One of the essential components of happiness is altruism, love and compassion. How can we find happiness for ourselves, when people around us are always suffering? Moreover, whatever happens, our happiness is closely linked to that of others.

Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher (1999)

Karuna-Shechen has been working in India, Nepal and Tibet for 20 years while supporting “the Friends of Bhutan“, the only French-speaking association active in the country since 1987.

Bhutan has long been a mysterious country unknown to the West. Today, with a population of 750,000, Bhutan shares its borders with India and Tibet. Known as the “land of happiness” in the press, this country nevertheless faces endemic poverty.

Happiness and well-being, a paradigm of life in Bhutan

“True happiness is not an endless string of pleasurable sensations, which is more like a recipe for exhaustion than the pursuit of happiness. True happiness is a way of being that goes hand in hand with selfless love, inner strength, inner freedom, and serenity, and which day by day, month by month, can be cultivated as a skill,” Matthieu Ricard quoted at a conference at the United Nations (2012).

Bhutan was the first country in the world to establish happiness as a state policy. Nestled in the heart of the Himalayas, this small kingdom refuses “the dictatorship of gross domestic product (GDP)” and economic growth at all costs, by proposing a new indicator of wealth: Gross National Happiness (GNH).

“At a time of global environmental devastation and cultural destruction, at a time of rising bankruptcy and collapse of our global economic order, the world desperately needs an alternative to the materialistic and consumerist obsession that has caused such devastation,” Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley quoted at a United Nations conference (2012).

The Gross National Happiness (GNH) indicator has several dimensions: it is holistic, recognising the spiritual, material, physical and social needs of the population. It focuses on balanced and ecologically sustainable progress in pursuit of well-being for the present and future generations. Thus, Gross National Happiness is based on four pillars: good governance, sustainable economic development, environmental protection, and cultural preservation.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the country organized itself to manage the health situation as best as it could, registering the lowest number of cases in the Indian subcontinent. The government took many measures for the welfare of its people and the economy. Although there is no unemployment benefit, the government responded to the pandemic and the loss of jobs for many Bhutanese, especially in the tourism sector, by introducing a minimum wage and suspending rents for small traders to allow businesses to survive the crisis.

Françoise Pommaret, president of “the Friend of Bhoutan” association, says: “Everything has been done to ensure that this terrible crisis does not lead to misfortune for the society orthe economy. Some have donated their crops to people in need, others have made hotel rooms available to quarantine patients. On a voluntary basis, young people have been recruited to help the elderly or isolated to bring them food and medicine. The management of the crisis highlights the spirit of solidarity that exists in Bhutan.”

A need to act for the disadvantaged

However, in this small Himalayan kingdom, the virtue of the NBB has its limits. The culture of happiness, benevolence and solidarity is not enough to combat poverty. 

Inequalities remain, and the rural population is very vulnerable. According to figures published by UNICEF, 10.2% of the population lives below the international poverty line and the infant mortality rate is 3.2% compared to 0.2% in France.

Although according to the World Bank, unemployment does not exceed 3% of the active population young people are still very affected with 11.2% of the under-24s unemployed. Most of the younger generation have a higher education, but find it difficult to find jobs outside the agricultural sector. Bhutan remains a poor country, where living conditions are made more difficult by the mountainous terrain and the lack of infrastructure. The limitation of a happiness indicator is that it overlooks the inequality and endemic poverty that plague the country.

The Friend of Bhoutan”, through various actions – such as sponsoring children or building homes – supports people in need. It also works with the Loden Foundation on an entrepreneurial scholarship project for rural youth.

Traditionally, economic activity in Bhutan has been centred on agriculture and trade. In a rapidly changing world, these activities cannot provide sufficient income and economic growth, nor can they provide employment for the growing number of educated young people entering the labour market each year.

The development of a dynamic culture of entrepreneurship, which respects local culture, can perhaps meet these needs, according to Françoise Pommaret. It is in this context that the Loden Foundation offers young entrepreneurs interest-free loans to start their own businesses, even if they have no equity. Thanks to this programme, over 3,000 jobs have been created in 20 years.

Karuna-Shechen supports the Association of Friends of Bhutan as they move forward each day, towards a more just and altruistic world.