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Bhutan: The Little Kingdom that Could

Updated: Mar 21, 2021

If you’re celebrating International Day of Happiness today, Bhutan is the reason why.

March 20, 2021


Karma Singye Dorji, Bhutan Himalaya Expeditions

This woman, an elder in the Mongar region of eastern Bhutan, finds happiness in the daily rituals of turning her hand-held mani prayer wheel, the support of her community, and the deeply rooted Buddhist practice she inherited from her own elders, a powerful combination of simplicity and perspective that eludes most of us in the modern world.

Back in 2012, we wrote a post that read, “Bhutan brings its philosophy of Gross National Happiness or “GNH” to the world.”

That was because the kingdom’s leaders had just brought Bhutan’s unique message of celebrating human happiness to the attention of a wider international audience.

His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuk, Bhutan's Fourth King (center), chief architect of the kingdom's Gross National Happiness policy.

Taking the daring and unconventional step at the time, Bhutan, in 2012, invoked a special meeting at the United Nations to include human happiness in its global agenda.

“Conscious that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal,[…] Recognizing also the need for a more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the wellbeing of all peoples,” such was the pathbreaking language Bhutan pushed, “...decides to proclaim March 20 the International Day of Happiness…”

Happy schoolboys in Bhutan

Boys in central Bhutan's Bumthang region, returning home from school.

That meeting, which took place during 2012’s 66th Session of the UN General Assembly, was attended by a panel of international luminaries such as the economist Jeffrey Sachs and the Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, among others. It ended with the resolution that, going forward, March 20 of each year would be observed as what is now the “UN International Day of Happiness.”

While the kingdom has convened other earlier international meetings on the topic of human happiness in countries as varied as Thailand, Brazil, Canada, and the Netherlands, the adoption by the UN was, for many Bhutanese, a matter of great pride. It continues to be one of the kingdom’s most laudable international achievements.

The secular and the spiritual aspects of life go hand-in-hand in Bhutan. Pictured here: His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the Fifth King of Bhutan confers with His Holiness the Je Khenpo, spiritual head of Bhutan's Buddhist Monastic Clergy.

Bhutan’s desire to push happiness as a key international agenda stems from the kingdom’s homegrown Gross National Happiness policy, the brainchild of His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, Bhutan’s fourth king (father of the current king).

Since Bhutan’s illustrious fourth king first proposed the GNH policy in 1972, Bhutanese government intellectuals, thinkers and policymakers have elaborated and expanded the practical definitions of the GNH philosophy under the leadership of the kings and the elected governments.

Bhutanese government institutions such as the Gross National Happiness Commission, and local think-tanks like the Centre for Bhutan Studies, continue to push research on the topic, carry out policies based on the findings, and realize the hopes and dreams of the kingdom’s visionary leaders.

As increasingly understood now, Gross National Happiness has four pillars: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation, and environmental conservation. A further nine sub-domains divide the four pillars in measuring psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.

According to the Center for Bhutan Studies, “the [nine] domains represent each of the components of wellbeing of the Bhutanese people, and the term ‘wellbeing’ here refers to fulfilling conditions of a ‘good life’ as per the values and principles laid down by the concept of Gross National Happiness.”

The preservation of Bhutan's pristine natural resources, which makes the kingdom a popular destination for travelers, is one of the 'four pillars' of Bhutan's national happiness goals.

To further boost the goals of human happiness, Bhutan continues to host periodic international and bilateral events, delegations, academics, researchers, and economists to help the government improve and fine-tune its accuracy in measuring clearly-defined “happiness indicators.” This is an effort that other governments could do well to emulate in other parts of the world, bringing us all ever closer to our common goals of achieving human happiness for everyone. Happy International Day to the world!




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