The Happiest Place on Earth?


Since you get more joy out of giving joy to others, you should put a good deal of thought into the happiness that you are able to give. – Eleanor Roosevelt

If you scan the archives of National Public Radio (NPR), you will discover that Bhutan, and not Disney World, is the happiest place on Earth (the “It’s a Small World” ride doesn’t give anyone joy). Indeed, in 1972 Bhutan’s then king declared that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) was an inaccurate way to measure a country’s overall success. He introduced the Gross National Happiness (GNH), or a measure of how happy his subjects were. Using a complex survey developed by Canadian health epidemiologist Michael Pennock, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck utilized the Gross National Happiness to spearhead a massive overhaul to the tiny country, finding a harmonious balance between modernization and Buddhist beliefs.

The new concept proved successful, and Pennock has adapted the original survey to determine his own Canadian city’s contentment. The idea that happiness is an important and fundamental part of a country’s well-being is seen as almost revolutionary, and several publications have lovingly written on Bhutan’s happiness index. Last year artist Johnathan Harris launched “Balloons of Bhutan,” an online project that revisits the original 1972 survey, albeit in a more visual, less scientific manner. Harris went around the country and surveyed 117 Bhutanese citizens, asking them five basic questions related to their own bliss. For the last question—on a scale of 1 to 10, how do you rate your own happiness?—he gave the interviewee a correlating number of balloons. Nearly 600 photos of smiling faces greet you on the website, and one can’t help but admire the effort the country has made to ensure the merriment of its citizens.

This would be a great place to end the story; a small Himalayan kingdom, tucked between China and India, showing the rest of the world what it means to be happy. But something that Jonathan Harris, National Public Radio, and nearly every other media source neglects is that on the road to happiness, the Bhutanese monarchy imprisoned, tortured and ultimately expelled one-sixth of its population.
The Lhotshampa ethnic group began emigrating from Nepal to Bhutan in the nineteenth century, and settled largely in the south of the country. Their arrival was initially welcomed by the government, who saw them as a new source of tax revenue and means to cultivate the land, and in 1958 their descendants were given full citizenship rights. Bhutan slowly saw itself divide along ethnic and geographic lines, though the need for a cheap workforce in the 1960s and 1970s sustained the tolerance for Nepali groups in the country. However, as the popularity of Gross National Happiness endured, the king felt that the only way to achieve a truly united, happy nation (and to curb illegal immigration) was to expunge foreign national references.

In 1985, the second Bhutanese Citizenship Act was enacted, reinforcing Dzonghka as the national language and eliminating Nepali from the schools. A national dress code was enforced, requiring only the traditional dress of northern Bhutan; anyone caught wearing southern (or Nepali) garb was subject to arrest. Finally, it declared anyone whose family was not counted in the 1958 Citizenship Act illegal. This greatly impacted the south, and the Lhotshampa and other Nepali ethnic groups now lived in constant fear and control. The persecution escalated until the early 1990s, when one out of every six Bhutanese residents was forced to leave the country.

After forced removal and two decades in a refugee camp, surveying the happiness of Lhotshampa Bhutanese refugees would be unthinkable. And yet many of our artisans and their families are overflowing with felicity. It would be insulting to indicate that their lives are not full of worry and heartbreak, but whenever we meet, the laughter is infectious. This very joy is what inspired the creation of the Cloth, and what I think has lured in so many volunteers. Even on my worst, most stressful days, ten minutes with our artisans instantly turns it into a great one.

When the Bhutanese king married last year, all of my Lhotshampa friends on Facebook congratulated the son of the man who evicted them, rejoicing in his marriage and wishing him a happy life. I’m sure that if someone had offered, all would have gladly handed the king ten happiness balloons.


Photosource: Jonathan Harris

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