, is well graded, in pristine shape (following Namgyel’s lead we picked up the few bits of rubbish left behind) and rewards you with a fifteenth-century temple and magnificent mountain views. And flowers. We’d chosen spring as the time to visit in order to see wildflowers on the trails. But other than the large red Arboreums, it was too early this season for the country’s 50 varieties of rhododendrons. Along the trail, my momentary disappointment was eclipsed by the small beauty of the tiny periwinkle flowers of Gentiana depressa and Primulus edgeworthii (thanks to Namgyel we know their names). “Don’t smell the daphne up close,” he said on the way up, warning us of the dangers of inhaling its enticing fragrance. “Any tingling of your fingers?” he asked us, concerned about altitude sickness. “Okay, joga, joga.”

In less than two hours we’d climbed 400 metres to the Lungchu Tsey temple (elevation 3569 m) and Namgyel, as he always did just before we entered a temple, wrapped his white Kabney across the shoulder of his red-plaid Gho, the traditional male Bhutanese dress that is supposed to be worn until 5 pm each day. Mid-calf in length and worn with black knee socks, it’s totally unique, a little like a kimono with the middle draped below the cinching to become a “pocket” for everything from betel nut to a wallet to a cell phone. They look stunning and “our” handsome boys wore them everyday. When I asked Namgyel whether he preferred Bhutanese women in their traditional dress, the Kira, or in the predominant evening wear of blue jeans and hoodies, he said, “To me, Bhutanese women look better in a Kira.”

Explaining details of the Lungchu Tsey temple, with no notes as always, Namgyel showed us its wall of original paintings and described the interior: “The temple was founded by Terton Drugdra Dorji and is often called a ‘radiance of space.’” With Namgyel, we noticed a pattern of engagement one rarely sees in a guide. Not just with us. At every temple, dzong or museum, he started up a conversation with the attending monks, staff or lamas, then reported back to us. “He’s only been here four months,” he said after a long conversation with the youngest of the six monks at Lungchu Tsey. It was the same with Tashi. Everywhere we stopped, he had friends. Points scored for community vitality, #4 on the GNH list.

We didn’t know it was going to be the last time we’d see Bhutan’s two highest mountains or we would have realized how lucky we were to have caught a glimpse of Jomolhari at at 7314 m and Gangkhar Puensum at 7541 m—briefly, before the clouds rolled in. Apparently that’s normal, as John Scofield reported in 1976 (two years after the country opened up to foreign visitors) in his National Geographic article “Life Slowly Changes in a Remote Himalayan Kingdom”: “…in Bhutan one rarely has snow peaks in view. Intervening ridges cloaked in tropical green usually screen them, or clouds wrap them in featureless gray blankets.”

On the hike down, Namgyel heard rustling in the forest and spotted a group of grey langurs, their black faces and long tails camouflaged among the shadows. The experience reminded me of the saying: “There is no Wi-Fi in the forest, but I promise you will find a better connection.”

Back in the car on our steep drive down to Punakha (sub-tropical at 1250m), we found ourselves on another road under repair. Like many roads in Bhutan, it was being widened by a group of Indian and Nepalese labourers using little other than hand tools, their GNH undoubtedly tested by this pitifully crude process. It’s not Tesla’s factory in California that Bhutanese officials need to visit, it’s Switzerland, Oman and Canada to see how long-term roadways are built through high mountain passes. Or would that take the slow-travel charm out of going 35 km/hr? And how would it be paid for in a country with a population of about 770,000 and a GDP estimated in 2015 at US$2,850 per person? Bhutan’s prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, leader of the small-government pro-business People’s Democratic Party, holds a degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in public administration so perhaps he can figure it out. A nationwide program called “Educating for GNH” sounds good, which in a Wind Horse book is described as “a new paradigm that combines the need to sharpen brains and skills with the need to build faith and character.”

Bhutan’s Lama Ngodup Dorji offers a brilliant thought about happiness that’s quoted in Madeline Drexler’s book. “‘Happiness,’ he said, warming his hands around a fresh cup of coffee, ‘is a choice. You have to brew it in yourself.’” The warmth of Namgyel and Tashi offered us a taste of the future of GNH in this Himalayan kingdom. Especially when Namgyel said, “It’s been just like travelling with our parents; we share everything.”


Navigation Tips

Carpenter, Russ and Blyth. The Blessings of Bhutan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2002.

Crossette, Barbara. So Close to Heaven. New York: Borzoi book published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995.

Drexler, Madeline. A Splendid Isolation: Lessons on Happiness from the Kingdom of Bhutan. Amazon Kindle, Createspace, 2014. A superb reference on the topic.


Hilton, James. Lost Horizon. UK: Macmillan, 1933.

Leaming, Linda. Married to Bhutan. USA: Hay House, 2011.

Lipsey, Rick. Golfing on the Roof of the World: In Pursuit of Gross National Happiness. USA: Bloomsbury, 2007. A good read on the changes in  Thimpu.

Lumley, Joanna. In the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon. London: BBC Books, 1997.

Napoli, Lisa. Radio Shangri-La. New York: Crown Publishing, 2010. Excellent read.

Martin Uitz. Hidden Bhutan. London: Haus Publishing, 2012.

Matthiessen, Peter. The Snow Leopard. New York: Viking Press, 1978. The book that first got us interested in visiting Bhutan still sits in its yellowed paperback version on our shelves.

Orlean, Susan. “Fertile Ground”, The New Yorker: June 7, 1999, pages 58-65.

Pommaret, Francoise. Bhutan, Himalayan Mountain Kingdom. New York: W.W. Norton, 2009.

Scofield, John. “Life Slowly Changes in a Remote Himalayan Kingdom.” National Geographic: November 1976, Vol. 150, No. 5, p 658-683. Thanks Ed.

Taj Tashi Hotel: Oh those dosas! Caring staff, excellent Bhutanese and Western food in a grand hotel.

Uma Punakha Hotel: Lovely valley views, even with the smoke from the fires burning in Southern Bhutan last March. Excellent food, like short ribs, tomato soup, a beet salad…

Wangchuk, Ashi Dorji Wangmo, Queen of Bhutan. Treasures of the Thunder Dragon. Penguin Books: India, 2006. Her trekking experiences are admirable.

Wind Horse Tours, Treks & Expeditions, with an office in the US and in Bhutan (as well as other countries), provided extraordinary service from the moment we emailed them to the follow-up enroute and when we arrived home.

Bhutan, A Mosaic of the Dragon 4th Edition. Wind Horse Tours.

Zappa, Jamie. Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan. Toronto: Doubleday Canada, 1999.

Bhutan Tourist Map
Bhutan Tourist Map

7 Responses

  1. Wow I always figured you two had the Happiest of lives anyway, now I see you have enhanced it even further. What a great trip you did and the sharing with the fellow folk is awesome, thanks, Heather

    1. Such kind words, especially from a Kuensel journalist, made us happy—thank you. We have many more stories to share from our days in Bhutan—plus pictures of the “boys,” Namgyel and Tashi.

    1. Oops, your note reminded me to credit Taj Tashi for the one-night dress-up clothes. On our last day there, they had a Gho and Kira laid out for us with a note suggesting we wear them to dinner and to call if we needed help wrapping them around our bodies. You’d think an engineer and someone who used to sew could figure it out but we had to call.

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