We travelled to Bhutan for a project management meeting in May 2023. When making travel arrangements and learning about the country, we stumbled across the concept of happiness. Both Finland – a Nordic welfare nation- and Bhutan – an isolated Himalayan kingdom – are known for their special kinds of happiness.
Finland – the happiest country in the world for six consecutive years
Finland was again chosen as the happiest country in the world in the United Nations World Happiness Report 2023. The reasons for Finland’s top place are linked to a well-functioning society with free health care, long life expectancy and limited corruption. Finland is perceived as a fair society in which injustice is unlikely.
According to World Bank, Finland’s GDP per capita was over USD 53,000 in 2021, putting it at the 17th highest spot in the global rankings. The Gini coefficient, which measures the distribution of income among individuals or households within an economy, is lower in Finland than in most countries in the world. The lower the Gini coefficient is, the more equally income is distributed.
Even though Finland is doing well in happiness rankings, individuals are not always that happy. Finland is a country with a high suicide rate and more than 400,000 Finns need anti-depressants (YLE News 2019). In May 2023, The Finnish institute for health and welfare acknowledged that the wellbeing of Finnish people of working age (20 to 64-year-olds) has decreased during the past few years. More than one out of five people in this age group suffers from significant mental stress, especially people aged 20-29 years. Mental stress contributes to sickness absence and early retirements.
Bhutan – the country of Gross National Happiness
The type of happiness in Bhutan does not sound that different to the Finnish version at the first glance. Bhutan launched its very own concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) already in the 1970s. The GNH development philosophy includes nine domains which are used to measure the happiness and wellbeing of the Bhutanese population: Psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience as well as living standards.
According to the latest GNH report published in May 2023, a whopping 93.6 % of the Bhutanese population considers itself happy (Ura et al. 2023).
According to World Bank data the high Gini index indicates rather big differences in income within the population. The data shows that Bhutan is among the richest by gross domestic product per capita in South Asia, at around USD 3,300 as of 2021. Still, Bhutan ranks 140th in the world, and is among the poorest in the world. Especially poor are the people living in rural areas: 90 % of the poor Bhutanese live in the countryside.
What creates the happiness?
In Bhutan, the concept of happiness is strongly related to the beliefs of Buddhism. You need to be kind to yourself first and this leads to compassion to others. (Zubiri 2021.)
You must love yourself and truly know, that no matter the circumstance, you are good enough. From there, you can spread that [compassion] to others.
– Rinpoche, one of Bhutan’s youngest ever spiritual masters
Impermanence is another Buddhist concept that is strong in Bhutanese culture (Zubiri 2021).
When something goes wrong Bhutanese people won’t become depressed immediately because things will change…. By accepting that all things are impermanent, it means that there can be change, and with change there is hope.
According to the Finnish happiness researcher Frank Martela (2023), happiness for Finns is very much related to work, family, health, trust, resilience and nature – the simple and important things in life.
Martela indicates that as long as we Finns can trust that the welfare state works and takes care of us from birth to old age, we do not expect to be ecstatically happy all the time. We are rather content with what we have. Our sisu – grit and perseverance – helps to survive in extreme conditions, even when things get tough.
Learning happiness from each other in the ENCORE project
In our Erasmus+ funded ENCORE project, two Bhutanese universities have received EU funding to establish entrepreneurship centers. The academic staff of the universities have been trained by European partners to be able to offer support for students and other stakeholders interested in entrepreneurship.
The country urgently needs to diversify its economy, and growth-minded entrepreneurs could be a vital part of the solution. Our project offers support for the economic development of a geographically isolated country in which over 50 % of the employment is related to farming (Choden 2021).
In coaching our Bhutanese colleagues, all European partners have come to understand how much we can learn from Bhutan. For the Western world, happiness has become something related to achievement, performance, purchasing power and consumption. Instead, we could copy the Bhutanese thought of things being impermanent. As long as we have life, there is hope for a happier future.
Choden, K. 2021. Lessons from Bhutan: The Bhutanese Economy and the Private Sector. Friedrich Naumann Foundation.
Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare. 2023. Psychological stress and suicidal thoughts among working-age people have increased, while it is difficult to get a doctor’s appointment.
Ura K., Alkire S., Wangdi, K. & Zangmo, T. 2023. GNH 2022. Centre for Bhutan & GNH Studies.
YLE News. 2019. More than 400,000 people in Finland take anti-depressants.
Zubiri, S. 2021. The key to Bhutan’s happiness. BBC.