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Harvard Alumni from 14 Nations Discover Happiness in Bhutan

Kinga Tshering, former Member of Parliament, exudes pride as he gestures toward the mountain range through which he hiked for days to talk with his constituents.  I met Kinga eighteen months ago, 11,993 km away in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the start of the Master’s of Public Administration program at Harvard Kennedy School.  Since that time, my classmates and I have been deeply moved by Kinga’s descriptions of his homeland, a nation previously unknown to many of us.

During the course of our year studying at Harvard, we developed profound respect for Kinga as a scholar, a mentor, a civil servant, and a loyal friend.  That friendship and our desire to discover the nation of which Kinga spoke so glowingly drew 31 of us from 14 countries to come to Bhutan from December 27 until January 3 for the inaugural Harvard trek to Bhutan, much to consternation of our families who questioned our venturing to the Himalayas during the Christmas and New Year’s

We have been deeply humbled by the kindness with which Bhutan has welcomed us and the generosity with which its people have shared their time—and their suja, ema-datsi, and ara.  During the course of our seven-day visit, we have met with government leaders including the Prime Minister, the Mayor of Timphu Tromde, the Chairman of the Royal Civil Service Commission, and the leaders of the nation’s political parties.  We have visited the Tarayana Foundation, engaged with the young entrepreneurs of Bhutan Tech Park, and talked with villagers in their homes in Rinchhengang.  We have visited Dordenma Buddha and Taktshang Goemba, tried our skills at archery, practiced guided meditation, received blessings for our loved ones from monks, and even donned Ghos and Kiras with Bhutan Street Fashion.  These breathtaking experiences resulted from more than a year of planning by Kinga, his wife, and his team.  The professionalism and dedication of our hosts and tour guides leaves no doubt in our minds that tourism will continue to blossom in Bhutan

In a world obsessed with building things that are taller and faster, maximizing the efficiency with which we allocate our time, and amassing material wealth, I am grateful to have discovered a country that defines success in terms of the happiness of its people.

In a panel about “the Economics of Happiness,” Ms. Aum Damchoe reflected, “for happiness to be harmonious, you have to be grounded.  You have to understand that happiness has to be shared to be experienced.”  During the past seven days, we have had the opportunity to share in the happiness of Bhutan. We have observed the strength with which Bhutanese approach the challenges of transporting water and cultivating food on terrain as treacherous as it is magnificent.

Bhutan inspires us to believe that it possible to create a nation intentionally based on the principals of GNH and despite the geopolitical reality of being “sandwiched between two giants” as many leaders described.  That it is possible for beloved leaders to relinquish power in the name of the autonomy of their people and the longevity of their nation.  That it is possible to embark upon development while pledging the first-in the-world commitment to be carbon-negative.  That it is possible to embrace the Western world while preserving the beauty of Bhutanese culture.  That happiness and economic growth can harmoniously be achieved and the pursuit of one doesn’t have to be devoid of the other.

Another of the joys of this trip has been coming to know the youth of Bhutan.  Throughout our trek, a group of young volunteers has accompanied us, addressed our countless questions, and provided unparalleled insights into the history and evolution of the country.  Based upon the passion, the reflectiveness, and the patriotism of these young people, the future of Bhutan appears incredibly bright.

Participants were struck by the eagerness of the Bhutanese to change, to help their nascent country continue to grow in response to feedback.  Along those lines, we have also had some conversations that saddened us.  Women who appeared brilliant spoke regretfully of their lack of formal education, the struggles of marrying and having children as teenagers, and the limitations they face now as a result of their lack of schooling.  We are hopeful that, as Bhutan develops, boys and girls from cities, towns, and rural areas alike will have access to schools that prepare them for rewarding employment.  We are hopeful that every girl will have the opportunity to choose her future—to study, to work, to marry, and to become a mother when she feels prepared.

In March, a second group of 32 students from HBS and HKS will venture to Bhutan to continue the friendship between Harvard and Bhutan and to enable emerging leaders from more countries to discover the fledgling democracy that is Bhutan.  The motto of HKS is, “Ask What You Can Do;” there are no limits on what HKS can Bhutan may achieve together.

As we scatter around the globe, we take with us prayer wheels, Buddhist flags, hand-woven scarves, and, I suspect, more than a few smuggled chilies.  We also carry our New Years’ resolutions.  To share with the world our experience of Bhutan.  To explore collaborations between Bhutan and our countries (Gautam Ghandi from India has already arranged for 10 students from the Thimphu incubator to travel to an incubator in Delhi).  To implement practices we have learned from Bhutan in the public, private, and government sectors in our respective nations. To return to the nation of happiness.  To support the work of our revered classmate and friend, Kinga, as he brings his Harvard experience back to serve his spectacular homeland.

Contributed By  Meredith Segal, 

Co-Founder  & Co-President African Development University

Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2017

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One comment

  1. This must be an unique experience of happiness for the entire group visiting the country. Travelling through Bhutan can freshen up old memories in a new way projected at different time in one’s life. It’s even encouraging to know that more groups are following up the experience created here to keep a memory line liquid and flowing through.

    I may not be a part of the happiness experienced by them; but the photograph alone has reminded me my own university days and the educational and cultural tours we did. Even we had many Bhutanese friends, but didn’t plan anything as this for an unique travel and learning experience.

    And still, we all preserve a photograph like this with all posing together to freeze the memories once and forever. Occasionally one needs to pose even with a bit of difficulties just to fit in a frame and the memories only get projected backwards whenever one looks at it anytime. When every individual needs to move on with time looking after and ensuring one’s own personal economics and its needs; assorted and accumulated happy moments in life always get left behind in a photograph like this.

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