Happiness is serious business in the Kingdom of Bhutan. Since 1972, Bhutan has ranked Gross National Happiness (GNH) above gross domestic product and based the country’s economic and social policies on the collective happiness and well-being of its 800,000 citizens.
“(Gross National Happiness) is a multidimensional development approach that seeks to achieve a harmonious balance between material well-being and the spiritual, emotional and cultural needs of our society,” said Ambassador Doma Tshering, Permanent Representative of Bhutan to the United Nations. “We see the purpose of development as being (able) to create through public policy enabling conditions within which individuals can pursue happiness.”
Tshering delivered her remarks Tuesday, April 2, as part of the 2019 Centennial Lecture Series hosted by The University of Texas at El Paso. The ambassador spoke about Bhutan’s role in the United Nations, its GNH index and the effects of climate change on the landlocked eastern Himalayan kingdom.
Tshering said that when most people hear of Bhutan, the first thing that comes to mind is that it is the happiest place on earth.
“The tourism council of Bhutan would be thrilled with that, and as most of the Bhutanese students at UTEP probably agree, I would say that Bhutanese are generally a happy people,” she told the audience in the Tomás Rivera Conference Center.
But Tshering was quick to point out that when Bhutanese citizens talk about GNH, they are not referring to happiness as a fleeting state of emotion.
Introduced by the fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, more than 40 years ago, GNH is based on four pillars: good governance, environmental conservation, preservation of culture, and sustainable and equitable socioeconomic development.
Every five years, Bhutan conducts a nationwide GNH survey to measure the population’s happiness and well-being. The survey includes nine domains, which are considered to be the fundamental conditions within which individuals may pursue happiness, Tshering explained. These include health, education, time-use, good governance, community vitality, living standards, psychological well-being, cultural diversity and resilience, and ecological diversity and resilience.
Based on the GNH index’s findings, Tshering said that Bhutan has consistently invested 30% of its national budget on social development in the health and education sectors.During the last 30 years, life expectancy has increased from age 45 to 70. National literacy rates have increased from 40% to 72%, and youth literacy is at 93%. In the last 15 years, income poverty has declined from 31% to 8%.
These achievements have put Bhutan on track to graduate from the U.N.’s list of the world’s least developed countries by 2023, Tshering said.
At times humorous, as when Tshering poked fun at the voluminous amount of paperwork involved in her role as ambassador, the conversation turned serious when it came to the topic of climate change.
Bhutan is the only country in the world that is carbon negative, thanks to 72% of its protected forests that absorb more than 7 million tons of carbon dioxide annually, including 2.2 million tons of carbon dioxide that the country produces each year.
But Bhutan’s fragile mountain ecosystem has put it among the most vulnerable countries in the world to the impacts of climate change, Tshering said. In recent years, the country has experienced an increase in erratic weather patterns, flash floods and landslides, which could put Bhutan’s booming hydropower and agricultural sectors at risk.
“This will all have a serious effect on the sustainable livelihood of our people with direct impact on the economy, food security, public health, infrastructure, as well as safety and security,” Tshering said. “Moreover, as a country that is scheduled to graduate from the least developed countries category in 2023, we are acutely aware that adverse effects of climate change threaten to reverse hard-earned development gains by decades.”
That is why Tshering said Bhutan is committed to doing whatever it can to combat climate change. She encouraged others to follow Bhutan’s lead and rethink their consumption patterns and recycle, conserve water, avoid single-use plastics, plant trees and walk or cycle rather than drive.
“At the individual level there’s also a need for greater action,” she said. “A need to think globally and act locally. We could rethink how we can reduce our individual carbon footprint and make small adjustments to our daily lives … . The collective power of individual actions can be incredibly powerful, and in this case, happily infectious.”
During her presentation, Tshering also touched on UTEP’s special relationship with Bhutan, which is rooted in a 1914 issue of National Geographic magazine. The magazine’s photo-essay on Bhutan inspired the University’s distinctive Bhutanese architecture. But UTEP’s connection to Bhutan extends far beyond the buildings on campus.
“The deep bonds of friendship, understanding and cooperation that we share with UTEP is a source of tremendous pride in Bhutan,” Tshering said.
UTEP President Diana Natalicio echoed the ambassador’s sentiments. She said Bhutan has played a significant role in shaping UTEP’s international culture and international perspective. She also said that the UTEP campus has been greatly enriched by the Bhutanese students who are studying at the University and have become highly engaged members of the campus community.
Karma Dema left Bhutan four years ago to attend UTEP after being awarded a scholarship. The physics major is one of more than 40 Bhutanese students currently enrolled at the University. She is also a member of the Bhutanese Student Association at UTEP, which hosts cultural events on campus to educate the community about the country’s rich customs and traditions.
Dema said she enjoyed listening to the ambassador speak about the similarities between UTEP and Bhutan, which include a love for spicy food and cheese. Ema datshi is one of Bhutan’s most popular dishes. It is made from chile peppers and cheese and is similar to one of the border’s signature dishes: chile con queso.
“I can see there’s a lot of connection between El Paso and Bhutan, like the culture and how people are nice to each other,” said Dema, who will return to the kingdom and become a teacher after she graduates in May. “In Bhutan, we’re all like that.”
The Bhutanese Student Association will host Bhutan Day at UTEP on Friday, April 12, in Union Plaza. The public will have the opportunity to sample Bhutanese cuisine and culture during the event.
Author: Laura L. Acosta – UTEP Communications