Bhutan's Gross National Happines: A Conversation with Anne Muller
by Richard Whittaker, Aug 15, 2012
I first met Anne Muller at one of greenmusuem.org’s planning meetings. It was a surprise since I hadn’t expected anyone outside our usual group. Anne Veh introduced Muller, telling us her friend had recently returned from a photographic project, something to do with “gross national happiness.” I wasn't sure I'd heard it correctly. "Did you say, 'gross national happiness?'" I asked.
It happened that our meeting was being held at Leah Perlman’s "Happiness Institute," a name I still wasn’t quite used to. And now I was beginning to feel a little disoriented.
I’d heard it right. Anne explained that in Bhutan they’re more interested in their country’s gross national happiness than in its gross national product.” I couldn’t help feeling a little giddy, as if I stumbled into some kind of happy twilight zone.
Anne Muller’s book, co-authored with Tashi Wangchuk, is called Gross National Happiness of Bhutan. In the book’s preface it’s put this way, “the achievement of a country’s GHP depends on a safe and healthy natural environment, the maintenance of social and cultural systems, good governance and a vibrant and sustainable economy.”
But that morning I knew nothing about Bhutan’s inspired reframe of the usual GNP. There was simply something irresistible about the synchronicity in how it all unfolded in front of me, and I was not about to let the opportunity pass by without learning more about it.
So I asked Muller if she might have time for an interview before she left town. Thus it happened that a few days later, I found myself at an elegant apartment in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights neighborhood sitting down with Anne to learn more…
Richard Whittaker: So your photography was aimed at showing something about Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness. Tell me about that.
Anne Muller: It’s definitely related to that on many levels. I was invited to Bhutan by the then Secretary Minister of Education, Dr. Pema Thinley, who is now the vice chancellor of the Royal University of Bhutan. Pema Thinley is a beautiful man. And that invitation somehow just happened—of all the opportunities in the world! I’m a very small person in the whole photographic scheme of things, but somehow I was invited.
RW: How did that happen?
AM: Well, Dr. Thinley had come to, Jackson, Wyoming, where I live half the year, to look at educational possibilities at The Journeys School. At the time Bhutan was trying to—and did, I think—reform the Bhutanese education system from the British system to something more creative.
RW: Journeys School?
AM: Yes. It’s a facet of Teton Science School designed on a place-based model set up to teach teachers. Both the concept and the school are very exciting. Teachers come from all over the world to learn new and creative ways of educating students in science. The school, pre-school through high school, is an example of the approach. When Dr. Thinley visited I was at the school to cover his visit. I may have been assigned to do this, or maybe I just volunteered to do it. I don’t remember. I don’t get paid for anything I do so I just go toward what interests me.
RW: Well I relate to that.
AM: I arrived at the Journeys School that day and was introduced to Dr Thinley. He was wearing the traditional goh, which is the Bhutanese outfit that men wear, and he was accompanied by a young man in khakis who was carrying his folio. This young man looked like a helper. For some reason, I was never introduced to him. It seems that everyone at the school assumed that I knew him. So in time, this young fellow and I are walking together, chatting about various things as we followed Dr. Thinley about the school. Long story short, the young man, Tashi Wangchuk, turned out in time, to be one of my best friends in the world as well as my partner in the creation of this book.
Tashi was the first Bhutanese to complete post-graduate work from a major American university. He has degrees in anthropology and science from Yale. It was not until I was in Bhutan, a good while after meeting him, that I learned from a scholarly friend of his that that the idea of Gross National Happiness had its origins in Tashi’s PhD thesis from Yale.
And besides meeting Tashi, another significant thing happened during Dr. Thinley’s visit. In explaining the concept of GNH, he mentioned that that the king of Bhutan prefers Gross National Happiness over Gross National Product.
Now, I’d read these words some years before and had thought that’s just so nice. I mean, I thought it was rhetoric, of course, but what good rhetoric! But as Pema elaborated the king’s point of view, I realized it was more than just words. It was the way the king was actually guiding the country. I was just floored!
RW: Wow! And this is Pema giving talks.
AM: Yes, Pema giving talks to the school children. So then Tashi and I began talking about this. And he stayed on in Jackson a little longer and saw a photography exhibit I had up at the time, “Dignity and Delight.” In the photos he saw the same idea that exists in GNH. And later, after he returned to Bhutan and we were writing back and forth and I’m thinking, “Boy, I’d like to tell this story!”
RW: At that point did you understand that it was from Tashi’s PhD thesis?
AM: No, no, no. [laughter].
AM: So Tashi goes back to Bhutan and we’re writing back and forth. I found myself deeply moved by this small country with this incredible example of what I see as effective goodness. So I said, look, I’d love to come over and take pictures. I just want to amplify what’s there, but I can’t do that properly without a writer going with me, a Bhutanese writer. I don’t want to take anything, just tell this story and tell it correctly.
And Tashi says, well, I’ll help you find a writer. But as we talked, it suddenly dawned on me, what about you? And in his beautiful Bhutanese way, he says, “I’ll do anything to help.” So then he consults with Pema, who thinks it’s a great idea and invites me to come to Bhutan on a government invitation.
RW: What year did you actually go there?
AM: 2007. On my first day in the country, Tashi was showing me around in the capitol city, Thimpu. There was a festival in the town square. A lot of his friends are there and Tashi introduces me to several. One fellow says to me, “You know GNH was all Tashi’s idea.” And indeed it was.
RW: What was that like for you to hear that?
AM: It was like—do you ever get this meant-to-be feeling? I call it “under my own star.” I felt like I was under my own star, and really in the right place doing the right thing.
RW: Those moments are so special. I guess you can only be grateful.
AM: I have to tell you I weep at those things.
RW: I love to hear stories like this. It’s astonishing that he was the one whose thesis was the basis for this Gross National Happiness idea. Were you with the king at all, too?
AM: No, I was not so privileged but the sense of the government’s intention to function by the pillars of GNH was evident everywhere I went. Before the king handed the monarchy over to his son, he proclaimed democracy for the country. He said we can’t guarantee that we’ll always have a benevolent king, and it’s time for democracy in Bhutan.
The country didn’t really want democracy. Goodness is really revered there and the king was very good, as they could see. His son, the present king, is equally revered.
RW: Did you speak with Tashi about the whole idea of Gross National Happiness at all?
AM: Oh, yes! I mean, all the time. And when I say that the book is related in many levels, we intend our book to …
RW: …to make it visible?
AM: Yes. It’s a good thing the book is not about making money because it hasn’t. What we want is for the concept to be out there working and hopefully inspiring those who can hear its message and use it.
RW: How did you two work out where you were going to photograph and what you were going to photograph, and all of that?
AM: We sort of had a plan and got a driver, which you really have to do in Bhutan, and set out for various locations. The roads in Bhutan seemed to me to be pretty scary, and Tashi knew the places he wanted to take me—villages and so forth. He knew the places that would expand my understanding.
RW: Can you describe any specific things that you and Tashi might have talked about that are relevant to Gross National Happiness in the country?
AM: We talked about GNH constantly. Here’s an example. I was staying in a hotel on an incredibly beautiful hillside above Punakha Valley. The picture of this place is in the book. The river is running through and the mountains behind are all around these vast fields. It feels magical. One afternoon, Tashi and I were walking through the fields. There are irrigation canals and tall grasses and out in the field. It is a bit rough going. We come upon a man thrashing barley. His grown daughter is working in the field with him and the daughter has a little child. The little boy was barely of walking age, so really sticking close to his mother.
So we start talking to the man. I’m not asking questions but rather listening to Tashi as the two chatted in Dzong. And as I I stood there I saw this: that physical work is part of life; that family is part of work, and that children are with their parents as they work. To my western eyes this seemed significant and, in its way, rich and wonderful.
A lot of hard labor was going on in this field; thrashing barley, hauling off the remaining stalks and there was a lot of joking and laughing going on at the same time. Perhaps this romanticizes a kind of life, but what I observed seemed so real and so right—a family working together for the good of the family. And I’m watching and thinking that this is so beautiful. Here in our country we send our kids off; they’re not usually next to the father or the mother in labor, learning about work, respect, responsibility and at that moment, out in the field, that seemed somehow a shame.
RW: I don’t know if you’ve ever met or heard of Ivan Illich. He had many surprising things to say. I heard him say that the very concept of childhood is a relatively recent invention. In traditional cultures there’s no concept of “childhood.” Children are simply young people and they’re given responsibility that fits what they can do. This gives them self-respect and a real feeling of connection. What you’re describing reminds me of what Illich said. Exploitation of child labor is one thing, but there’s a way of including them in the tasks that’s a completely different thing.
AM: It really is. In Bhutan, the cohesiveness of the family is part of the culture. The inclusion of children in the family’s work is not child exploitation there. Never. It is simply the work of the family, and it seems so valuable.
I asked the man in the field, what do you want that you don’t have? And he said, well, my neighbor got a four-wheeler and I sure would like to have one. Tashi and I were walking away from this scene and he said this was an example of the challenge with bringing GNH and preserving it. He pointed out that the desire for more material things was a human trait and that keeping this wish more in balance is a focus of GNH. The king stated it really well. He said that GHN is achieved when spiritual and material values cohabitate, and it’s not one or the other.
RW: What is Tashi’s feeling about material goods and modernity? Bhutanese is a culture, as you said, that still has a feel for the spirituality of life—maybe you would call it animism; they feel that there are spirits around, right? So that’s an ancient way of life and maybe there’s something we’ve lost when we don’t feel there are spirits around. But I’m sure the king saw, as Tashi sees, that Bhutan is brushing against the contemporary world and headed in that direction.
AM: It’s a tricky thing for the whole culture, but here’s an example of how economic prosperity can have a GNH approach. Tashi has been interested in electric cars for a long time because Bhutan’s people need them. Plus they are good for the environment. Last summer he made several trips to China to find out about electric cars. Now he is making electric cars in Bhutan. And he is selling cars. He will make money; whoever’s working for him will make money. The car is what’s needed in the country. So it’s for the good of the country. It wasn’t as if he said, “Oh, I can make a lot of money by bringing electric cars to my country. It was more, this is what Bhutan needs and I want to provide it. He’s also making solar panels with the same ultimate intention: the good of the people.
And the king is a firm supporter of Tashi’s endeavor with the electric car and the solar panels. His Majesty is very young, probably in his mid to late 20s. Just got married. He has a goal of bringing economic prosperity to each Bhutanese citizen. I’m really impressed. It’s a perfect example of the approach with GNH to economics. This young king is very interested in wiping out poverty, which is probably not possible in his lifetime. But he and the government are doing things for the good of the people. The car, Tashi’s car project, is for the good of the people.
RW: You know Tashi so you feel very sure that he’s acting from on this kind of impulse for service.
AM: Ab-so-lutely! And in the whole country, I just didn’t meet anybody that didn’t have that point of view. Seriously.
RW: It sounds like the whole country is becoming an exemplar of something.
AM: Yes. Actually there was a recent special session of the United Nations focusing on this example.
RW: That’s really exciting.
AM: It is. Yes.
RW: You went around the country photographing. Do you want to just talk a little bit about that whole experience?
AM: Well I started out saying how extremely fortunate I was to get to do that, and that just never left my mind. One of the images that stays with me is in a town called Phobjikha. It’s way, way up in the mountains in this incredible valley. The valley is so vast that you can walk four days and not reach the end of it. It’s just so beautiful. I was there was before the coronation of the new king and the whole country was getting ready for that big event. Many people were working on the tzong, the large Buddhist monastery, a holy place. A picture of the tzong is in the book.
It was a cold, rainy day so much of the work was taking place indoors. There was no electricity in the dzong. I could barely make out that there were large carved Buddhas around the periphery of the chapel room . It was so dark I couldn’t see where I was going but, following Tashi, I went up, up, up thin stair-ladders. There are railings from different floors that look down onto the chapel room and, again, I couldn’t really see much. What I did see however was—on the inside of the well, not where I would be standing, but the other, the inner side of the railing—was a small board scaffolding and on this small board, the open well of three stories below, several men were working, painting and gilding. It was very, very dark with just natural light filtering in here and there from the top of the dzong. Well, by our western standards these were conditions that would be considered unacceptable at best. And these men, balanced on the thin board, working in the cold, dim light—they were happy, laughing and singing! I was astounded. It’s so easy to romanticize all that, but this was a moment I will never forget.
RW: That was so obvious. I’ve read that the relationship between wealth and happiness is highly questionable.
AM: I think it must be. And this is one reason why I find the U.N. discussion of GNH so exciting; that’s why I see doing the book as such a privilege. I’m convinced the time has really arrived, that we’re ready to look at another way, another approach to achieve our well-being. It might not be easily seen, but I really think there are pockets in our country where people are looking at things in a different way. And this is one of those places, San Francisco.
RW: Yes. Tell me more of your memorable experiences. There must have been many.
AM: Sure. Phobjikha, the beautiful valley I was telling you about, is where the black cranes arrive every November. In Bhutan it’s believed that these black cranes that come and circle the tzong three times before landing are lamas who have died and are returning. The birds jump and dance around wildly in the fields. Their appearance and dance are widely celebrated and, because the cranes are believed to be holy men returning, there cannot be electric poles or electric wires to impede the way of the cranes.
So out of respect to the cranes and what they represent, all the electricity is run underground. This is another example of one of the four pillars of GNH—to retain the culture.
In this same town, I was taken into a large, but rather dark house. There were lots of people around, a big family. I’d been in other homes where there were little potbelly stoves in the middle of the house that served for both heating and cooking. These traditional stoves put out fumes and they’re unsafe, so the government is trying to bring ceramic stoves into homes. When I was there, they had started giving the new stoves to people in this town and the home I went into had a ceramic stove and also had the old wood stove. Both were in use that day. It seems it was hard for the people to switch from the familiar to the new, but they were being encouraged to try and given the opportunity of a healthier solution.
RW: So you could see the transitional thing happening.
AM: Yes. And in this village I went to visit the schools— a primary school and middle school. The middle school was having a community program the night I was there. The place was absolutely mobbed. I would say the room that this took place in was maybe, with luck, four times the size of an average western bedroom—nothing we would describe as a hall, and there were hundreds of people in there.
There was a tiny stage with a hand-stitched curtain. This was a community-wide event and most people had walked long distances in order to attend. It was loud and enthusiastic and was so clearly a celebration of the children. There was a remarkable sense of affection and appreciation. I was floored by the tremendous community support. It seemed like a huge family.
RW: You felt a palpable sense of the interconnectedness of the people?
AM: Yes. I think the biggest thing I came away with was just this sense of community.
RW: It sounds like you ran into that over and over again.
AM: I did. I once heard a sort of community call, sort of bong, bong, bong and that means everybody come to the meeting! Actually all the communities in this country have small groups where residents talk about what’s going on in and who can do what.
As I listen to myself, it just sounds like I’m painting this glorious picture of Bhutan, and there are some hard realities there. It is a developing country and there is real poverty to be found. While respectable, there is not the medical care we have come to expect, but their medical care is free. The intention to serve for the good of every Bhutanese citizen.
RW: A.K. Coomaraswamy, who was a student of traditional society, said that in a traditional society everybody has a vocation. The thing is that in traditional societies, people figure out that this person would be good with a horse, that person likes to make houses, and this person would love weaving. In other words, people are helped towards what they naturally like and are good at. I wonder if you sensed anything like that in Bhutan?
AM: It is really like that. Another thing about community involvement is that all children are expected to do service where it’s serving the greater good. So this is just what they do. At Journeys School the kids have community service requirements as well.
RW: With servicespace.org, this grassroots philanthropic group I’m part of, one of the basic principles they understand is that when a person performs an act of generosity or service it causes the person who’s doing the act of service to feel happy!
AM: Yes! Yes, it’s so true. I heard the Dali Lama speak years ago in here in San Francisco. He said, “People might say I’m just a crazy old man. I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll just say something or I’ll smile to somebody. And I immediately feel good!” It’s just so true.
RW: That’s a really important principle. I was also thinking about this idea of subsistence. And again I go back to having listened to Ivan Illich. He was extremely unhappy about the whole concept of an “underdeveloped” country. He says the concept didn’t even exist until Harry Truman started to use this phrase. In fact these “underdeveloped” cultures had functioned for centuries and were able to feed the people and maintain their cultures. I’m guessing the life you are describing in Bhutan, although not easy, has been subsisting for many centuries.
AM: Well, when you’re flying in and landing, spiraling downward—which is terribly frightening, but the pilot assures you he does it every day—you’ll see a house there, then over a mountain another house. People have to walk for long distances just to get to a road. The dwelling may be rough. The bamboo slats we might use for a curtain might be a roof. Their lives could definitely be better. And that improvement is being addressed.
Building better homes for those who need them is one of the things that Bhutan’s Tara Foundation does. Tara Foundation goes out into the tiny communities and asks, what kind of house do you want? We will, with school children, other volunteers and professionals, will build a house for you exactly as you wish it to be. And the kids—volunteers, sons, engineers—will go camp in the village and, with the villagers, and they’ll build houses. Subsistence is augmented by intention to serve the people of the community and the country.
RW: It’s not a top down. It’s really in consultation with them.
AM: Right. There is another example: there may be some years where people just do not have enough food—maybe it’s a bad rice year. While I was there, Tashi and a friend had started a group to drive to India to purchase rice and bring it to these people so that they could make it through the winter. They perceived a need and they did something about improving lives. I think what they do pretty astounding but it is not uncommon in the country, this point of view.
RW: Would you say more about some of the things that stand out for you from your travels in Bhutan photographing?
AM: I met a very a very beautiful woman named Dorji Ohm who was, at that time, heading up The Youth Development Fund. This agency had a home and vocational school in Punakha for rural girls who, for various reasons, don’t have educational opportunities. The girls make crafts and/or sew and knit products to sell and are learning ways of being self-sufficient.
One day in Thimphu, where the main headquarters for YDF are, I chatted with girls who were lined up outside the door of the office. They were all waiting for an admissions interview with Dorji. I spoke with several of these girls through interpreters. I’ll just never forget one who had walked four days to get there. She had been camping on the ground at night where there are tigers and bears—predators in the night. On this day she wore her beautiful kira—the Bhutanese woman’s required outfit, and she looked like she had just stepped out of a salon.
Not all of these girls were going to be chosen. I found myself wishing that they could be. So I saw that this world is not paradise. There’s still poverty, there’s still great need, but there is this high intention—and it’s growing. Dorji Ohm and her heartfelt commitment to the welfare of these girls was an example, again, of the sincere efforts towards what we here call “the greater good”.
RW: Would you reflect a little bit more about what you learned about Tashi?
AM: Tashi and I applied for a grant once. We were working together on how to word it. We were trying to write my piece and his piece and apply for this grant all at the same time. So we work, work, work, have some coffee, work, work, work. And, somehow, in all this haze of concentration, we realized in being forced to describe ourselves that we represented a sort of union of opposites. He’s much younger; I’m older. He’s male; I’m female. He’s highly educated; I’m less so. He’s a scientist; I’m an artist. And, aha! It works! Not that working together was an automatic, easy thing. I mean we both got frustrated at times and we both had to learn East and West.
RW: What were some of the difficulties?
AM: Tashi is not a man of a lot of extra words so that would be an Eastern point of view. We had cut through all this to find our level of communication. There were times when we both became frustrated, but somehow over the many differences— time zones not the least of them—we worked it out.
RW: So it would be hard to get him to say much?
AM: A little bit, a little bit, yes. But then, towards the end of the project he just wanted the book over and done with. By the time the book was more or less pulled together I had a medical crisis and was about go in the hospital for major surgery. So he said okay, I’m just going to Bangkok and I’ll just do a little printing of what we’ve got. And somehow, while I was laid up, this book arrives “Oh my goodness, what are we going to do about this?”
RW: Is that the book?
AM: That’s the book!
RW: So when was it published again?
AM: 2008. It’s at Amazon. As I say, we sincerely want the book to get out there doing its job. And while I was in Bhutan I repeatedly found myself thinking how in the world can this work in our country? We’re so large and we represent so many ethnicities, Bhutan is so small and has one unchanged culture from its beginning. We’re so opinionated, and our discourse is pretty negative a lot of times, theirs seems very much less so. What I came away with, though, is that GNH is, at bottom, about community. We are people living together under one governmental system; we can work on solutions together. Even it’s just working together on this small problem right here in the community, you know?
RW: In a way maybe the only way we can do it is in these small groups.
AM: Well the United Nations might be thinking differently.
RW: Where does this project stand in relationship to other things you’ve done?
AM: I think it clearly represents a way that I see the world. I did the work, I did the book, I still see the world that way.
RW: What do you mean you see the world that way?
AM: I approve of compassionate action as a basis for our leaders. I approve of that intention to help everybody, if we can. Government should not like a big competition.
RW: But we have a very competitive society.
AM: We do. Maybe that is wearing out, though. It is not necessarily producing happy citizens. I was so happy in Bhutan to see this point of view in action.
RW: Do you come from a ranching, farming background at all?
AM: No, but I come from the South at a time when it was much smaller. So maybe I have the memory of family and community. And I live in Wyoming and, no question, its there!
RW: You know the few times I’ve been around ranchers and farmers, I’ve almost always been moved and attracted to something in the way they are. You know what I’m talking about, right?
AM: Yes, I do. I did a big project for the Jackson Hole Land Trust—this was about putting farms and land into trusts so they’ll never be sold and developed. And I went over the mountain to a small town, a you-can’t-even-see-it town called Alta. While I was shooting at a Land Trust farm, two young boys, the farmer’s sons, came home after school. The boys went to work almost as soon as they got home, penning up sheep, moving irrigation pipes, fixing fences. This is a similar set of values to those we’re talking about in Bhutan. So that sort of thing is here, particularly in rural communities; it’s just not very well amplified.
RW: Unfortunately it seems there’s this terrible polarity between the conservative right, which I suppose includes a lot of ranchers and farmers, and the left. It just seems to me that it doesn’t have to be like that.
AM: No—and it doesn’t.
RW: There’s something sad about the degree to which this is polarized.
AM: It’s really true. I see that while I’m talking about family values, I’m not thinking about the polarization at all. I’m thinking about what can we do? What can we do together to make things better for us all.
RW: Do you want to say anything about your work with a camera?
AM: I use a camera because it’s a way to tell a story, but I don’t think I’m an especially great photographer. While I love shooting, the whole process, I have to say, more than that, I love the people. When I am working on a story I am doing my best to try to honor the people whose story it is—to honor what matters to them.
RW: I love some of your short videos on your website—I mean there’s this group of fiddlers.
AM: Isn’t it good? Well, I mean the people, their, music, their calm passion. That to me is touching and importantly simple. The video work is new for me. I’ve been working in this direction for over a year. Now I want to go deeper. I want to tell stories that affect a lot of people, and what hubris is that? I want to produce a documentary that expands the mind and heart of the viewer.