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Bhutan: Challenging Definitions of Happiness — A DRAGONS JOURNAL FEATURED STORY

Posted on

05/16/19

Author

Chelsea Ferrell

Photo by CHELSEA FERRELL, BHUTAN: A farm and house built in traditional Bhutanese architecture located outside of the UWICER environmental institute and research station outside Jakar, Bhutan.

 

WORDS & IMAGE CHELSEA FERRELL, INSTRUCTOR

LOCATION: BHUTAN

If you say you’re going to Bhutan, be prepared for a wide range of reactions. From the skeptical bank-teller (“Hold on, let me make sure that’s a country before I authorize your credit card.”) to the confused listener (“Oh, that’s in Africa, right?”) to the awestruck fan (“Isn’t that the happiest country in the world?!”). While you can’t anticipate others’ reactions, one thing is certain: Once introduced to the country, the people, and the concepts of Bhutan, your perspective won’t be the same.

By virtue of merely being in the country, you are incorporated into the community and your presence alone makes you a valued member.

In June 2018, after months of planning and relationship building, Dragons launched its inaugural summer program in Bhutan. For someone familiar with the country, it’s impossible to miss the many ways Bhutan and Dragons are alike. Both are small. (Bhutan only has a population of 750,000 people!) They are both decidedly independent and not afraid to be different. And both Bhutan and Dragons are loyal to their principles, regardless of the climate among peers.

While many countries focus solely on capitalism and generating wealth, Bhutan uses Buddhist ethics in its governance and economic policies. As one of the world’s newer democracies, Bhutan is often cited as an example of a country that is doing development differently. Bhutan has managed to adapt to modern life even while preserving its heritage and remaining faithful to core values.

But my favorite similarity between Bhutan and Dragons is the informal, dependable, tight-knit communities entwined throughout each. Bhutan often feels like a neighborhood block party that might take place on a street in the US suburbs. You meet people you’ve never seen but somehow, they seem to know all about you. By virtue of merely being in the country, you are incorporated into the community and your presence alone makes you a valued member. I’ve felt this same way about the Dragons community. No matter where I go in the world, I can be sure of one thing: I’ll likely run into a Dragons instructor, student, or alum.

CHALLENGING DEFINITIONS OF HAPPINESS

My personal journey in understanding happiness in a Bhutanese context began in 2012, when, as a graduate student of Social Anthropology and Tibetan language, I spent a month traversing the country. At that point in my life, I’d lived in several countries and was slipping towards the feeling like I had nothing new to learn or experience in another culture.

The remoteness of the country and the lack of Western ideologies enforced a need to unplug…

A few days in Bhutan, however, was enough to jerk me out of the cocoon that I’d formed around myself. The remoteness of the country and the lack of Western ideologies enforced a need to unplug and naturally created an environment that led me to re-evaluate what I thought I knew.

Bhutan called into question some of the core assumptions in the West so fundamental to our thinking that many of us no longer recognize them as value tradeoffs, such as, “bigger is better” and “nature should be commodified.” My time in Bhutan also led to a recognition of the values of silence, slowness, and a lack of instantaneous gratification. It led me to see the value of technology should not be blindly assumed, but evaluated in this context.

BUILDING THE PROGRAM IN BHUTAN

In planning the Dragons program in Bhutan, we incorporated Bhutanese and Dragons ideals not only into program themes, but into the methodology of how we set up the program. During each step of program development, we were conscious of our impact, securing local input through joint brainstorming sessions and attempts to find service activities that would provide value to the communities with whom we worked.

Our FOI allowed us to explore the factors that contribute to happiness, including the use and value of natural space, community life, and the ways that happiness is embedded in and practiced through spiritual philosophies and traditions.

Seeking an alternative way to chart the country’s progress, Bhutan became famous for coining the idea of Gross National Happiness as an alternative measurement to Gross National Product. The country is especially unique because of its variety of public policies related to environmental conservation and cultural preservation.

The Focus of Inquiry (FOI) for each trip is designed to look at themes that will be woven through all program activities and experiences. As we formed the program, we also discussed possible program themes, both with one another and with Bhutanese friends and former colleagues. These conversations often circled back to the idea of happiness because with Bhutanese and Buddhist lens, happiness is often viewed differently than it is in the US.

Our FOI allowed us to explore the factors that contribute to happiness, including the use and value of natural space, community life, and the ways that happiness is embedded in and practiced through spiritual philosophies and traditions. The FOI was designed to encourage students to look closely at their own lives and experiences, and to explore their tacit assumptions about happiness.

COMMUNITY IS EVERYTHING

In Bhutan, connections stretch out like long games of telephone, particularly as families move between regions with seasonal change. Visualizing how community connections are fostered is best illustrated by picturing a road trip across Bhutan during the summer. Monsoon rains, landslides, and mud on the national highway might cause roadblocks that can last anywhere from hours to days. In the West, this time might be written off as “wasted,” a detriment to productivity. However, in Bhutan, these roadblocks often become social gatherings, a time to meet new people and sip hot butter tea together while watching bulldozers lift massive stones and level out dirt. What seems an annoyance can morph into the best part of the trip. Bhutan is remarkable in this way: It’s a country so small and unplugged that social interactions naturally arise from an unavoidably interwoven community.

What seems an annoyance can morph into the best part of the trip.

With all this in mind, what could be more fitting than Dragons offering a program in a country whose name in the native language literally translates to the “Land of the Thunder Dragon”?

MAYBE THE BEST WAY TO SUM IT ALL UP IS WITH QUOTES FROM THE SUMMER 2018 BHUTAN PROGRAM YAK BOARD:

“Life is very different here. The day starts just before 6:00am in the morning. Everyone works together to make breakfast. It is very much unlike the United States. Back home we usually wake up, eat, and go about our day on our own. Here, they all eat together and get along extremely well. There is a sense that even when they are not talking, they are having a conversation.” –Jake Zivkovic, Student

“Bhutan is a small country, but it contains such a vast wealth of history and culture—its diverse peoples, geography, religious traditions, and cuisine are all so colorful and full of spice! Traveling in places like this is difficult, surreal, heavenly, overwhelming, and everything in between all at once.” –Nick Gredin, Instructor

“Some of the first icebreakers my homestay brother had in store for us: ‘Have you been following the World Cup?’ and ‘What is your favorite soccer league team?’ When I went to play later with the Bhutanese teenagers and young adults, they seemed to be shocked when I could barely dribble without tripping over myself.” –Jack Holmgren, Student

“I’m convinced of how special this country is and would like to proclaim myself as Bhutan’s official biggest fan. Why am I so confident about that statement? Almost anybody would feel the same if they could come smell the air and listen to the birds. As I sit in the back of the farmhouse where we are taking residency, I can’t help but stop writing to look at the vast rice fields and clouds gently rolling over the mountains.[…] This may be the quietest place I’ve ever experienced…” –Raif Wexler, Student

“Every meal that we have had at our homestay has concluded the same way; with our homestay mother and grandmother commenting on how little we eat. While attempting to plop more food on our plates, they say that if we don’t eat we will get thin and also point out that we don’t want an empty stomach because that will make us miss our parents.” –Delaney Bashaw, Student

CHELSEA FERRELL works in Global Operations at Tufts University. She received her MA in Social Anthropology from the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) and her BA in Political Science from Swarthmore College. She has led academic and service programs in Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Colorado and presented at national and regional conferences on topics of Himalayan Studies and University Risk Management. She believes that intercultural community experiences are powerful sites of personal transformation.

 

P.S. Head over to see the itinerary and details of our new Gap Year Bhutan Semester!

(This essay was featured in the 2019 issue of The Dragons Journal. We encourage you to visit our archive of issues and essays or even submit a piece for publication in the next issue!)

2 Comments

  1. Kate Nott Blalack |

    One small note – the inaugural WTBD summer Bhutan program (technically Sikkim & Bhutan) happened in 2001, run by myself, John Mauro, and Karma Namgyal. While many things have changed in the world since then, it sounds like the questions you and your students asked and your experiences there reflected ours very closely. I’m so glad to see the Dragons Bhutan connection alive and well again!

    Reply

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