Tshering Yesi grew up in Bhutan, but lived in India for his university education. He'd traveled around plenty—did he really think that the Bhutanese were happier than the rest of the world? "Yes," Tshering told me, as if it wasn't even something to be questioned, but just a fact of life. "Our culture brings us together here. We have such small communities that everyone knows one another and looks out for each other. No one is alone. Other cultures are too disconnected from each other, where you don't even know your neighbor. We also enjoy our free healthcare and free education and don't have to stress about how to pay for those things."
It’s not just close-knit communities that foster contentment in Bhutan, but a sense of benevolent leadership. "We have faith in our leader, the king, so we don't have to worry about what's going to happen 10-15 years down the road because we believe that he will handle everything in a way that's best for our country."
I saw Tshering's words reinforced throughout my visit. The Bhutanese are extremely devoted to their kings (Bhutan has two living kings, and they give them the nicknames "K4" to denote the fourth king, and "K5" for the current and fifth king). After all, K4 came up with the idea of gross national happiness. The concept is even written in to Bhutan's Constitution, which was only inked in 2008 when the country became a democracy. The leaders are directed to always put the four pillars of Gross National Happiness (good governance, sustainable development, preservation of culture, and environmental conservation) at the forefront of their decisions, to keep the best interests of their citizens in mind.
The current King of Bhutan. (Photo: Wikipedia)
To measure the happiness index, an unusual nationwide census of the estimated 800,000 citizens is conducted every year. The Bhutanese are asked questions like "Have you ever been angry in the last six months?" and “Do you own a smartphone?" It's unclear whether owning a smartphone is a point for or against happiness. The happiness index is strongly correlated to average income, and both wealth and happiness are increasing every year in Bhutan.
Norbu Tshering, our lead Exodus Guide, told me that to him, Gross National Happiness means "being content with what the government is providing. The government brings everything the people need to our doorsteps. Yes, people are happier here."
After spending nearly two weeks in Bhutan, I agree. In one just one visit, I flew past the world's highest peaks to arrive. While camping in the foothills of the Himalayas, I walked out of my tent and looked up to an unpolluted sky full of stars, illuminated by brightly glowing Mars. I tasted fire in the form of Bhutan's national dish, ema datshi (incredibly hot chili peppers in a cheese sauce). I watched dancers dressed as dragons and beasts dance at festivals, and I hiked among the clouds on the foggy Druk Path. And above all, I met the happiest people in the world.
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Caroline Morse Teel is Senior Editor at SmarterTravel. Follow her adventures around the world on Instagram @TravelWithCaroline