The Happiest Place on the Planet?

Born in the shadow of Disneyland, I have a natural predilection for seeking happy utopias. Having founded a company named Joie de Vivre in a place described as "49 square miles surrounded by reality" (San Francisco), I'm not surprised by my fascination with Bhutan, the first country in the world to proclaim happiness as its primary civic goal.

Flying into this Himalayan Shangri-La, I was immediately struck by the world's highest unclimbed mountain, the exquisite temples perched precariously on cliffs, the friendly and handsome people adorned in traditional silk attire, and a healthy dose of wafting incense and chanting mantras. With relatively strict limits on foreign travelers (about 50 a day), there were virtually no mainstream tourists to be found scurrying from holy site to spectacular vista. This is the kind of "boutique country" that could resonate with a boutique hotelier like me.

I came here to learn how the world's newest democracy could be a model for a new definition of global success. But, understanding that this thoroughly un-modern place was no bulls-eye (they love archery here) for the conventional definition of a developed country, I pondered whether poverty and utopia could co-exist?

Fortunately, I started my investigation dining with the Prime Minister and a collection of the leaders of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness (GNH) movement. At dinner, when the Prime Minister said his goal was "to create the conditions in which happiness could flourish," I almost fell off my seat. My happiness guide Abe Maslow suggested in life and especially in the workplace, "One can set up the conditions so that peak experiences are more likely, or one can perversely set up the conditions so that they are less likely." Having visited Zimbabwe two years earlier, I viscerally understood that "creating conditions" for a happiness habitat is one of the most profound responsibilities of any leader (as there's no better example of a set of perverse conditions than in Zimbabwe.)

The Bhutanese dream big (and so did I as my week was full of lucid and vivid dreams). They don't dream in material ways, but the leaders I spoke with talked about development in such humanistic terms that I worried that their goals might remain lofty and intangible. Fortunately, Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Commission has spent the past five years identifying nine key indicators that they now measure to gauge civic well-being: environmental conservation, sustainable and equitable economic development, promotion of culture, good governance, psychological well-being, community vitality, health and wellness, accessibility of education, and how people allocate their time daily. As one new member of Parliament said to me, "Bhutan will never be a financial or military world leader, but we can be the leader in learning how to preserve our culture and live a rich life." I learned long ago in business, if you're small, go niche, and the Bhutanese have got the happiness niche down to a science.

Given the civic boosterism of Bhutan's GNH movement, there were moments when I thought I was part of some Madison Avenue advertising stunt. This primitive paradise all seemed a little too perfect, even with all the rough and occasionally inconvenient edges. Clearly, those of us in the "developed" world long for a place where the grass is greener (literally, they've got green "grass" as marijuana grows uncut throughout the country), where simplicity, authenticity, generosity, and safe drinking water abound (three out of four ain't bad). Franklin Delano Roosevelt even named his presidential retreat Shangri-La (later renamed Camp David) based upon the imagination of such a far-off nirvana.

But, Bhutan isn't just a Hollywood set for Lost Horizon. There's a contentment here that is real. As one observer suggested, Bhutan is "simultaneously placid and intellectually invigorating"....not a simple combination. Their Tantric Buddhist traditions (there are more monks than soldiers), the unspoiled landscape, their splendid isolation (the last country in the world to have television), their benevolent kings, and their unique history of never being colonized nor conquered, have all created the conditions for happiness to flourish. But, beyond that, in a modern world full of self-help books and shrinks on every corner, the Bhutanese don't "pursue" happiness (there's supposedly just one psychiatrist in the country). Happiness is the natural by-product of a life built on gratitude, not gratification. There may have been a time when "ignorance was bliss" in this country, but today Bhutan is well-aware of how it delightfully deviates from the world's national norms. And, there's even an Emotional Equation I cooked up that sums up their unique recipe that the rest of us could learn from:

Happiness = Wanting What You Have divided by Having What You Want

(credit: William Shakespeare)

So, can we bottle Bhutan and distribute it to the rest of the world? No doubt, we've entered an era in which global transformation isn't just a nice idea, it's truly an imperative. But, could a little country the size of Switzerland, with a population no larger than my hometown, and a per capita GDP smaller than Haiti prove to be a leader in a new movement toward an alternative metric for success? Bhutan is ironically bordered by two countries which represent nearly 40% of the world's population (China to the north and India to the south) where the 21st century's version of "middle class values" will be borne. Will this new generation of the Jones (or Wangs or Shahs) pursue excess as their definition of success? If Bhutan plays its cards right, this country is fated to be noticed and potentially be a role model for how we measure and define happiness and well-being in the new millennium.

Chip Conley is the Founder and CEO of Joie de Vivre Hospitality and the author of PEAK: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo From Maslow.