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A recently-inducted monk, age 6, sits in Rinpung Dzong in Paro, Bhutan. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

The Happiest Country in the World

So far, I’ve been to about ten countries that each claim to be the happiest country on Earth.

In Iceland, in Denmark, in Holland, even in India once, someone pulled me aside to claim that their country is the happiest. I never disagree; I just simply ask, “How do you know?”

I’ve taken enough Stats classes to know that you can make numbers say whatever you want them to say, even to say that you are the happiest country on Earth. In 2006, Business Week magazine did just that, ranking the nation of Bhutan within the Top 10 Countries ranked for “Happiness Factor”.

In his personal pursuit of happiness, author Eric Weiner traveled to Bhutan and remarked on their generally contented state, despite their lack of modern conveniences and technology.

And with all this sudden focus on Bhutan, the Bhutanese government launched their own campaign towards Gross National Happiness, with the intent to test government programs and spending on efforts that increased the people’s own sense of well-being–an admirable, if not daunting, task.

But the “Happiest Nation on Earth”? It seems a preposterous claim coming from a landlocked country with less than 1% of the world’s population.

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Young monks play in the courtyard of Dzong Rinpung in Paro, Bhutan (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

Thus I arrived in Bhutan skeptical, disregarding the hoopla about Gross National Happiness, and guarding myself in a cloud of grumpiness fed by too much travel and not enough sleep. Still, the open road, and this particular place, has a way of chasing away the blues in magnificent ways.

You cannot be surrounded by a team of laughing, smiling Buddhist monks and not feel their sense of pure joy and openness to their world, as small as it may seem. You cannot eat a bowl of red hot chili peppers and not gasp with the vitality of nature’s produce. You cannot sit in an ancient wood tub and have someone drop red-hot stones into the water with a “hiss”, warming your very spine and foot bones, and you cannot be invited into a field of workers at the end of the day to share in the rice harvest, in which they hand you a bowl of their bounty, warm and steaming, and together, you eat with a smile, repeating, “Kadinchey” again and again, nodding, smiling, grateful, all the while staring at the red, betel-stained teeth of an open smile from every hardworking farm laborer who comes to greet you–You cannot do all this and not feel your heart swell just a little, suddenly thinkin of your worries back home as very trivial, and watch the sadness disappear long enough to be thrilled by Earth, these mountains called Himalaya, and this magical valley and legitimately happy people in Bhutan.

Whether or not their happiness is less or more than other countries is no interest to me. I am only convinced by one thing, and that is how back in London, I caught a cold, but in Bhutan, I was infected with boundless joy which I shall carry with me on this rapidly-expanding journey.

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Sitting amongst a group of happy young monks at Dzong Rinpung in Paro, Bhutan. (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic)

This trip is one of the many ways to travel with National Geographic Expeditions. To learn more about all of our travel programs, click here.