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Is Bhutan the happiest country on earth?

Search this very topic online and you will find numerous articles describing why Bhutan is the happiest country on earth. There’s only one problem with this – it simply isn’t true. Is Bhutan the happiest country on earth? No not by a long shot, but we can tell you exactly how happy they are and indeed where the myth comes from. 

A very brief history of Bhutan

Originally a pseudo-protectorate of the United Kingdom Bhutan managed to retain its independence following the partition of India, alongside fellow Kingdoms of anarchy Nepal and Sikkim. Sikkim was such a corrupt hell-hole that the monarchy were removed in the 1970’s and it became a state of India, while Nepal has gone through even more hardship. An absolute monarchy the nation ended up in a civil war pitting Maoist rebels against the government before the monarchy was overthrown.

Bhutan itself remained isolated and an absolute monarchy for much of its existence only allowing television and radio in 1999. In 2005 closely following a massacre in the Nepalese palace – royal on royal King Jigme Singye Wangchuck announced he would be abdicating in favour of his son, which was done in 2006, before the country transition into a constitutional monarchy, which was achieved in 2007 and 2008. While many have painted this as an honourable move, the fact that Nepal became a republic in 2006 and that Bhutan has its own Maoist insurgency surely played some part in things.

To read about the Bhutan Communist Party click here

Why do people think Bhutan is the happiest country on earth?

The myth comes from the fact that King Jigme Singye Wangchuck stated that Gross Domestic Happiness – now denoted as GNH was more important than Gross Domestic Product (GDP), as in happiness was more important than wealth. 

To read about GDP click here

And it was from here that the western obsession with Buddhism kicked in. Pretty much every national newspaper ran with the idea and people were quoting left right and centre about how we should all take a leaf from the book of Bhutan. I have to admit I was also hoodwinked by this idea after meeting a United Nations (UN) worker in North Korea. 

He explained to me that his job was to literally travel the world measuring peoples happiness, something the UN had even been allowed to do in the famously closed Soviet Union. I foolhardily said to him “Did you know Bhutan are one of the happiest countries on earth. In fact they even measure Gross Domestic Happiness”? He politely explained that whilst they might measure it, they were not in any way, shape, or form one of the happiest countries on earth.

Is Bhutan the happiest country on earth?

So, we have established that no, they are not, but where exactly do they fit into the overall happiness league table? Well for the fourth year in a row it was northern European countries that topped the pile, with Finland being top and Denmark coming second. 

Afghanistan fairly unsurprisingly came last in 2021, although you’d have to fancy have to fancy Yemen for 2022. Rounding out the bottom 5 were Zimbabwe, Rwanda, Botswana and Lesotho. Rwanda on the list would be surprising if you were only to take aboard its current finances, but with the context of the recent genocide it is more explainable. Another point of interest here is that the UK are planning on sending their asylum seekers here.

To read about the UK sending asylum seekers to Rwanda click here

Where though do Bhutan fit into all this? Well in 2021 they were excluded due to a “technicality”, but were given an honourable mention due to their measuring of GNH. I for one feel this was a cop out, so went in search of their last ranking I could find, which happened to be 2019, AKA pre-covid. In 2019 Bhutan ranked as the 95th happiest country in the world, one below communist Vietnam, and one above civil war ridden Cameroon. 

Now while this may seem belittling it truly is not, it is merely stating a fact and one that has been greatly misunderstood over the years, including by myself in my ignorance. 

The reality is the people in Bhutan have the same cravings and fears as those in other developing countries and despite their Disneyfication are not happy Buddhist caricatures wearing their pretty clothing and praying all day. I had a friend who spent some time living in the country and he explained that as soon as the sun set on a Friday people would rip off their traditional clothes to put on their best clobber and go dancing. Nothing unusual about that, but much like the reality in Tibet, not the image the west wants to see.  It is funny how we see certain countries proscribing what people wear as oppressive, but as “cute” when a Buddhist country does it.

Therefore much like other countries we visit such as North Korea, Syria, or even Nauru there are many more layers to what makes Bhutan Bhutan and it is very different from the western portrayal of the country. 

Is Bhutan the happiest country on earth? No it is not, in fact it is the 95th happiest country in the world.

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