Bhutan: Counting What Matters

Measuring the happiness of a nation

When Sir Thomas More penned Utopia more than five centuries ago, he asked of a society: What greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety? More’s utopia was the stuff of imagination. But perhaps the concept doesn’t have to be. Take the Kingdom of Bhutan, where SCU’s Shauna Shapiro was recently invited by its royal family.

Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom on the eastern edge of the Himalayas that puts happiness above all. Only specially trained pilots can successfully land there—angling a plane over the mountains and dipping onto a tight runway at a tiny airport. Total population is 750,000. In the capital, there are no stoplights.

Shapiro, a professor of counseling psychology, was invited as an expert on mindfulness—something she has studied for nearly 20 years. As Shapiro describes her arrival to the airport, “There were brilliant colors and tiles, and the architecture was like that of a temple, ‘This is an airport? I feel like I’m at Disneyland.’”

And she kind of was—or at least the part about the “happiest place on Earth.” About a decade ago, Bhutan abandoned the measure of wealth in terms of gross national product in favor of GNH, or gross national happiness. In theory, every decision made by leadership in the country should be rooted in the collective wellness of its people.

“For example, if someone wants to mine diamonds, and it doesn’t support the well-being and health and happiness of their people, they will throw it out,” Shapiro says. “Even though it will make a lot of money.”

During her trip, Shapiro met heads of state and military as well as leaders in environment and education to discuss well-being on a nationwide scale. She went to teach and to learn. 

Democracy in the kingdom is a decade old; elections—only the third in the nation’s history—were just held in October 2018. One familiar problem: social media used to spread misinformation.

These trips are becoming more common for Shapiro, who has taught at SCU since 2003. In recent years she has become a worldwide expert in mindfulness. Her TED Talk, “The Power of Mindfulness: What You Practice Grows Stronger,” has nearly 900,000 views and earned her an invitation from the Canadian government to be a keynote speaker at the Apex Leadership Symposium in Ottawa, where she addressed 750 top executives and government officials.

post-image The tiny country of Bhutan is known for its Gross National Happiness. / Aurora Photographs
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