What We Can Learn From the Happiest Place on Earth

Ash Jurberg


Photo by Sam Power on Unsplash

“No worry, no hurry,” read the first billboard I saw in Bhutan.

In the absence of Apple, Coke, and McDonalds, messages like this are displayed across the Bhutan landscape. There are no advertising signs — or even traffic lights — in this country. It’s like driving along a Road of Motivation as the government promotes positive messages. All at a top speed of 50 kilometers (approximately 30 miles) per hour — the fastest speed allowed in Bhutan, allowing ample time to read the signs.

To quote but a couple:

  • “If a flower doesn’t grow, you change the environment, not the flower.”
  • “Be responsible. Don’t hurt animals. You’ll be repaid with good Karma.”

Perhaps this is why Bhutan is the happiest country on earth.

Bhutan isn’t on many tourists’ radar. It’s far and expensive. Visas are required, and the government enforces a minimum spend to help maintain and protect the tourism industry.

Bhutan’s key KPI is Gross National Happiness based around four pillars:

  • Sustainable and Equitable Socio-Economic Development
  • Good Governance
  • Preservation and Promotion of Culture
  • Environmental Conservation. (Bhutan was the first carbon negative country in the world.)

This is admirable, but do these values reflect life? Is Bhutan a happy place?

All arrivals are via Paro Airport. Bhutan’s only international airport is regarded as one of the most dangerous airports in the world to land. Its location in a valley surrounded by 18,000 feet mountain peaks makes for a nerve-wracking arrival. The airport approach is one of the most stunning I have encountered. Ten minutes before landing, our pilot advises us to look to the left, where we are treated to postcard views of Mount Everest. Passengers take out their iPhones, and Instagram-worthy photos are taken. Once past Everest, we make a series of sharp twists and turns, descending through the mountains and into Paro Valley. It almost feels like a computer simulation. There are sighs of relief when we land safely. And — happiness.

Immediately, the hospitable nature of the Bhutanese is on show. I have my own guide and driver included in my mandated minimum spend. A team of two just for me. However, I can’t find either. A friendly local approaches. Often this would entail an offer of “taxi, taxi”, but in perfect English, he asks if I require help. Explaining my situation, my new friend offers to call my guide. He waits with me, departing as soon as my guide arrives, happy to have helped.

My guide, Kahar, also has perfect English and a beaming smile. A guide since 2006, he is proud to show his home to tourists. He’s seen tourist numbers slowly increase, but it’s far quieter than any other Asian country I have visited. Missing are the hectic crowds, the constant tooting of car horns, the general street noise. It is at once, comforting and relaxing.

Departing Paro, we head through the valley to the capital of Thimphu. We pass many government billboards — always below 50kph. No hurry. No worry.

Banners are depicting a handsome man in his forties. Kehar says they’re pictures of the King.

“Is he popular?” I ask.

“Of course! He is the peoples’ King. He meets us. He walks among us. He married a regular person.”

Kehar explains that when the King’s first child was born in 2016, the country celebrated by planting tens of thousands of trees in a nation-wide example of their environmental philosophy. They practice what they preach.

In Thimphu, we visit the National Memorial Chorten — the locus of daily worship for many locals. Surrounding the Tibetan style stupa are groups of older adults, eating or ambling laps around the stupa. Kehar advises, “All people must retire at sixty here.” Even the previous King retired, aged sixty, to let his son rule. No waiting for decades like Prince Charles.

Retirees visit temples to socialize and pray. It’s considered good luck to walk around the temple, praying and making wishes. “They have time to do the things they couldn’t do when younger. Often they pray on behalf of family members unable to visit themselves, ” says Kehar.

They seem happy, engaged in deep thought and conversation as they shuffle around the temple in their ghos and kiras (traditional dress for men and women). Watching them becomes almost meditative itself. We join the slow laps, talking about life in Bhutan.

“I’ve been to several countries. They are rushed and focused only on work. Here we have time for family. We live a simple life without stress. Prayer and reflection are essential to Bhutanese,” Kehar says with evident pride.

Lessons We Can Learn from the Bhutanese

Clearly, there is a lot we can learn from the Bhutanese and their slow, mindful way of life.

1. Slow Down

The “No worry and no hurry” philosophy should be employed everywhere. With cars slowed to a top speed of 50kph, it invites a sense of calm and reduces urgency. It permeates through Bhutanese people, too, with cyclists and pedestrians also moving at a slower pace.

People literally have time to stop and smell the roses. To visit temples and pray. The national sport of Bhutan is archery — a game that is often played over two days at a leisurely pace. There is no need to rush here. And when they score, they break into song. It is a game where all players seem happy.

2. Protect The Environment

An obvious message, but one the rest of the world is sadly failing at. Bhutan, as mentioned, was the first country in the world to go carbon negative. They focus on reducing the human footprint. Everything is managed carefully to assess the impact on the environment.

Tourism numbers are managed. They have a mandated spend so the government can reinvest their funds into the infrastructure. Celebrations are held by planting trees.

Bhutan is home to some spectacular mountains — just like its neighbors, India and Nepal. Yet, the climbing of mountains higher than 6,000 m (20,000 ft) has been prohibited since 1994 and since 2003 mountaineering of any kind was disallowed entirely within Bhutan. Banning this would cost them tourists — but the environment is more important.

3. Retire Early to Enjoy Life

In many western cultures, it’s almost like a badge of honor to work for as many years as possible. In Bhutan, most stick to the retirement age of sixty. The King retired early to pass the mantle to his son. The general population retires so they can spend their time with friends, in prayer and contemplation.

With no rat race to compete in, no focus on material possessions — people can focus on what’s important to them: family and religion.

The Takeaway

The Bhutanese landscape is covered in brightly colored prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. The flags comprise five different colors — blue, red, green, white, and yellow. Each color represents the five wisdoms of Buddhism and the five essential elements — sky, fire, earth, water, and air. Buddhists believe that keeping these five elements in good harmony is good for the body and mind.

Spending a week there, I would have to agree. The sense of harmony is exuded throughout the country. Bhutan sets an excellent example for the rest of the world to follow.

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