Inspiring Women I Met in Bhutan – and What “Happiness” Means to Them.

The Bhutan happiness index has intrigued me for a long time. So I tried to figure out what happiness means to its people.

Is this indescribable feeling happiness? I wondered as my partner and I hiked through the blue pine forests of Bhutan’s Haa Valley. Up gentle hills we walked, alive with the scent of rain from the night before. Prayer flags fluttered in the wind. White and pink wildflowers dotted the landscape.

I had landed up in Bhutan last autumn to speak about my book at the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival. And found myself immediately drawn to the old world charm, neighbourhood forests, mountains, traditional architecture, people, food and slow life of the capital city Thimphu.

Perhaps like everyone else, I’ve been intrigued and fascinated by the idea of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. Is Bhutan really the happiest country in the world, I found myself wondering. Will I be able to glean the secret to happiness while I’m there?

Over nearly a month of traversing the magical beauty of Bhutan, I ended up meeting local writers, entrepreneurs, travellers, farmers, thinkers and dreamers. Some were fleeting encounters, some easy friendships. To some, I couldn’t help but pose the question, what is happiness anyway?

As we stay home and introspect life during this global lockdown, I’m finding solace in their answers:

Happiness is having a purpose in life (and the Bhutan happiness index is not a literal measure)

bhutan and happiness, bhutan gross national happiness, bhutan happiness
Bhutan happiness index – a development indicator, not a literal measure.

I was in complete awe of Sonam Pelden – a Forbes 30 under 30 tech entrepreneur – as she spoke about Bhutan’s evolving digital landscape at Mountain Echoes. I felt her enthusiasm for the digital world back when I worked in Singapore, but perhaps I’ve lost some of it to cynicism along the way.

Chatting with her though, I first learnt how Bhutan actually calculates its Gross National Happiness Index (GNH). Unlike popular perception, the GNH is not a literal measure of happiness or even emotional contentment. It assesses changes in 33 indicators through surveys with randomly selected households. Parameters include psychological well-being, education, health, governance, ecological resilience and standard of living. This ultimately gives a glimpse of whether people are moving from the “unhappy” end of the spectrum towards the “deeply happy” end. But more than that, it helps create a development road-map targeting low-performing parameters.

Sonam says candidly, “The narrative put forth by popular media propagates the notion of a naïve blissful nation – albeit enticing – where tribes of smiling people are constantly gripped in song and dance. This is a dangerous half-fiction which needs to be fought on all fronts. It incubates anti-intellectualism and a sense of entitlement, and perhaps even more troublesomely, manages to distort how Bhutanese people perceive themselves. There is so much more than smiling and dancing to Gross National Happiness – and we need to push that forward!”

Personally for her, “the pursuit of happiness means the pursuit of usefulness. Ultimately being useful and having a purpose in life – i.e adding value to my community and to myself makes me feel more fulfilled, more alive – all the things we associate happiness with.”

On the other hand, “being happy implies permanence – it implies you have completed all your prerequisites and now you get to sit atop your giant pile of happy forever. You have retired from the everyday roller coaster of emotions to simply revel in your happiness.

And this is why I have a problem with Bhutan being dubbed as the happiest place on earth.”

Also read: Unexpected Friendships in the Dominican Republic

Happiness is a mindset

bhutan happiness, bhutan happiness index, bhutan and happiness
With Tashi, chatting about Bhutan, happiness and life.

“I’m too smart to be sitting at home,” Tashi said, only half joking. She aced her studies, but life had different plans for her. Back in the early 90s, much like in India, women in Bhutan were expected to marry early, as per the wishes of their parents.

But that didn’t stop her from becoming an entrepreneur. She refurbished her 80-year-old house in the remote Ura village of Bumthang Valley and opened it up to travellers seeking a taste of rural life. That’s how we met.

As a passionate and forward-thinking farmer, she was chosen among a handful to travel to Austria and learn from organic farmers across the country! When she returned, they even helped her build a stone oven to practice bread making – the only one of its kind in all of Bhutan.

In her cosy kitchen, we gathered one night to drink homemade ara – a fermented (and potent) local rice brew. Chatting about life in Bumthang and her adventures in Austria, I couldn’t help but wonder what she made of happiness.

“To me, happiness is something we set our minds to. No matter how hard life gets, it is about being able to take it easy, think in positive ways, and just feel satisfied with what we have,” she explained.

Indeed, it’s easy to complain about the cards we’ve been dealt by life. But perhaps the only way to pursue happiness is to choose how we play the hand.

Also read: What the Village Folk of Kumaon Taught Me About Life

Happiness is seeking inspiration on the road

At the Mountain Echoes festival, I was delighted to share the stage with Tshering Denkar – Bhutan’s first solo female traveller and travel blogger. Her passion to get off the beaten track in Bhutan, hitchhike to remote parts of the country, connect with indigenous communities and bring their stories to the world is infectious.

We ended up hiking in the forests of Thimphu together. And that’s when I learnt that she was invited to meet His Majesty The Fifth King of Bhutan after he read her blog! He commended her for her fearless travels and curiosity about her own land. Indeed, her blog inspired us to travel all the way to Haa Valley. And her stories of the remote eastern corners of Bhutan make me long to return to the country.

“Happiness to me is Bhutan’s offbeat trails and unexplored places. It is seeing how people in far-flung regions, even without basic necessities, seem content with their lives. It is about becoming a part of other cultures and traditions on my sojourns. Happiness to me is Bhutan itself,” says Denkar.

As a fellow traveller, I think I get it. Being on the road often makes me feel close to the illusive, inexplicable feeling of happiness.

Also read: Meet the Courageous Indian Woman Who Travels the World Solo – On a Wheelchair!

Happiness is an inside job

paro taktsang, tiger's nest hike
Hiking up to the famous Paro Taktsang.

As a vegan traveller, I was amazed to learn that Bhutan has no slaughterhouses! Consciously harming sentient beings is considered out of line with the Buddhist principle of compassion. Ironically though, Bhutan imports meat from India…

The quest to understand Bhutan’s complex relationship with animals led me to Yangso. The pioneer of Bhutan’s small but passionate vegan movement and founder of the country’s first vegan club. Through her, I discovered vegan-friendly local brands and connected with other Bhutanese vegans. We ended up hosting a meetup in Thimphu and swapped stories of vegan, eco-friendly and minimalist living. Her passionate advocacy for animal rights in a country whose national dish is ema datshi (cheese and chillies), left me inspired. So I had to ask Yangso what happiness meant to her.

“Happiness to me is an inside job. I maybe in the most peaceful and happiest country in the world, but to me happiness is a state of mind. It is embracing the present moment. It is acceptance. It is patience. It is knowing that my existence matters,” she said.

That inside job is not always easy. But I know for a fact that to the billions of animals suffering out there, her existence matters. And hopefully, her patience will pay off.

Also read: On Life and Contentment: A Conversation With Buddhist Monks in Thailand

Happiness is giving back

mountain echoes literary festival, Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck
With Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother. Wish I’d asked her the Bhutan happiness question!

At the end of our panel, Denkar, Pem C (the founder of Bhutan’s first lifestyle magazine) and I had the great honour of being invited to chat with Her Majesty the Royal Queen Mother Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuck. I would only later learn how rare that honour was!

For someone who inspires so much awe and respect among the Bhutanese, I was surprised to hear her open up about her youthful adventures before she embarked on a different journey as one of the Queens to the visionary Fourth King of Bhutan. I didn’t get the opportunity to ask her about happiness, but her eyes lit up as she spoke about her foundation, Tarayana.

She travelled across Bhutan, to far-flung villages, trying to grasp the challenges of rural living. And set up the Tarayana Foundation to support sustainable development and vocational livelihoods on the remote countryside. Green technologies are at the core of these projects – including micro hydro power projects in off-grid villages, bio sand water filtration, dry composting toilets and solar dryers for food preservation.

It sounds to me like happiness might just be about making a difference in the lives of those less privileged than us, in whatever way we can.

What do you think of the Bhutan happiness index? What does happiness mean to you?

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  1. Shivya, so inspiring and purposeful traveling. Keep contributing-back to society through your fertile mind and soul. Spare some time and visit Pakistan too. This country too is full of natural beauty; like salt ranges and valleys such as Naran, Kaghan, Ghilgit-Baltistan, Kalam, Muree, Nathia Ghali, and many more.

      1. Shivya Nath says:

        Thanks Archana 🙂 x

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thanks Jafar! The countryside of Pakistan is so high on my wishlist but as far as I understand, on an Indian passport, I can only get a visa to visit specific cities 🙁

      1. Oh dear! Is it so? Governments of both sides should soften such conditions and bridge the widened gaps between neighboring states; sharing common heritage and culture.

  2. Wonderful write-up and lovely picture. A real inspiration to many.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thank you, I guess Bhutan gives you that kind of inspiration!

  3. Hi Shivya,

    It has been great steering through your experience of finding out what happiness means to people of Bhutan in your own beautiful words. I am still wondering if people can be happy while being minimalist and following sustainable living? I have read and heard stories about Rishis,, munis and monks who gave away worldly pleasures to find eternal happiness. And now you write about this clan who have established their Happiness Index based on the rules of minimalism and sustainable living. May the clan grow and the rest of the world too get stuck in this way of life soon.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Shilpa. To me it seems like minimalism and sustainable living are perhaps the only path to happiness (whatever our definition of it might be). Atleast for me, owing little (and hence having little to worry about) and living close to nature helps my mind quieten down in beautiful ways.

  4. Thought provoking and an engaging read. Beautiful pictures and the way you tried to capture the essence that Happiness is indeed a dynamic terminology, was surely praiseworthy. loved reading it.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thanks so much! Glad this post resonated with so many 🙂

  5. I love the way you bring perspective through your travels. Every post of yours is worth a read and so is this one. I’m inspired.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thanks so much Surraiya, that makes all the time and effort I put into this blog feel worth it 🙂

  6. Amitabha Roy says:

    Hi Shivya, Normally i dont subscribe to any blog writer. But after reading your article on Bhutan, i thought might as well make an exception… I have visited the small kingdom three years back on a backpacking trip. We covered Paro, Thimpu, Punakha, Gangtey, Phobjika and Haa in eight days which is the duration normally Bhutan government allowes at a stretch. I also fell in love with the beautiful nation. As a person who deals with people on regular basis, i found the people very friendly and without complexity. What i loved the most was the self discipline, which is not imposed but comes naturally. Their sustainable model of living is worth replication. Thanks for a wonderful article.. Please put more about the treks.. Thanks

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thanks Amitabha for making that exception; hope it’ll be worth it 😉 Totally agree, their sustainable model of living and GNH is worth replicating the world over, especially in the battle against climate change.

  7. Archana bhale says:

    Hi Sivya,
    Your post is so inspiring, I am 51 , got caught up in work ad family but I do hope my daughters will be able to follow their heart , be free ad live their life by choice ad not under social compulsion s. We all love to travel. Have been to bhutan three years back, want to go back there soon. In fact, want to come back there to work, if things go well…. We were supposed to go to andaman for scuba diving this year’s but had to postpone it due to Covid.
    Keep travelling….. The best way of learning.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Hey Archana, I love that you have such a vision of freedom for your daughters – unfortunately still rare in India. But I also encourage you to follow your heart irrespective of societal expectations. We have only one life and age is just a number!

  8. Archana bhale says:

    And yes.. .forgot to add. We all three are vegan for the last 2 years.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      That’s amazing <3

  9. Cornelia Weber says:

    Dear Shivya, Happiness is reading your writing

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      And happiness is reading your comment, Cornelia 😉

  10. Ujjal Roy says:

    Very inspiring even I am visiting Bhutan since last 3 years continuously at Summer’s I love the country Bhutan love the people over there a truly happy country

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Oh wow, that’s amazing. I’m cursing myself for waiting so long to get myself there!

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thanks so much! Your wish is my command 😉

  11. Bhutan is such a lovely country. I had visited in 2012 and the country is so pristine. Every country in this world should learn from Bhutan how to keep their citizens happy and also achieve economic growth.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      I agree. The only country that prioritizes forests over construction – a true sign of “development” if you ask me.

  12. I agree with your post about happiness being an internal job. Just now I was feeling over-whelmed by anxieties due to pandemic news on television (which I can’t switch off due to my parents) and after reading it, I found a satisfying peace.

    Your writing is amazing as well. I hope someday I could write up content like this.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Glad to hear this post helped find some peace, Bhavesh. My parents are glued to the news all day too which is terrible for everyone’s mental health so I occasionally hide the TV remote :p

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thanks Avish, glad it resonated with so many people!

  13. Quite an inspirational narration of your Bhutan experience alongwith the nice photos full of friendly smiles. Felt very happy going though it. Keep up the good work.

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Glad it was an inspiring read for you; Bhutan has that kind of effect 🙂

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Glad you feel that way Ankit!

  14. What a great source of inspiration….Happiness is all about inner peace. You create a wave of inspiration from your journey. Bhutan is indeed a place for happiness and you have added fragrance into it with your wonderful experience. I am really grateful to you for giving such a beautiful blog…..👌

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Quite overwhelmed by the response to this post 🙂 And you’re right, inner peace, especially now, is more important and needed than ever.

  15. Thank you for bringing all the story and images to us Shivya. Really enjoy it

    1. Shivya Nath says:

      Thanks Utomo, glad to hear 🙂

  16. Hi Shivya,
    As you wrote, “As a vegan traveller, I was amazed to learn that Bhutan has no slaughterhouses!”
    This is really amazing. Perhaps that’s why Bhutan is the most peaceful country in the world.
    An Inspirational story.

  17. I have read a lot of travel blogs and i write myself too. But the way you describe not just the place but the people in particular is really out of the box. It’s really a very nice piece to read. And an inspiration for me to improve on what i do.

  18. I have read a lot of blogs but people describe places in the most of them. Not the people the culture and how their life looks like in particular. The way you narrate it is beautiful indeed.

  19. Bhutan is love really. I planned it all to visit Bhutan this month. Birth month trip as I call it. And it got postponed. So I am filling up that empty part by reading your blogs. 🌸❤

  20. This is so inspiring shivya. I love how you connected this to Bhutan’s happiness index.

  21. Wonderful write-up and lovely picture. I hope someday I could write up content like this.

  22. Dominic Huddart says:

    A serious rousing portrayal of your Bhutan experience alongwith the decent photographs brimming with agreeable grins. Felt extremely cheerful going however it. Keep doing awesome.

  23. Envy is the word which comes to my mind when I read blogs such as yours. It was very late when I realized that I missed out at what I loved the most due to the grind of family life. Still i managed the courage to leave my Corporate job in an Insurance company and started a new venture by opening up a Travel Company in 2018. Still learning the steps but it gives me immense joy when my clients thanks me for the best Travel experience i arrange for them. There are many things to learn from globe trotters like you and i will religiously follow your journey from now on. Thanks.

  24. I visited Bhutan with my husband on my honeymoon and I love it, especially the food! We were lucky enough to visit Thimphu. I hope to visit it again and explore it more deeply. Was wonderful memories.

  25. I love that you are living the life YOU want to live and are brave enough to pull it off.

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