surviving happiness

can happiness be a gross national product? the myth & reality of “progress” in Bhutan

illustrations by robin cameron,

It is the last week of 2005, and the Thimphu valley is filled with shimmering winter light and the unrelenting sounds of jackhammers, saws and drills. Construction materials are piled up everywhere and I keep getting lost on new roads. When I first arrived in the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to teach English in 1989, the capital was a small, sleepy town, and more pedestrians than cars moved along its main street of small wooden shops. Television was banned, and a long-distance phone conversation was known as a “trunk call” and involved a lot of shouting. When I finally returned to Canada in 1998, Thimphu was a little bigger, a little noisier, but essentially the same.

Perhaps this is why, walking through the streets seven years later, I am so surprised at the extent of the transformation. Groves of new apartment buildings fill up the fields along the river and four-storey concrete “plazas” are replacing the old wooden shops. Shops that used to sell rice and flour and powdered milk now sell televisions and laptops, and everywhere, it seems, someone’s cell phone is ringing.

The articles I read about Bhutan before I arrived in 1989 tended to describe the country mythologically: a secluded Tibetan Buddhist kingdom untouched by time, spiritually and ecologically pristine, deserving of its monikers – a Living Eden, Land of the Peaceful Dragon, the Last Shangri-La. Western writers praised the government for its strong conservation laws, its ban on television, and its decision to place the social and emotional well-being of its people over economic growth, a policy now known as “Gross National Happiness.” But after the country brought in cable TV and went online, another story-line emerged in the Western press, this one fretting over the perils of modernization, the loss of the country’s culture and the end of its mythic happiness…

Jamie Zeppa is the author of Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan. She teaches English at Seneca College in Toronto.

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