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Bhutan Wants Happiness – What does Taiwan Want?


Bhutan Wants Happiness – What does Taiwan Want?


Bhutan is committed to the well-being and happiness of its people. National development has a vision, concrete goals and ways to achieve them. Which road should Taiwan take in its national development?



Bhutan Wants Happiness – What does Taiwan Want?

By Shu-ren Koo
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 484 )

My photographer and I were in between interviews, so the vegetarian restaurant owner Wangchuck offered us a ride in his little economy car to take pictures of the picturesque rural scenery on the outskirts of the Bhutan capital of Thimphu.

As the road wound up mountainous terrain lined with rice terraces, we came across a peasant family working in the fields. While toiling hard, bending over to collect rice seedlings for transplanting, they were happily singing folk songs.

Their faces didn't look as weathered and marked by hardship as the faces of Taiwanese farmers. When they spotted the camera, they laughed happily and talked to each other in their local language. We could only suppose that they were chatting about us, three strange unexpected visitors.

Confronted with their pictures in the camera display, bashful, marveling smiles appeared on their faces, as if they couldn't believe their eyes.

Once we had finished with the photo shoot, we bid them farewell and squeezed ourselves back into Wangchuck's car. Suddenly Chiu Chien-Ying, the photographer, exclaimed, "If we don't print these photos for them, I'll feel bad."

We rushed to a downtown photo studio, hurriedly printed the photos and made it back to the rustic location before dusk.

The whole family was still there. When they saw us with the pictures, they crowded together around us like children meeting Santa Claus, eager to get their own photographic gift. Their facial expressions reflected joy and contentment.

Their joy was so infectious that we were reluctant to leave. Was this the happiness of Bhutan we'd heard so much about?

The people of Bhutan know the art of simple contentment. That's why they are happy, although they lack material wealth.

It is probably this simple joy of life that touches the hearts of those who get a chance to visit this remote Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas. And it is what the Bhutanese government views as the nation's most valuable asset, an asset that it wants to shield from the onslaught of globalization and materialist Western culture.

"Happiness is something that is very basic. You know, it is the most basic of human aspirations," Bhutanese prime minister Lyonchoen Jigme Y. Thinley tells us matter-of-factly.

Bhutan has developed its own homegrown means of gauging the nation's well-being – Gross National Happiness (GNH), which it is promoting as an alternative to gross national product (GNP) and other traditional quantitative economic indicators that measure material wealth. Interest in Bhutan's GNH approach is rapidly increasing around the world.

Over the past years, a total of five international conferences have been held on GNH around the world. Governments or non-governmental organizations, scholars and experts in Britain, Brazil, China, France, India, Japan and the United States have been discussing and researching the Bhutanese concept to serve as a reference, as traditional economic indicators alone seem increasingly inadequate to measure a nation's quality of life.

Bhutan is also lobbying the United Nations for inclusion of its GNH index in the world body's Millennium Development Goals.

Of course, many might doubt whether the development model of a small, poor nation like Bhutan that strongly emphasizes spiritual and cultural values can be transplanted to a competition-oriented market economy like Taiwan or other advanced nations.

But at least the Bhutanese are very much aware of what they have and what they want. And since the people of Bhutan clearly know what they want, they have a vision, concrete goals and approaches toward national development.

'Global Trends' Aren't Necessarily Right

Bhutan also regards exploring alternatives to global consumerism as its mission. Asked where he sees Bhutan twenty years from now, prime minister Thinley envisions a country "where the vitality and the integrity of the ecology is no lesser than it is now… a country that will continue to breathe hope and inspiration to those who seek an alternative way of life that is more moving away from pure materialism into a way of life that is more meaningful and that gives happiness."

In Taiwan, however, government officials frequently invoke the need to "respond to world trends." While the Bhutanese way does not necessarily fit Taiwan, chasing world trends may not either.

The United States uses its power to promote Western capitalism, the market economy and democracy around the world. China, for its part, insists on "socialism with Chinese characteristics."

I ask myself: What is Taiwan's most precious asset? What do I want?

Perhaps, as a Taiwanese citizen, I first need to find the answer to this question. How else can Taiwan determine where its national development should be headed?

Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz