Karma Dorji, Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions
Sharing a slice of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness with two New York Times journalists
Bhutan’s Fourth King, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck (center), often told the Bhutanese people to think of the country as one big family.
“We are all part of one big Bhutanese family,” Bhutan’s Fourth King (and father of the current king), His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, chief architect of the kingdom’s Gross National Happiness policy, was fond of saying.
I heard these words so frequently during the early 1990s—on my multiple assignments covering the monarch’s frequent royal tours crisscrossing all 20 districts of the country—that they are etched in my memory.
Farmers relax in Lobeysa, Bhutan, where time to socialize and enjoy deep family bonds are important ingredients for human happiness, the ultimate goal of government.
I mentioned this fact nearly two decades later to New York Times writer Seth Mydans and Times videographer Mariko Takayasu during their assignment to cover Bhutan and Gross National Happiness. The pair were joined by Mariko’s son, Dylan, on break from high school.
We traveled together, meeting and interviewing Bhutanese people from different walks of life: government leaders, farmers, professionals, and private individuals, anyone who might have the key to understanding Bhutan’s happiness policy. We arranged for Seth and Mariko to meet the Prime Minister, the Secretary for Gross National Happiness—yes, that’s a major arm of the Bhutanese government!—and some other high-ranking officials along the way. But the true insight came from a source more deeply rooted in the Bhutanese way of life.
At one point in an interview with the (then) Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley, Seth interrupted him in the middle of explaining government policy and asked, somewhat unexpectedly:
“What makes you personally happy?”
The PM’s instant reply:
The prime minister said his strong family bonds were part of the secret sauce for his happiness and that the same was true for most average Bhutanese citizens. Therefore, extrapolated, it was an essential indicator of Gross National Happiness.
The prime minister’s words made sense to me, and it explained the fourth king’s habit of reminding people to work together “like one big family.” It was, after all, the strongest representation of unity and strength in the culture. The word ‘family’ appears 45 times in the most recent national questionnaire for a survey of Gross National Happiness created by the Bhutanese think tank, the Centre for Bhutan Studies & GNH Research.
Seth and Mariko nodded and took notes at the interview, but I couldn’t help wondering if my worldly journalist friends would be satisfied with the prime minister’s response. They were visitors with a limited time in Bhutan, working under tight international deadlines; how could we best share the truth of the prime minister’s words with them?
We meant to find out.
Some days later, driving over the 10,000-foot-high Dochu-La pass, we descended precipitously into the fertile cleft valley of Lobeysa. Our timing could not have been better. We arrived during the first harvest of the year when some fields are partially stubbled with squat golden yurts of harvested rice, but there are still fields full of tall, swaying paddy stalks, heavy with golden ears of grain.
Most tours go on to the folklorically colorful village temple, Chimi Lhakhang, a.k.a “the Temple of the Divine Madman.”
We decided, instead, to follow the aroma of roasted rice.
It came wafting on the air from the bamboo thatch lean-to beside a traditional two-story home belonging to an elderly farmer, Thoeba, and his wife, Choengyim. As they saw us approaching, the couple stepped out to greet us with a large wok of freshly roasted rice, the newly puffed grains looking like cherry blossoms in miniature.
In a smoky kitchen in Lobeysa, a woman roasts rice over a roaring fire.
Delighted, we fell to munching the still sizzling rice as the couple’s precocious grandchildren played underfoot. Soon, other family members and neighbors stopped by, some helping with the roasting while others dropped armloads of firewood on the hut’s mud floor, squatted, and began to stoke the flames in the open fire pit. Cheerful banter flowed back and forth; there was good-natured ribbing, punctuated by laughter. The couple’s older son, responsible for the heavy lifting on the farm, joined us sometime later.
Then Thoeba and Choengyim invited us next door into their home, an ancient rammed-earth Bhutanese farmhouse with thick walls, heavy wooden beams, and new corrugated metal roofing (a recent change from the traditional slate and wood-shingle common to the region). There they proudly introduced us to a picture of their second son, a Buddhist monk, hanging in a frame beside the family altar. They proffered homemade khabzay, the mildly-sweet fried dough eaten during celebrations, followed by a simple meal of suja, or butter-tea, the newly roasted rice, and the fiery local rice-brew, ara, similar to the Japanese sake wine.
Soon, Thoeba and Choengyim made us feel like extended members of the family. They ate shyly, fed us more, and between mouthfuls of the roasted rice soaked in butter-tea, spoke with quiet pride about their children like parents everywhere. When Seth and Mariko finally asked them if they were happy, they looked at each other and nodded.
“What more do I need?” Thoeba said to Mariko, explaining. “The government takes care of us by providing agricultural subsidies [for seeds and farming equipment], free healthcare, and education [pointing to the grandchildren]. I work as long as I can. I stop when I need to. My fields provide for my family, and we rely on each other in times of difficulty. I pray if I have time left in the day, and if I’m tired, I cover my head and go to sleep.” Choengyim laughed, nodded her agreement, and said, “Yes, that is the way it is with us.”
Ricefields in Lobeysa near Thoeba and Choengyim’s home
As we made our way back through the rice fields in the gathering dusk, other members of Thoeba and Chongyim’s family appeared at the door. Their farm work done for the day, they stood around the two elders in a tight cluster, silhouetted against the whitewashed walls of their ancestral home, where so many of their generations had lived and died, waving us goodbye.
Looking back toward the couple and their brood, I thought again about what the Prime Minister had said earlier about his family and personal happiness. Then I remembered His Majesty’s words about seeing the entire Bhutanese nation as one large family and, somehow, the two ideas melded in my mind and became one.
Watch the New York Times video, Measuring Happiness, which includes footage of the Lobeysa farmer, Thoeba, and the Bhutanese Prime Minister’s interview. Credits: Mariko Takayasu & Christopher Flavelle, for the New York Times.)
Read the NY Times article of this journey, Recalculating Happiness in a Himalayan Kingdom, by Seth Mydans.