I think I got a bit ahead of myself, talking here yesterday
about media and democracy in Bhutan. You are probably wondering: Where the heck is this Bhutan? I had no idea when I was first asked to volunteer there at a youth-oriented radio station. I mean, I knew it was in Asia, and that it was supposed to be the happiest place on earth, and that it didn't have television. (I assumed those two last qualities were indelibly linked.)
When I accepted the invitation to go, and after my boss at Marketplace consented to an unpaid leave, I of course did my research. Bhutan, it turned out, is considered the "last Shangri-La." It is surrounded by India, Tibet, and Nepal. It is about the size of Switzerland and has only 650,000 residents. Its mainstay occupation is subsistence farming; per capita income is $1300 a year, but its people aren't living on the streets. The family unit is strong and people are cared for. Medical care and schools are free. Until 40 years ago, outsiders hadn't been allowed in; now their numbers are controlled by a high entry fee to keep the place from being overrun. Roads and planes are relatively new to the kingdom, so is hard currency. And TV (along with the Internet) was allowed in just a decade ago.
The reason Bhutan is considered the "happiest" place is because in the seventies its King had casually declared a commitment to "Gross National Happiness" over pursuit of GDP. To me, as a reporter covering unbridled capitalism each day, this ideal had particular resonance. I valued quality of life; I'd chosen to live across the street from my job so as to avoid an onerous commute, had an open house each week so I could create community for myself (I was single, and didn't have family in Los Angeles), and made it a point to swim each day.
Famed for being the only Asian capital without a traffic light, Thimphu boasts a live traffic cop who directs the growing number of cars in the country the old-fashioned way.
Today, the philosophy of Gross National Happiness is perhaps Bhutan's greatest export, albeit a virtual one. And in an effort to sate outside demand, Bhutan has created a commission to study and quantify a personal, largely immeasurable concept. Governments around the world, from Brazil to Germany to England, are currently studying it as they seek ways to offset the disastrous financial crisis. In fact, Seattle's just launched a movement rooted in the fundaments of GNH, which, it turns out, aren't about some paternalistic measure of happiness being foisted on you by the leaders. It's about well-being, balance. What good is making lots of money if you don't have time for your family, commute hours each day, or if the money comes at a cost to the environment?
So that's a bit of Bhutan 101 for you. Tomorrow I'll share with you the strangest and most wonderful bit of Bhutanese trivia that I've stumbled upon. It'll save you a pricey trip to the Kingdom, if you were thinking of making one, or enhance any trip you have taken there....