Are the people in Bhutan really the happiest?

Bhutan is out of luck

THIMPHU. 1999 was a turning point for Bhutan. The modernization of the small Himalayan kingdom began with the introduction of television and the Internet.

The country's first psychiatrist, Chencho Dorji, also started work that same year. For the training he had to go to India and Sri Lanka.

The four years older brother of Dr. Chencho - as he is commonly known - suffered from schizophrenia and his family had locked him in his room for years because of helplessness. Dr. Chencho became a psychiatrist to help him.

"There was simply no other way that my brother could be treated," says the doctor in his office in the general hospital in the capital Thimphu. "There was nobody in Bhutan."

Ministry of Happiness

The Buddhist kingdom is a poor country with a constitution that is only ten years old, including a forest cover of at least 60 percent of the country. But Bhutan is best known for having declared the greatest possible happiness of its citizens to be a national goal and for having founded a Ministry of Happiness.

Every five years, surveys are used to measure gross national happiness. Tourists can buy souvenirs that say “Bhutan - Happiness is a Place”.

But by no means all Bhutanese are happy. The suicide rate has recently risen and, according to some experts, is now among the 20 highest in the world. Suicide is the sixth leading cause of death in Bhutan - it ranks 18th internationally. According to Buddhist belief, suicide has dire effects on future lives.

"Alarming" calls Dr. Chencho the numbers. "But you have to consider that in the last 20 years we have seen an enormously rapid development from an agricultural, medieval society into the world of the 21st century."

Extended families split up

This was accompanied by the collapse of traditional ways of life and values ​​that had previously held society together. Large families are split up, young people are moving from the villages to the cities in search of work, materialism is increasing - "the stress of modern life," says Dr. Chencho to it. The democracy introduced in 2008 is also a burden on the people.

The most recent report on Bhutan's gross national happiness, from 2015, gave a value of 0.756 on the happiness index scale from zero to one - in other words: the country was just under 76 percent happy.

This was a slight increase compared to the previous report, which the authors attributed primarily to increasing material well-being as well as improved access to electricity, drinking water and other government services.

However, it was said that the results in the area of ​​“psychological well-being” - one of the nine “domains” of gross national happiness - were significantly worse. According to the report, more Bhutanese were “just happy” (47.9 percent) than “largely happy” (35.0 percent).

The number of “unhappy” people (8.8 percent) was also greater than that of the “deeply happy” (8.4 percent). The least happy were farmers and young people.

Healers instead of psychiatrists

Dr. Chencho is no longer the only psychiatrist in Bhutan, but now one of four. More are being trained, as are the country's first therapists and social workers. So far, however, there are no psychologists.

Despite all the progress, there is still a lot to be done, says Dr. Chencho. He criticizes the government for investing too little money and effort in mental health: “That is half-hearted.” But there are also cultural hurdles. "Mental illness still carries a lot of stigma and prejudice," he explains. Many Bhutanese would rather go to a religious healer than to him. Most of them don't even know what a psychiatrist is.

"In our national language and the various dialects there are no terms to talk about mental health," explains the young journalist Namgay Zam. "There is no way to say: I am depressed."

Many Bhutanese also see it as a sign of weakness to talk about their own feelings. Zam hosts an English language radio show called "Mind Over Matter Bhutan" in which she speaks to experts and listeners about mental health issues. She is also planning new projects to reach out to non-English speakers.

Similar to Dr. Chencho are driven by personal experiences. "I've lost so many friends to suicide in the past few years," says Zam.

About a quarter of the country's 800,000 inhabitants live in Bhutan's capital, Thimphu. There are no traffic lights here, but now there are chic cafes and hotel bars where tourists and Bhutanese people sit - instead of butter tea or the self-made Ara schnapps - drink cappuccino or beer and stare at their smartphones.

Most people wear the traditional clothing in which men's skirts are shorter than women's. The costume is compulsory for civil servants and tourist guides. Jeans and T-shirts are no longer uncommon.

Social structures break

“Our lifestyle is changing so much right now,” says Namgay Zam. "We have one foot in the past and the other in the future, and we are not sure where we belong."

"The sense of belonging, the culture and the traditions that we have in common are most important to our society," explains Pema Bazar, a program planner at the Ministry of Happiness.

For example, the country has so far managed without health insurance, unemployment benefits and old people's homes because families and friends help each other.

Opening Bhutan to the outside world was inevitable, Bazar believes. But you destroy the social structure. "In this respect, we would probably have stayed isolated," he says.

Dasho Benji has a slightly different view of the whole thing. "I'm not a big fan of this happiness index," says the environmentalist, former diplomat and close advisor to the previous king.

When he declared the greatest possible happiness of the Bhutanese as a national goal in 1974, he did not mean individual, but collective happiness. (dpa)