Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Happiest Place?

I've seen my name mentioned a couple of times this week. It started with having an article published about our Bhutanese journey on the Australian Women's Weekly website. Then this morning (a public holiday in Bhutan for Dassain festival) I had the time to read through some blogs I follow. A popular Bhutanese blogger, Langa Tenzin this week wrote a piece that mentioned Sabrina (last year's volunteer teacher at Chumey MSS) and I.

His post was interesting as it highlighted the phenomenon that we encounter regularly. It seems that every Bhutanese is keen to get themselves to Australia (and to a lesser extent, other western countries) as fast as they can. Most apply for further education and a scholarship, but for many this is a flimsy pretense for chasing the dream of working part-time while studying and coming back to Bhutan cashed up. Savings from a year or two of hard work in Australia far surpass what the average worker could make in a lifetime here. Of course that is going to be worth chasing!

In his blog, Langa ponders why foreigners like us and the other volunteers who come to Bhutan swap our salaries and the comforts of home to live a more simple life here. Its true that many people who live in western countries wouldn't dream of doing what we're doing, but on the other hand, a growing number of foreigners who have lived comfortable lives and who have an average salary realise is that there is more to life than comfort. We are fortunate to have the means to explore other ways of living.

Having skills to offer a developing country, we can feel a real sense of worth, and personally this has been my greatest motivator for being here. The children I have taught have been exposed to new ways of learning, thinking and communicating and have had their eyes opened to the big world outside Bhutan. I have shared ideas and teaching skills with my colleagues. I've no doubt I will leave a legacy of a new generation of children here who want to visit Australia!

Another important reason for coming here was to move outside the comfort zone. When you stretch and challenge yourself you open your life up to bigger and richer experiences. I have experienced extreme lows and highs this year, and it was from the lows particularly that I've gained the most. It wasn't easy in the beginning but now we are so used to life here in Chumey I am expecting we'll all experience reverse culture shock when we return home. I think it will be hard to adjust to the faster pace of life, the anonymity of living in a large city and the need to drive to get everywhere.

Those who commented on Langa's post referred to the Bhutanese government's policy of Gross National Happiness and I've wanted to write about this for a while. Before coming to Bhutan I was seduced by the idea that Bhutan is the happiest place in the world. I wanted a slice of that for myself.

In reality it has been harder to see that for ourselves. Perhaps tourists who visit fleetingly can gain a greater sense of this than us who see the sometimes harsh realities of life in a small village. We see the same ills that drain happiness from lives of people all around the world: poverty, domestic violence, child mortality, shorter life expectancy, alcoholism and drug addiction, illness, theft  and more. However, we see happiness in the lives of people in belonging to a community, sharing the celebrations of life and death with friends and colleagues, and a devotion and faith in Buddhism.

What Bhutan is doing differently and what will hopefully lead to a sense of 'contentment' is  protecting and promoting the four pillars of GNH: sustainable development, cultural integrity, ecosystem conservation, and good governance. By securing these areas which have been determined to be the causes of happiness (for everyone, not just for Bhutanese) the future is looking bright here. I read a recent article in the New York Times about the direction the newly elected Prime Minister of Bhutan is leading Bhutan. He is quoted as saying "Rather than talking about happiness, we want to work on reducing the obstacles to happiness”. I found this article very inspiring and it looks like this new direction and a strong leader is just what the country needs.

Western economic policy (of which I won't even pretend to understand) always seems to be talking of growth and 'consumer spending'. This just sounds like we're seeking pleasure from buying more and more at the expense of the environment, family lives and community. I think in the west we've got enough economic prosperity and its time to focus on our own pillars of happiness before it is too late.

I feel so blessed to have made a deep connection with this obscure and tiny country in the himalayas. I have no doubt Bhutan will be a place in my heart for the rest of my life. I will always feel connected to this country's future through the children I taught. I feel quite hopeful that 'inshallah' we'll have the chance to return someday in some capacity to see the Bhutan of the future. I look forward to keep in touch with the voice of Bhutan through the bloggers and Bhutanese facebook groups I've joined. Name-same kadinche la Bhutan and may everyone be happy!


  1. That was an interesting piece, Andrea. Thanks for sharing the reason why westerners generally and you chose to come to a place like Bhutan - away from your luxurious life and comfort zone. I liked the way you honestly talked about not seeing anything called Gross National Happiness at the place you stay. I don't remember mentioning anything about GNH, but never mind. It's all right. You can talk about it as Bhutan has been growing popular lately because of it.
    Hope you will take something worthy in life from life in Bhutan, if not many when you return home. Surely, the kids you are teaching will have a different perspective to learning than other kids. They will be motivated about the life and society in Australia which you would have probably talked about often. Kadrin che la, Andrea for coming to Bhutan. Visit it in the future and let us know if you notice any changes. :)

  2. Thanks Langa for your comments. I am sorry I misquoted your post - you didn't mention GNH, but some of those who commmented on your post did and I got confused. I've fixed that error now :) Also, its not that we haven't seen GNH in the people we see, its more that we have an expectation before coming here that everyone will be happy. Its not fair that we judge Bhutanese by these high and artificial standards. It has been a privilege to spend a year here, and there's no doubt we will take much with us forward in our lives.

  3. Hey Andrea, thanks for posting on this topic - the phenomenon of Bhutanese wanting to go to Australia has certainly been on everyone's lips here in Chamgang. I've written a response to both yours and Langa's post but blogger tells me it's too long to post here. You can see it on my blog.

    1. Thanks Matt, I just read it and it is great to see the facts and figures and that you have thought through the deep implications and cost of chasing the Australian dream. When it comes down to it I understand anyone's interest to travel and have a better life, but like you I don't think that equates to big fancy houses and cars. So who is going to comment on your post??!!

  4. Hi Andrea;
    This is very interesting post; indeed a good food for thought for Bhutanese people especially and others as well. May you be happy as well and good Luck ahead..:)

    1. Thank you Tshewang for your comments. I'm happy to give you some food for thought. Did you see the reply that my friend Matt wrote?