Exploring Bhutan's GNH

His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the Fourth King of Bhutan, and architect of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness policy, was often fond of saying: “We are all part of one large Bhutanese family.”

Despite the superficial changes—the small explosion of shops carrying western-style goods and cafés offering western fare in the capital, Thimphu—the words of Bhutan’s fourth monarch (and father of the current king) still ring true.

I had the pleasure of sharing this fact with New York Times journalist Seth Mydans and Times videographer Mariko Takayasu, who visited Bhutan on an assignment for the esteemed publication. They were joined by Mariko’s son, Dylan, on break from high school. Mariko and Seth were intrigued by Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness aspirations. They decided to travel across the country with us and speak to a wide cross-section of Bhutanese people: leaders, farmers, professionals and others.

Happy women farmers in Bhutan's Punakha ValleyHappy women farmers in Bhutan's Punakha Valley

Happy women farmers taking a break from their fields in Punakha, West Bhutan

At one point in an interview we arranged with the then Prime Minister, Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley, Seth asked: “What makes you personally happy?”

The PM’s instant reply:

“My family.”

The Prime Minister went on to explain how the Bhutanese understanding of family and deep-rooted communal affinities help lay the foundations for Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. Seth and Mariko nodded and took notes but I couldn't help wondering if my worldly journalist friends would be satisfied with the Prime Minister’s response. As visitors with a limited time in Bhutan would they have opportunity to understand more closely what the Prime Minister meant?

We would soon find out.

Driving over the 10,000-foot-high Dochu La pass, we made our way along a winding trail through the swaying rice fields of Lobeysa. Most tours go on to the local village temple, Chimme 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 home of an elderly couple: Thoeba and Choengyim. (Watch the New York Times video, Measuring Happiness, which includes footage of Thoeba and the Bhutanese Prime Minister's interview; credit Mariko Takaysu & Christopher Flavelle.)

As they saw us approaching their roasting shed, a bamboo thatch lean-to beside their main house, the couple came out to welcome us with a large wok of the freshly roasted rice, the newly puffed grains looking like cherry-blossoms in miniature.

Delighted, we fell to munching on the still sizzling rice as the couple’s precocious grandchildren played tag underfoot. Soon, other family members and neighbors and stopped by, some helping with the roasting while others dropped extra cords of wood on the hut’s mud floor and began to stoke the flames in the open fire pit. A cheerful conversation ensued, and good-natured ribbing, punctuated by laughter. The couple’s older son, responsible for most of the heavy work on the farm, joined us a bit later. Eventually, the roasting done, we were proudly introduced to a picture of the couple’s second son, a monk, hanging from a frame beside the family altar. Then we were proffered fried local khabzay, followed by a simple meal which included butter tea, or suja, and the clear rice brew ara, which is a stronger version of the Japanese sake.

Within a short time we had turned from complete strangers to extended members of Thoeba and Choengyim’s family. They smiled and ate with us and, like parents everywhere, spoke with a quiet pride about their children and their accomplishments. When Seth and Mariko finally asked them if they were happy they both nodded.

“How could I ask for more?” Thoeba said to Mariko in explanation. “I work as long as I can. I stop when I need to. My fields provide for my family and we have each other in times of hardship. I pray if I have time left in the day, and if I’m tired I cover my head and go to sleep.”

As we made our way back through the rice fields in the gathering dusk additional members of Thoeba and Chongyim’s family, back from the fields, appeared at the door. In a tight cluster, they stood by their cheerfully whitewashed two-storied home, waving us goodbye.

Looking back at the elderly couple and their brood, I thought again about what the Prime Minister had said earlier about family and happiness.

I thought about how, in an age when a large percentage of the world’s population is driven by the cold demands of the profit driven marketplace, it’s no small value to know that there are still some places left where human connections matter more than the dictum “Time is Money.”

Maybe it’s time for Bhutan to tell a hectic and harried world “Time is Family.”

Read the NY Times article of this journey, Recalculating Happiness in a Himalayan Kingdom, by Seth Mydans.