Bhutanese youth might be the happiest after all

My interest in happiness and well-being began when I first visited the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan for the first time in 2013 as a 13 year old. I’ve grown up between the US and India, and I assumed that societal well-being only came through monetary prosperity. But after several visits to Bhutan, I became doubtful of my assumptions. 

I noticed a massive difference in the general attitude of the Bhutanese in comparison to what I had seen while growing up in India and in the US. Bhutan’s GDP is ten times lower than the US’s; yet, has significantly lower crime rates and mental health issues per capita. I observed they were physically fitter and happier. How could a country with a much lower GDP be happier than a country like the US which had a much higher GDP per capita?

Since the concept of Gross National Happiness was first established by His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck during the early 1970s, in some ways it comes as no surprise that Bhutanese people “seemed” happier. But rather than just going by hearsay, hype or my own experience, I was interested in studying this observation using scientific rigor, more so from a young adult/teenage perspective.

Inspired by the unique concept of Gross National Happiness, this year, I decided to conduct a research project to measure well-being across three countries at different stages of development in order to understand the relationship between a country’s GDP and the happiness of its youth. With the guidance of Dr Raj Raghunanthan (Professor at The McCombs School of Business at UT Austin) my colleagues Pragya Kallanagoudar (also a 12th grader in the San Francisco Bay Area) and Jampel Namda Dorji (an 11th grader in Thimphu), we created a survey to measure well-being in adolescents. Our survey was based on the PERMA model, which is a widely used pre-set batch of questions formulated by professional happiness researchers, in addition to questions we formulated based on the factors known to affect happiness in teenagers.

We then used the survey to measure well-being in 180 students in 12th grade that were distributed among three high schools in the US, India and Bhutan. We found that 12th graders in high school in Bhutan were much happier than the same group in the “developed world”. Bhutanese teenagers scored significantly better than Indian and American teenagers across the parameters. They scored highest in feelings of joy, positivity, having a purpose and understanding the value of life, feeling supported, and having strong and meaningful relationships, while their scores of anxiety, loneliness, anger, and sadness were the lowest. Factors like the time spent using digital devices (which was 50 percent lower in Bhutanese students), frequency of engagement in religious or spiritual practices (30 percent higher in Bhutanese), engagement in volunteer work (20 percent higher in Bhutanese students), frequency of social interaction (25 percent higher), and health status (22 percent higher in Bhutanese students) are what contributed to the significantly higher well-being score.

Happy youth make for happy adults, and happy adults make for a happy nation. I believe this research is the first direct evidence that shows that Bhutanese youth are significantly happier than youth in Silicon Valley, USA and Bangalore, India. While this is a small study of only 180 students, the differences are large and deserves more study. Inspired by Bhutan, I am going to pursue my undergraduate in Neuroscience in the US and I hope to study this subject further using scientific methods. This research should also inspire the leadership and people of Bhutan to continue their amazing journey in showing the world a roadmap to well-being that does not exhaust the resources of our fragile planet.

Former Lyonchhen Dasho Tshering Tobgay was impressed by the findings of this study and had this to say: “This is significant as surveys of this type have not given enough attention to capturing the happiness levels of youth. I hope that decision makers in the three counties involved — India, USA and Bhutan — have heard and will act on the message that “happy youth make for happy adults.”

Dr Dorji Penjore, Chief Researcher, Centre for Bhutan & GNH Studies also reviewed the findings and said, “This is an interesting finding. It confirms the finding of the National GNH Survey 2015 where the GNH index of youths (15-19) and the subjective wellbeing was highest among the different age groups.”

Contributed by

Advaita Dubey

Advaita Dubey lives in Bangalore, India and has visited Bhutan several times with her family.

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