To ask a Bhutanese about happiness is akin to asking a Frenchman about wine or a Brazilian about soccer: It is the expected question, the question he is perhaps a bit weary of answering — yet he will gamely respond, unfolding not just a rote reply, but an admirably subtle disquisition. Gross National Happiness, or G.N.H., is the big talking point when it comes to Bhutan. It is also a source of intense debate, a fluid concept which, many Bhutanese contend, is often misunderstood, especially by the outside world.
“Here is the key point to understand about G.N.H.,” said Kinley Dorji, the head of Bhutan’s Ministry of Information and Communication. “Happiness itself is an individual pursuit. Gross National Happiness then becomes a responsibility of the state, to create an environment where citizens can pursue happiness. It’s not a guarantee of happiness by the government. It’s not a promise of happiness. But there is a responsibility to, you know, create the conditions for happiness.”
Dorji said: “When we say ‘happiness,’ we have to be very clear that it’s not fun, pleasure, thrill, excitement, all the temporary fleeting senses. It is permanent contentment — with life, with what you have. That lies within the self. Because the bigger house, the faster car, the nicer clothes, they don’t give you that contentment. G.N.H. means good governance. G.N.H. means preservation of traditional culture. And it means sustainable socio-economic development. Remember, here, that G.N.H. is a pun on G.D.P., Gross Domestic Product. We are making a distinction.”
There is another line of thinking about happiness that is gaining currency these days: that happiness is a thing — specifically, a bicycle. A favorite mantra of cycling-boosters goes like this: “You can’t buy happiness — but you can buy a bike, and that’s pretty close.” In 1896, Arthur Conan Doyle voiced the same sentiment, in less bumper-sticker-friendly fashion. “When the spirits are low,” Conan Doyle wrote, “when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without the thought of anything but the ride you are taking.”
If you don’t cycle it is hard to explain. So all I can say is listen to the Bhutanese and hop on a bicycle some day. And as you pedal you will feel better about life. And your brain will produce important insights about work or family (I promise). And you will smile.