Measuring wealth in happiness, not dollars

Seven years ago, author Lisa Napoli met a man at a party who invited her to volunteer in Bhutan. This chance meeting would change her life forever. While living in Bhutan, Napoli worked at the nation’s first privately operated radio station. She fell in love with the country, which did not have roads, electricity or schools until about 40 years ago, she said.

With a meager population of 650,000, Bhutan has fewer citizens than the Los Angeles Unified School District has students, according to Napoli.

Nestled between China and India in the Himalayan Mountains, Bhutan has only recently begun the process of modernization, representing a microcosm of the universal struggle between globalization and independent culture.

Discussing her experiences in Bhutan and her recently published novel “Radio Shangri-La,” Napoli kicked off the Global Connections Lecture Series at Santa Monica College on April 17.

“All I knew about Bhutan was that it didn't have television until 1999, which, to me, made it completely the happiest place on Earth,” Napoli said of her preconceived notions. “I think television is a menacing, crazy force—even though I've worked in it.”

In 2006, Business Week named Bhutan one of the happiest places in the world, due in part to a strong sense of camaraderie among its people.

“The country has beautiful scenery and a largely unspoiled culture, thanks to strict governmental limits on tourism, development and immigration,” according to the publication.

Though the same family has been ruling Bhutan since the inception of its monarchy 100 years ago, it was not until the coronation of the current and fourth king in the dynasty, Jigme Singye Wangchuk, that the small nation began modernizing.

Despite their strong ties to traditionalism and religion, the Bhutanese followed his lead.

“The family has been able to rule the country in a way that people seem to think is very benevolent,” Napoli said. “[The fourth king] shepherded the country into the modern age.”

Speaking of the king's mindset on globalization, Napoli added that “he wanted it to come in carefully and deliberately, so they could control it as much as possible.”

“In Buddhism, it's called the middle path, taking sort of the middle way, and that was his commitment, gross national happiness,” Napoli said.

Though it may seem like a difficult concept to measure, the Centre for Bhutan Studies notes “nine domains” from which a nation can assess its Gross National Happiness.

Among the domains are psychological well-being, standard of living, good governance, health, education, community vitality, cultural diversity and resilience, time use, and ecological diversity.

Despite the king's commitment to GNH, however, with modernization comes change, for better and worse.

More of Bhutan's youth are now leaving home in search of higher education. The country's native language, Zanka, is quickly becoming a lost dialect, as all schoolchildren are now taught in English.

Furthermore, the people of Bhutan have recently fallen into a financial crisis, Napoli explained, as the introduction of banking and loans has faltered with citizens who know very little about financial acuity.

“What I didn't know, and what I learned, was that Bhutan was about to embark upon another radical time of change,” said Napoli. “It breaks my heart to see the breakdown of traditional society in Bhutan the way it breaks my heart to see it here, too.”