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Saamdu Chetri teaches happiness
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Saamdu Chetri teaches happiness
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"What is enough for me? What is my purpose on this earth, what should I be leaving behind?"
1 April 2013

Saamdu Chetri teaches happiness

Interview by Myke Bartlett
Photography by Kara Fox

Myke Bartlett on Saamdu Chetri

In the grand scale of things, it’s safe to say that Bhutan is not a great world player. Squeezed between China and India, the tiny landlocked state is home to fewer than a million people and boasts one of the world’s smallest economies. Yet Bhutan is home to some very big ideas.

Since 1972 the nation has implemented a program of modernisation based not on amassing wealth, but on boosting the happiness of its people. Incredibly, doing so has not only improved quality of life for its citizens, bringing vital infrastructure and facilities to its most neglected corners, but has also seen Bhutan’s economy soar—to the point where it was, in 2007, the world’s second-fastest growing economy.

If we’re looking for an example of how Bhutan has been transformed, it’s hard to think of a better one than Dr Saamdu Chetri. Saamdu was born in a cow shed in one of his country’s most neglected corners—a region where phone and power lines have only recently been laid. After a successful career in the private sector, Saamdu found himself thrust into the country’s political life, handpicked for service by Bhutan’s first democratically elected PM. At present, he oversees the Gross National Happiness (GNH) commission and has taken on personal responsibility for the construction of a centre dedicated to improving the wellbeing of the nation’s citizens. When completed, this centre aims to act as an exemplar of sustainable development and function as a self-sustaining NGO, running courses for locals and international visitors alike.

There is a strong spiritual element to the GNH philosophy, owing its basis to Buddhist teachings. Little surprise then that meeting Saamdu feels oddly like an audience with a great religious leader. We sit in a bright, quiet corner of Dumbo Feather HQ, sipping tea, picking at cheeses and discussing the meaning of happiness. (We also discuss the wonders of dairy products, with Saamdu relating a moment of joy from his childhood in which he stole milk from a wandering goat.) Throughout our chat, Saamdu speaks quietly, in a manner that might be mistaken for humble. In fact, he is a man justifiably proud of his achievements and those of his nation. However, I also detect a sense of disbelief, as if he isn’t quite sure how he has ended up here, on an international tour, talking about his accomplishments. More than once he tells me that he dreams of retiring from office—the political life isn’t his true calling. He yearns to leave Bhutan’s capital, to turn his focus from this grand scale to the small village in which he was born, to improve life for the community there. Nonetheless, retirement looks like being some way off. As I discover during our chat, Saamdu is a man passionate about his latest mission. That sort of passion has a grip, I suspect, that won’t be easily shaken.

This story originally ran in issue #35 of Dumbo Feather

MYKE BARTLETT: You were in Melbourne this week for a conference at which you spoke about the Gross National Happiness (GNH) model, do you attend many conferences like that?

Oh yes, at least once a year, but this time it has been one too many, I think.


Oh yes, this is my third one. I promised myself once a year, but sometimes you are so tempted and the purpose is greater than you think, so you decide to go for it.

What was so tempting about this conference?

I’ve never been to Australia. I’ve been thinking about coming here for 20 years. The very thought of driving from one end of this country to another… I don’t know how many days it takes?

Neither do I. A very long time, I suspect. I guess there is an appeal in Australia’s vast space, particularly coming from a small nation such as yours.

A small, mountain locked country. Yeah.

Do you feel that this is an important time for you to be out in the world, outside Bhutan, spreading this idea of GNH?

I suppose so. In Bhutan we’ve been trying this concept for the last 40 years. The outside world has asked us how can we measure its success, so we compiled a range of indicators based on the four pillars of GNH: the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and establishment of good governance. In 2007 we did our first survey, which worked perfectly, every two years, we’ll do another. We’re improving; refining the indices. Many of them are subjective, but the higher an indicator’s subjectivity, the lower its overall weighting, so that all the domains get the same measure at the end of the day.

This story originally ran in issue #35 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #35 of Dumbo Feather

I think it’s high time to be out in the world, because it is crumbling now, as a result of excessive production, of consumerism.

Only 20 per cent of the world’s population is taking two thirds of the world’s income and enjoying more than 85 per cent of the products from the commonality that is our earth. Studies have shown that the capacity of the earth has been exceeded by 1.5 times already. In time, the earth will collapse. In a way, it’s already retaliating—tsunamis, great floods, droughts, you name it.


Extremes. All these are indicators that our climate is changing, definitely. We need to go out now with these principles of GNH and help people learn to be mindful. By which I mean: We need to wipe out consumerism and redefine development. We need to encourage people to reflect. What is sufficiency? What is enough for me? What is my purpose on this earth, what should I be leaving behind? Now is the time. If we delay further, it will be too late; it’s not the earth that’s going to die, it’s humanity.

The idea of GNH, on one level, is quite a simple one: That happiness is the thing to strive for, rather than material wealth. But, at the same time, the idea of creating a world where people work together towards happiness, rather than personal reward, feels quite revolutionary. Do you think there’s a particular reason this concept was born in Bhutan?

I don’t think so. If you ask anyone, ‘What is your goal in life?’ I think they’d say, ‘To be happy’. It so happened that our fourth king, at a very young age, was travelling through Europe, hoping to find a good model for economic development in Bhutan. He knew one day he would be king, so he was interested in which of these models would bring happiness to his people. He realised there was no such model.
When he passed through India in 1973, a journalist asked him, ‘What is your GDP?’ He said, ‘GNH is more important than GDP’. That was the catalyst. After that, it became a movement. Gross National Happiness can be called anything; happiness and wellbeing, genuine progress and development… Happiness is not primarily Bhutanese. Many constitutions have happiness built into them as a basic right for their citizens. For us, GNH is a condition our country will provide for our people. The domains give us a way to measure how successful we’ve been.

What does GNH mean in terms of how an individual is going about living their life in Bhutan?

You have a house to live in, no more than three people in a room, three meals a day and time off. You should work eight hours, have eight hours rest and eight hours for socialising, reading or working your way towards good health. We divide time very mindfully. You should have enough income to look after yourself. You should meditate once a day, for a short time; it doesn’t matter how long. You should not have any negative ideas. You should be positively led. Once a month, you should help your neighbour or your community. You should be with nature as often as possible. If you’re away from nature, you should at least be seeing, touching trees at least four times within a month. If you meet all these criteria, then you’re rated as being sufficiently happy.

Of course, if you ask any Bhutanese, ‘Are you happy?’ They will say yes.

But the problem is, when a person walks in from a developed nation and looks at us, they say, ‘Oh these people are very poor, how can they be happy?’

So they say, ‘Oh, you must bring this kind of development, you must do this, you must bring this progress to your country’. They don’t realise how happy our people are. By bringing their model of development, by bringing in consumerism, they make people very possessed. What we are trying to say is: consumerism is important, but you must have a sufficient level and no more. You must balance your materialism and your spiritualism. Both must go side by side, if you want to be happy.

The main conflict between what you’ve identified as happiness and what the Western world perceives as happiness is that there’s a long tradition in the West, probably stemming from Christian ideology, which is that on some level, it’s not good to be happy; you’ll get your reward eventually, in the next life. The flipside of that is self-gratification—whether it’s materialist or physical—because we’re putting off this other spiritual reward. You’re suggesting we need to redefine what makes us happy. Is that one of the big challenges you face—that people’s “idea” of what will make them happy is quite different from what will actually make them happy?

True. I think when we take the term happiness; the image that comes to mind is the moments of fleeting happiness. I think the idea in Christianity is that if a person is totally happy and blissful, he may forget his God. To avoid that, they say you should not be happy. Spiritualism and materialism must be combined. Whoever you ask about happiness, the first thing that comes to mind is that fleeting happiness, the happiness of having things…

New shoes, new car…

Exactly. New girlfriend [laughs]. Everything new. When you have everything, it’s not enough, you just want more and more.

Newness always fades.

There is never an end. That model of materialism keeps you happy for a moment. You work hard towards it. You compare yourself with the rest of the world. We don’t want people to be greedy. We don’t want people to have excessive desires. Of course, you must have desires and hopes—without that a person is not a person, but we must learn to limit that. We need to redefine happiness in a holistic manner. If you’re sufficient in all nine GNH domains and you still say you’re not happy, the measures will not put you in the bracket of unhappiness.

You’re not unhappy; you just don’t know that you’re happy?


How will the new GNH Centre help the Bhutan people achieve happiness?

Let me say a few things first. GNH can be practised at any level: at a personal level, at a corporate level or at a central government level. What we are doing at the moment is mainly at the government level. The government is designing all of its development programs in line with GNH principles and measuring every two years to see how we’re shaping up. A few years ago, Bhutan wanted to join the World Trade Organization and had begun the process, but our prime minister was against it. I wrote several articles in the national newspaper arguing that we should not join. There were several counter-arguments. When it went before the cabinet, all 10 ministers were against the PM. So, the prime minister said, ‘Why don’t we put this through our GNH screening process?’ We selected 24 expert analysts and asked them if we should join the WTO. Of the 24, 19 said yes. Then, they were given the GNH questionnaire. When it was analysed, the result was completely the opposite. The analysts gave 19 against.

So what they wanted to believe and what they felt was right were in opposition.

Exactly. Then the prime minister said, ‘Okay, maybe there’s a time when we should join the WTO, but for now, we won’t.’

What were your objections to joining the WTO?

Essentially, Bhutan is a very small country, about 800,000 people, close to 39,000 square kilometres. If we opened up to the WTO, we’d become a dumping ground. As it is, we find it cheaper to buy things from India. We’d forgotten how to do our own gardens, because it was so cheap to buy vegetables. Meat and vegetables alone were costing about a billion dollars per year. To counter that, the government gave a timeline to our country to produce its own vegetables. The market misbehaved for a while, but once everyone started to grow vegetables, it normalised. Now we have fruit and vegetables from our own organic land.


Self-sufficiency. Now the GNH Centre is still only a concept. The prime minister wanted to build the centre a long time ago, but the government relies on donors and donors are very sceptical about new ideas. Two years ago, it was given to me to implement. We’re still working on the curriculum, but we know that the centre will have programs running from a day to a month in length. Some will be for tourists to come in and get a feeling for GNH. Westerners, for example, are far less connected to themselves. They are not present. They think they know the life they need—to chase materialism, to chase money, to live a better life—but they don’t know what the definition of a better life is. We want to take a few hours for them to reflect, to think about the purpose of their lives. We’ll be asking very basic questions.

When you say we’re not present, you mean that we’re not aware of how we’re connected to the world? We’re not living in the moment?

We are not living in the moment in the sense that we are always thinking about the future. Oh, I’ll go there, I’ll do that, I’ll work for now and then look for a better job. Or you get stuck thinking about the past and the horrible things that happened to you. Your life is stolen by something else. This centre will try to give back your life, so that you can connect with the ground, with the earth, with the sky, with the community around you…

So a lot of the courses are designed for Westerners?

Around 30 per cent for Westerners and 70 per cent for Bhutanese.

And those courses will be open to any Bhutanese?

All walks of life. In January and February we will only have school students, in December we will be closed. The other nine months will be for anyone: teachers, civil servants, housewives, youth, farmers. Construction will be slow, but we won’t wait for it to be finished to begin courses.

On a side note, I know the implementation of GNH principles has improved access to education throughout Bhutan. But has it changed what is actually being taught?

We used to have a very Indian education system, but over the years it has become more tuned to our own way of life. We are developing new curriculum. For example, in mathematics, instead of formulating questions like, ‘You have 10 apples, three were stolen, how many are left?’ we ask, ‘You have 10 apples, if you share three, how many are left? And do you need all of those? What are you going to do with them?’

Going back to the centre, I understand the construction of the building will use local, natural materials—negating any environmental impact. With the four pillars of GNH all being equally important, has the emphasis shifted slightly over the last 40 years, perhaps more towards the environmental?

Bhutanese are very much a part of the forest, the river, the mountains; we don’t easily kill a tree or a plant. That is part of our religion, but we have forgotten our nature. We would like people to regain that kind of connection. That means to respect nature and look after it, not destroy it. We use too much fertiliser, cut down too many trees, use too many chemicals. Ecology is dying. We want to revive it by being mindful.

Being such a small country and a country that’s already feeling the effects of climate change, what’s going on outside your borders is putting your country under threat. Is that one of the reasons Bhutan now needs to take a more active role in world affairs?

In a way. We have promised the world we will be carbon free. A year ago we found out that 53 per cent of what we produce naturally in terms of fresh water, clean air, greenery—we give to the world outside. We have become donors, not recipients. When I was living in a village as a young boy and the rains came, it was a relief for us, because we didn’t have to walk a kilometre with water on our backs. We used to drink that water, bathe with that water, we were the happiest people. That was just 40 years ago. In 2005 when I finally went back, there was this pouring rain. I tried to collect the water and my mother warned me not to. It was full of sediment. The rain collected the dust from Bengal and brought it all down. I tried tasting the water and it was just totally acid. I tried taking a bath with it, but it was slippery. It was horrible.

It’s an example of how we’ve alienated ourselves from our environment. The very thing we rely on most is no good for us.

The climate is changing, man induced, through factories and power plants. All that is happening because we are not looking into our sufficiency levels. And why not? Advertisements are preventing us.

Producers spend so much money on ads to sell their new products, so they can continue to make a so-called profit. But for who is this profit? How happy are the clients? How happy are the employees?

Are resources shared equitably? Does it bring stress to people? How environmentally friendly is it? We don’t think anymore.

Well, the whole point of advertising is to create a hunger, to create a sense that you might have thought you were happy, but there’s an emptiness you might not have noticed. It’s an industry of unhappiness.

Exactly. These guys need to become mindful. If we want to save the globe, every human being needs to be mindful. If we as consumers stand at a sufficiency level, reduce our greed, then we’ll check these guys who tempt us with more and more products.

As part of your green economy policy for Bhutan, there’s a great focus on organic farming and rejecting dependency on fossil fuels. Are you hoping to create a model that can be picked up by other countries?

Hopefully, our entire country will be organic within the next five years. Many districts already are. We’ve stopped using fertilisers, we’re totally sequestering our own carbon, we are going green in hydro power—which will be a main source of income, as we sell power to neighbouring countries. We would like to give this example to the world.

As you said, the GNH Centre will be built with green technology, with material that is available around us. Mud, bamboo, stones. We won’t use anything that’s modern, per se. We also want to show how this technology is affordable—not just for the Bhutanese, but also for overseas visitors, who will see a mud hut and think: Oh, it’s beautiful. You can build two storeys easily; it’s warm in winter and cool in summer.

Do you see other nations being keen to implement these changes? To accept Bhutan as an example?

I should say yes. England has already started, using indicators much like our own to survey their level of happiness. The indicators are slightly different to ours, because they already have a good standard of living, but in other areas they are struggling. Culture, for example, they have lost. They also need to think about community, vitality and ecology. These are three big missing factors in the West.

What do you mean by culture? It’s often assumed now to mean films, music, television—all of which are intrinsically linked to consumerism. When you say the UK have lost their culture, what are we talking about there?

You see, I don’t think many people go to churches or believe in religion anymore. When you don’t go back to your religion, your basics, you lose your culture. The film industry is not your culture, wearing the products an industry produces is not your culture.

You’re talking about a loss of tradition.

A loss of tradition. This is what we mean by culture. I think we have to regress a bit. That doesn’t mean that our development regresses, but I think it’s very important to identify what growth is. Growth in our behaviour, in our community culture, in our environmental culture—rather than in individual culture or focus on earning profits.

I think people will find that idea quite frightening though. When people put forward anything that moves us away from capitalism, you hear cries of socialism and communism. I suppose, to people in the West, the notion of GNH seems at stark odds with how success and happiness are currently perceived. Do people react as if you’re threatening their way of life?

I think the globe is very aware that the model of GDP is wrong.

For example, if you cut down all the trees in Australia and sell them, your GDP will rise like anything. But what happens to the ecology around you?

That’s never measured by GDP. The UN has asked us to bring the GNH model to them as part of the Millennium Goals and post-2015 Development Agenda. Obama has asked his leading economists to look into our model of happiness.

There is that weird situation—in the US they call it Turkeys voting for Christmas, voting for their own demise—where you have the poorest people in society voting for tax cuts for the rich, because they imagine that one day they will be rich. It’s looking forward, as you say, not living in the moment. How do you get through to these people when the capitalist model is so ingrained that they’re voting against their own interests?

I think we just need to help them to reflect. I think you can ask one question: ‘If you were celebrating your 80th birthday and you invited your neighbours, your children, your grandchildren, what do you want to hear?’ Do you just want to hear Happy Birthday? Or do you want to hear something more? Do you want to hear, ‘Oh grandma, you are my role model’ or, ‘We wish we had more people like you in our country’? What do you really want to hear? If you leave too much wealth behind, your children will need to work hard to maintain it. Do you want your children to suffer that way?

It’s similar to what you touched on before: with the experts who thought they wanted one thing but actually wanted something else. So you just need to encourage a sense of self-awareness and help people realise what it is they actually want?

Give them the reality of life and I’m sure they will reflect. I was full of tears yesterday when 300 people got up to applaud me. But it was not me it was GNH. I spoke about the reality of what was happening in my country. And that reality caught everyone’s heart.

It seems that GNH has certainly been a success story in Bhutan. Health conditions and education levels have greatly increased. It seems to be a sound economic model, which would surprise most people.

Yes, living standards have increased. We had poverty at 30 per cent, now it’s down to 23 per cent. Each year when we measure, things are better.

I think most people would be surprised that GNH is a concrete model for development. In fact, its ideas are often criticised as being anti-development. You don’t feel that’s the case?

No, not at all. I think that’s one of the main resistances. People feel that if you follow the principles of GNH, you may slow down your progress. What I’m saying is—what does progress mean? The current model will never stop. Researchers will never stop looking for better iPhones, a software engineer will never stop improving computer programs. What we are saying is, you don’t need an iPhone 5. Why couldn’t you just have an iPhone 1 and, whatever you develop, provide it for that phone? Why build something that has to be entirely replaced? If it needs to be replaced, you need to produce more and you create more solid waste. And then what do you do with this? A lot of materials can’t be broken down.

In terms of progress, you’re quite a good example, personally, of how Bhutan has changed. You’re a success story. You’re a prominent politician and you were born in a cowshed…

Yes, I was born in a cowshed and brought up with nature around me. I always wanted to be with nature and animals. That’s why I took an early retirement. Working for 25 years of my life, I felt I’d done too much for my country; I wanted to create a similar impact for my community. We didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have telephones, we didn’t have any kind of communication. We had to go via India to get into our district. I began writing to the newspaper. I put a bit of heat on the government and within six months, everything changed. We had electricity, we had telephones, we had mobile connectivity—everything except roads. But soon we’ll be connected that way too.

So you really feel you’ve achieved something?

I feel so proud. Then, of course, came the democracy movement. I started to get calls. I kept telling them, ‘I’m not a politician, I don’t know what politics is. I don’t want to be a part of it.’ But people in the capital kept saying, ‘Come back, let’s form a party’. Eventually I thought, Okay, I’ll go back to Thimphu. I never intended to stay, but I ended up forming a political party called Bhutan People’s United Party and that later became the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa Party. We won 45 out of 47 seats and formed a government. After that, I wanted to go home, so I went back to my village. Of course, the prime minister started looking for me. In my village, we had no mobile phones and they were still building the telephone lines. So they sent a wireless message to the local authority, saying to trace me and send me back to Thimphu. When I got back, the prime minister said, ‘Help me.’ I said, ‘Your expectations are very high, I have no idea how a government should run and I have no wish to fail you. If I fail you, I fail the entire country.’ He said, ‘That’s not what you should be thinking. Work with me, I’ll tell you what to do.’ The prime minister took me to an office and said, ‘That’s your table and chair, from today you sit here.’ He kept giving me work to do and I kept trying to resign. Finally I said, ‘Sir, I think I’m going to go and be a teacher.’ He said, ‘Every time you see me, you say you want to leave.’ And then he smiled broadly and said, ‘We will resign together and go teaching.’ After that, I got the message. I shouldn’t resign, I should stay. Whatever work he gives me, I’ll continue to do it. Recently, he asked me to take over the Good Governance Centre.

And that’s a project that will occupy you for some time.

He has already made it mandatory that for five years, I’m fixed. I’ll be there for five years before I can pursue my dreams [laughs].

So you still dream about returning to your village?

Oh yes, very much. I would like to connect back to my own people, my environment. But this is a heroic task. I don’t know why he thought I could do it, I sometimes wonder if I am really capable of doing it. But he has given me so much trust and I think his trust is making me work very hard to achieve our goals.

Going back to spreading the message of GNH abroad, I notice that it’s been said that a nation need not be a Buddhist nation to take it on board, but is it necessary to have a sense of the spiritual? Are secular societies necessarily excluded?

People call it a Buddhist idea, but I don’t think it is one at all. To counter that, we’re going to have a meeting in June of all the religious leaders in the world, on the platform of GNH. Meditation is not Buddhism; it’s in every religion. Reflection, meditation, connecting to God or to a superhuman being is always there. We’re not saying you should follow the Buddhist model. Meditate your way. All we want is for you to be yourself, be present in the environment around you. That helps you rejuvenate and go for the right kind of goals—rather than running behind money. All of us cannot be Obamas. We have to find what our heart really says. I want to help my community, to work with them, to appreciate them. Well, I hope I get that time. That’s my aspiration.

What we’re trying to do with the GNH Centre is to establish many satellite units around the world. For example, Hawaii and Iowa have been considering this for some time. Some US states such as Maryland and Vermont are already using GNH practices. They’re going to open a GNH Centre in south Germany. Vietnam is going to have one. Our target is four to five a year. There’s someone in Brisbane who wants to start a centre, there’s someone in Sydney. I’m hoping for one here in Melbourne as well.

I know there’s a strong empirical basis to the indicators, but some people might still struggle with the idea that there has to be a spiritual element. I guess what I’m asking is: Can an atheist still find happiness through the GNH model?

Why not?

This spiritualism does not mean that you have to be religious, it’s about taking a few moments out of your material life, giving those moments back to yourself in mediation; trying to rejuvenate your way of thinking, making your life more positive so that you won’t have frustrations and depressions, you won’t keep chasing something you can’t get.

You can be atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim. Once you start meditating and being present, you won’t be stuck thinking about tomorrow. Even if you don’t have food on your plate today, you won’t worry about tomorrow. You’ll be happy with your life, with who you are and what you are. That distress will vanish. You’ll become a different personality altogether. This spiritual practice, this mindfulness, brings you back to yourself. You begin to appreciate your life and all that you own.

It may seem like a trivial question, but in the context of this conversation it feels quite important, are you happy?

No question is trivial. I am very happy. As a person, I am very happy. It doesn’t mean that I don’t have difficulties in life. For example, maybe I am sufficiently educated or live well. But when I consider community vitality, when I think about integration with nature, I am very low in that. If I can achieve happiness by giving to someone else… what more do I need? So, as a person, I am very happy, I don’t crave for anything more. I am very blunt and very forward. When I’m genuinely myself, I’m a very happy person, a very happy person [laughs].

When people ask you how you are they assume you’ll say “fine”. That’s the end of the conversation. But to ask, “are you happy?”. It forces a bit of reflection.

It does, it does.

You have to think: I don’t know, am I? I’ve just been bumbling on.

It would be a good thing. I think that should be the way it’s done.

Actually, my wife has said instead of asking our daughter at the end of every day, ‘What did you do?’ she’d like to ask, ‘What made you happy today?’

Exactly. Wonderful. A beautiful idea.

It’s changing the emphasis from material gain to self-reflection.

I think that sort of emphasis on children is what’s missing from most developed countries. In the American way of life and the European way of life, they have no time for children. The parents go to work, so it’s a nanny looking after the children or an early learning centre. We talk about our future, we say children are the future of our nation and we don’t have any time for them. We should be more connected with our children; that’s the way forward.

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett was born in Perth, and spent his first twenty years trying to escape. A trained journalist, Bartlett writes on politics, movies, pop culture and rock music for Australia’s best known cultural publications. His debut young adult novel Fire in the Sea won the 2011 Text Prize. Read more at mykebartlett.com

Photography by Kara Fox

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