Bhutan Travel: 5 Lessons on Happiness
Nestled amongst the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, Bhutan is a small Buddhist kingdom that has maintained its rich cultural identity through years of isolation.
Relatively untouched by industrialism and modernization, Bhutan was the first country in the world to outright reject GDP (an economic indicator) as the only way to measure progress. In 1972, the government instated “Gross National Happiness,” as an attempt to measure holistic growth while still preserving a high-quality-of-life for its ~763,000 citizens.
Still veiled in mystery, Bhutan is a mystical place that very few tourists are able to explore. For those lucky enough to visit, you’ll get a peek into the world of yesteryear – a return to a spiritual and principled way of living, one which fosters peace and thereby… happiness.
With a national policy of well-being over wealth, minimalism has been rooted as the quintessential way of life in Bhutan.
From sacred Buddhist teachings, the Bhutanese know that attempting to find happiness through possessions, leaves you unfulfilled and instead comes with an enduring cost – unhappiness with no room for peace. Rather than give into material desire, the Bhutanese have an intention to live more simplistically and with balance.
As a way to minimize desires and wants, the government has banned the use of billboards. Even in the country’s bustling capital city of Thimpu, you’ll be hard-pressed to find any private-sector advertisements. Instead, you’ll find tongue-in-cheek road signs (such as: Eager to last, why so fast?) that line the country’s winding mountain roads. And thanks to Bhutan’s lack of advertisements (which tend to encourage spending on material possessions), its much easier for its citizens to be content with what they have, rather than covet non-essential products.
As a small country with a population that’s dispersed across isolated valleys, tight-nit communities were a natural evolution of societal harmony and kinship.
The inhabitants of each isolated valley, all know one another and will stop to have chats in the middle of the road. Neighbors, relatives, and friends are always at each other’s disposal, if anyone is need of help (no matter how trivial). In general, people look after each other and make an effort to develop trust and social support – whether its bonding over ara or buttered tea, sharing stories while huddled around a bukhari (a traditional woodfire heater) on a cold night, or helping a neighbor herd their stubborn yaks.
Even in cities, you’ll still see groups of people gathered together outside of temples and markets, just socializing (with lots of laughter). As a key component of Bhutanese culture, social support and connection are prioritized, regardless of where one might live.
*Ara: a home-made and potent rice wine, that’s either fermented or distilled.
The landscape of Bhutan is dramatically pristine – steep forests descend into valleys coursing with azure glacial rivers and pine-scented air. Winds howl over the mountain peaks, causing prayers flags which dot the canyons to sway, as temple chimes sing.
As the first country in the world with constitutional obligations to protect the environment, Bhutan has enforced a strict ban on logging and heavy industry – instead, most people work in agriculture or forestry. Additionally, at least 60% of the country is required to be forested, at all times. These strict obligations combined with the people’s unwavering respect for nature, has enabled Bhutan to become carbon negative; it takes in more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than it emits.
From a cultural perspective, the Bhutanese regard nature as spiritually potent. To them, forests, rivers, and mountains are sacred and to be left as nature intended. According to their local customs, mountain summits are the homes of gods and spirits – for no reason, shall they be climbed.
In Bhutan, respect for the environment’s natural order is inscribed across the landscape.
Considered to be one of the last Vajrayana Buddhism strongholds, meditation is a common practice amongst Buddhist monks and practitioners, in effort to cleanse their minds of worldly distractions.
All over the country, temples and monasteries provide places of respite from the pressures and anxiety of everyday life. Throughout the day, you’ll find locals visiting these spiritual and transformative places, for prayer and meditation. Often, these buildings are amongst the most architecturally impressive in the country, adding to their sense of divinity and solace.
Across rural Bhutan, you’ll also find a variety of “meditation caves” that are built into the rugged Himalayan hillsides. Devout Buddhists will go to these caves, sometimes for months at a time, to draw upon their inner self and meditate upon the purpose of life.
As a predominantly Buddhist society, the Bhutanese practice non-harm to all sentient beings. In real terms, this means that animals are not slaughtered for their meat and stray dogs are not killed for lack of a home. Instead, the Bhutanese are default vegetarians (with a heavy reliance on dairy) and are encouraged to adopt free-roaming dogs or to at least care for them via community-based initiatives.
Prayers for reducing suffering and increasing well-being for all creatures, are recited on a daily basis. And throughout the country, prayer flags can be seen carrying words that are meant to bring liberation and luck for all.
On a social level, the Bhutanese are guided by a code of etiquettes known as Driglam Namzha, which translates to “rules of disciplined behavior.” It’s defined by conscientious mannerisms and built upon the Buddhist ethics of wholesome physical, verbal, and mental conducts. Essentially, Driglam Namzha is a civilized system for the harmonious functioning of Bhutanese society – to think of the well-being of all sentient beings.
After spending a bit of time in rural Bhutan, we can confidently say that it’s one of the happiest countries we’ve ever visited. To us, its happiness level is on par with the nomads we stayed with on the Mongolian steppe. Funnily enough, both groups of people share a similar, principled way of living that fosters innate happiness.
And with that mind, the most important lesson that we learned from both groups is this: we must remain mindful of impermanence – accepting that happiness is antithetical to a permanent state, lets you cut through the noise of the moment and focus on the bigger picture.
Regardless of the lessons we learned in Bhutan, or from other rural peoples across Asia and Africa, happiness is illusive and there’s no formula for its pursuit. All we know is that your lifestyle, thoughts, behaviors, relationships, and environment, play a major role in how often you’ll experience the inexplicable feelings of happiness.
Therefore, it’s important to choose wisely and find beauty in your own in ephemerality.