The man I meet is twenty minutes late, though when your line of work involves measuring the happiness of a nation, time matters little.
Pema Thinley is a researcher for The Centre for Bhutan Studies & Gross National Happiness Research (GNH), who are tasked with identifying where people sit on the happiness threshold, whether they are happy, or the converse: ‘not happy yet’ – the notion of unhappiness is disregarded in Bhutan, I am told.
While the term has its roots in the 1970s, it was not until the dawn of the millennium that steps were made to begin quantifying the emotion; no mean feat, I assure you. But beyond formulaic calculations lies a simple premise – that contentedness is at the heart of being Bhutanese. With many a word for happiness in the Dzongkha dialect – gawa, kiva, dewa, to name just a few – it’s understandable why tourists and travellers pay top dollar to land within the visitation quota, and gain a glimpse of the happiest place in the world.
What drew you to a career in happiness?
I began my career at the Ministry of Education. I was a schoolteacher then curriculum designer for the Royal Education Council. I found that there were some things that were more interesting to me, and then I had an opportunity to become a member of the happiness research initiative. But I am not a seasoned expert or happiness researcher, to be frank. I’m still learning to measure what matters to the citizens of Bhutan. Learning never stops, because life never stops.
Does Bhutan’s approach challenge the conventional models used to measure development?
We do not deny the fact that gross domestic product and gross national product is important; of course it is. But our development philosophy tries to encompass many things that conventional indicators and models of measuring progress and development, knowingly or unknowingly, somehow neglect.
What contributes to personal fulfilment?
Psychological wellbeing, and how we balance the positive and negative emotions; culture and identity – the continuation of heritage and customs; the environmental and ecological aspects: how do we follow and practice the concept of mutual coexistence with nature and sentient beings? These are just a few.
So what matters to you?
Happiness matters. Every day when we wake up, we wish for good luck and we wish to have a good life, we wish for a good environment, we wish to have good transportation – we wish to do better. At the end of the day, everybody is hoping to lead a satisfied, content and happy life, to be happy with your family, with your friends. This is the sole reason we are trying to quantify.
Thailand and Dubai have begun to introduce happiness standards. Do you think happiness can be measured around the world?
Why not? GNH simply means development with values. Questions may differ based on cultural context, but otherwise this can definitely be replicated. Ultimately it comes down to political will – if a government’s vision is just to extract and exploit – to double figures in terms of monetary and materials – then I think this is a very unmindful cycle which is never ending, where only the rich can buy oxygen.
What are some things people don’t understand about using happiness as a development indicator?
Happiness is widely understood as un-measureable. We do acknowledge that and we do ask subjective questions, but we ask objective questions too. And if you obey the subjective indicators alone, Bhutanese people are doing much better than we are actually rating and finding.
Let’s talk about tourism to Bhutan – friend or foe?
Ours is a very small country – we have a very sensitive landscape, and we don’t have much infrastructure. The holding capacity for this type of mass tourism just is not there. We have to manage it very strategically, and so we follow the policy of high value, low volume tourism, to contribute to the long-term benefit of our nation. Tourists will want to come – not all tourists, but the genuine ones.
What makes somebody a 'genuine' tourist?
People who respect Bhutanese culture, the tradition, and the people. From the moment they step out of the aircraft, they must feel the difference in the air. That sort of air should be preserved for all time to come, so that everyone who aspires to come to Bhutan should get to experience it.
Do you think people travel to Bhutan with certain expectations?
Some people won’t have their expectations met; if they are expecting no crime, no dogs, no garbage – if they’re looking for the Shangri-La, that is wrong. We have to be realistic about that. But there are things to enjoy, definitely. Somehow, the stress level reduces; you feel different. If they are tired of city life and feeling sad, Bhutan may be a solution. They can come and see whether people are happy for themselves. I think they may find some solace.