You cannot get much further from America. You could call the tiny, landlocked nation of Bhutan the anti-greed country: an ancient Himalayan kingdom where yaks roam the hills and every trail ends at a Buddhist monastery. Forty years ago, it had no roads; today, there are still no traffic lights in a country of only 700,000 people … a nation ranked near the bottom of the world's development scale.
When the standard is production and consumption, Bhutan simply can't compete, so it came up with its own way to measure progress, an alternative to the world's economic scale. Instead of seeking a gross national product, the official goal here is gross national happiness. The policy was decreed by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck -- by all accounts, an enlightened monarch.
"Just the fact that a leader of a country has stated that happiness is more important than production, I mean, it takes guts to say that, you know," says Tshewang Dendup, a journalist with the Bhutan Broadcasting Service. "He basically meant, let my people be happy, you know. And how do you be happy? Well, if kids go to school, kids that live healthy, and if the forests are there, you take them out on walks on the weekends." And that, he agreed, is the opposite of a consumer society.
One of the Three 'Poisons'
In other words, don't be greedy … appreciate what you have, which here means vast stretches of protected wilderness that have made Bhutan one of the trekking capitals of the world. The Bhutanese are also committed to preserving their unique culture. They want to grow, but carefully, so they don't lose their identity as the only Buddhist kingdom in the world.
"In Bhutan, because of the Buddhist psyche, which we have, it always says that happiness is contentment," said Ugyen Wangdi, a Bhutanese cameraman working with ABC News.
"And being content with what you have? And not always wanting more and more?" I asked.
"Yes," he said. A few months after he worked with us in Bhutan, Ugyen visited New York. It was a perfect opportunity to compare the austerity of his world with the abundance in ours. He called home to tell his daughter that here, even public restrooms had running hot water. "Whereas in our kitchen, we don't have any hot water. And my 14-year-old daughter says, 'Daddy, don't compare America with Bhutan.'"
A wise little girl. "If you know you are happy with your own limitations, that is basic happiness," Ugyen told me. When I asked if he'd been tempted to buy things in New York he responded, "Yes. So many things that you get tempted with. I try to close my eyes. In fact, I have not done any shopping at all."
In Bhutan, as in America, greed is a sin. "It is one of the three so-called poisons," said Karma Ura, director of the Centre for Bhutan Studies, the country's largest think tank, explaining that greed "enlarges your ego."
Simplicity Draws Bhutanese Students Back Home
That selfishness is exactly what "gross national happiness" is trying to avoid, the excesses of consumerism gone rampant … a danger reflected in Bhutan's first feature film, starring journalist Tshewang. He plays a disaffected young man with bigger dreams, eager to go to America to get rich. A colleague tells him, "Don't get lost there." I asked Tshewang if he thought it was possible to get lost in America. "Of course," said Tshewang, who studied journalism at the University of California at Berkeley for two years, learning about us. Like some 95 percent of all Bhutanese who study abroad, he returned home. "I missed the simplicity," he said. "It was too complex for me."
But life in Thimphu, the nation's capital, has lost some of that simplicity. Ever since Bhutan got wired to the world just six years ago, plenty of temptations have arisen for the nation's teenagers. Providing them with jobs and training is the goal of Labor Minister Tshering Tobgay.
"I must admit, if I were in their shoes, I'd feel the pressure. They watch television, they log on to the Internet, they read magazines, we follow what's happening all over the world, including the fashion industry and Hollywood." He worries about that -- with good reason. Gross national happiness is a bold idea, but now that Bhutan has let the world in, can it keep greed out? It's definitely worth praying for.