HBS Students Search for Happiness in Bhutan

This winter, two of HBS’ very own Most Interesting Men, Ben Safran (OI) and Tom Humphrey (OC), embarked on a quest to uncover the true meaning of and path to happiness today, or at least get to notoriously-pricey Bhutan on liquor giant Heineken’s dime.

KP: So what is this contest you’re engaged in?

Safran: It’s a contest sponsored by Dos Equis, famous for their “Most Interesting Man In The World” branding, and the prize is $25,000 to pursue some grand adventure. Tom and I got together and came up with this idea for the Quest For Happiness in Bhutan. We thought Bhutan would be a fun, exciting adventure and really interesting academically.

KP: What specifically attracted you to this topic?

Humphrey: The attraction of Bhutan is firstly that it’s very beautiful ecologically – 60% of the country’s covered by mountain and forest, so there’s great hiking and adventure options. Additionally it’s got a very beautiful culture, and it’s renowned for being one of the happiest countries in the world, despite having very poor levels of literacy, and GDP per capita. And third it’s very hard to access the country—to enter the country it costs $250 a day just for the visa, so that really knocks out most of the low-budget travel options, especially backpacking like we would probably otherwise be doing.

KP: Tell me more about the Gross National Happiness Index—what’s your sense of what contributes to that?

Safran: Bhutan is a super-small country, in the hills of the Himalayas, it doesn’t have its own standing army—

Humphrey: —one traffic light—

Safran: Smoking’s banned, and it’s famed for snubbing GDP, and deciding that’s not the yardstick they want to measure themselves by, but instead the happiness of their people.

So they came up with this metric which has five pillars: ecological diversity, health and education, spirituality, cultural heritage and individual well-being. This is obviously a totally unique thing, and what’s equally amazing (and I think is why we really identify with this theme) is increasingly Western countries are starting to ask these same questions.

France did a commission on, is GDP the right measure, and just a lot of Western countries are starting to wonder if this is a model to replicate. It’s really put Bhutan on the map, and for us we want to kind of say, is this real, or just something to more or less support their tourism?

Humphrey: With GDH, they’re not ignoring GDP, they recognize that economic factors are important, but they’re not the end game—money isn’t everything, and the focus on GDP alone can actually be quite damaging because you start to focus on work hours rather than leisure days as a people.

They’re saying GDP is important, but just one factor in what makes people happy, so I think the biggest challenge is around how hard it is to actually measure that. A lot of our research will be focused on, what are the different metrics for happiness out there, what’s the linkage on happiness and objective metrics, and trying to pull that all together into a research paper.

KP: Reeeeeeesearch paper you say??

Safran: In parallel to the competition we’re pursuing an independent project this semester, and in part it stems from first-year BGIE class, where we all flipped through all those exhibits [ed note: not “all” of us per se] and you always look first at GDP and GDP growth, but one of our goals is to ask, Is that the right measure? Are there other measures we could be thinking about?

And Bhutan is one of the countries that’s decided it’s not, and what we would love is to be able to contribute something to the BGIE curriculum that would be a great RC end-of-year case where you stop and say, is GDP what really matters? Or is GNH more relevant?

Humphrey: Moment for pause. [Long pause as KP and Ben struggle to interpret this faintly gnomic contribution.]

KP: Can we stop pausing now?

Safran: As I was saying, we think it’ll be a great discussion!

KP: Having had the privilege of spending most of break with both of you, I saw a lot of books with happiness in the title floating around – Tom I think I saw you with The Happy Economist, Safran you were reading The Happiness Project—

Safran: Don’t put that in—

KP: —has there been anything in your research so far that’s been surprising or really stuck with you, especially as you come into this last semester of HBS life?

Safran: Definitely—in pre-HBS life this was something I’d done a lot of research on, and there’s a University of Maryland economist who wrote a book titled I think Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires, which looks at happiness and income.

One of his theses is if you look at happiness as income goes up, if you’re really poor than your happiness increases but once above a certain threshold there might be negative correlation between income and happiness. It kind of makes sense if you think of all the stress and frenetic pace of life, if you get above a certain level, maybe more money actually makes us less happy, which is kind of the antithesis of what a lot of our pursuits are.

I’d also say in HBS life, taking this class Reimagining Capitalism now, it asks these questions around capitalism and market constructs, do they do the right thing, do they take all the appropriate variables into account, like environmental degradation, negative externalities with pollution, etc. You look at the financial systems that broke down in ’07-’08 and have to ask if there’s a new capitalism that has to emerge that more appropriately incorporates all these other elements that maybe the free market economy isn’t appreciating enough.

Humphrey: The other part of it is what makes people happy, and that’s pretty interesting research to look at because you come away with this consistent view that if you’re polite, not in a minority, female, religious, of significant net worth, and living in a community that has a good ecological situation then you’re more likely to be happy than alternative situations.

So it’s interesting to learn that and look at your own life—obviously I’m not female but there’s certain things you can change in your life which can impact your happiness.

I was reading some guy who was saying 40% of our happiness is driven by factors we can’t control—where you grow up, your education—but the other 60% you can control, like the environment around you, if you choose to subscribe to a religion, the relationships you have with people, etc. So it’s really interesting to read this research that’s so practical and applicable to your own life.

KP: Do you feel for either of you that this research has already started to shape how you think about life after school in any way?

Humphrey: I think it’s kind of cemented for me I’m not going to accept employment with [ed note: redacted to protect Tom’s future prospects] but—

Safran: I think one thing that’s been interesting is the number of books being published around this, and the amount of research, everyone struggles with this topic all the time. This quest for us is going to manifest itself differently, and it does so for everyone, but I think being increasingly mindful of it is a really positive thing.

KP: Has Bhutan paid any price for this very unorthodox approach? Should they be focusing more on GDP?

Humphrey: Some people would argue they have; having to pay $250 a day just to be in the country knocks out a lot of the tourism, but a lot of people argue it means they get higher-value tourists, as opposed to the backpackers.

They’ve also got rules around no smoking in the country, which you can look at as quite oppressive, but other countries are moving in that direction now too, so you can also look at it as a recognition that governments have a responsibility to help people grapple with these choices.

There’s a theory that people have a “want” self and a “should” self, and often the “want” self overwhelms what people should do, and there’s an argument that government has a responsibility to help people balance those elements.

Safran: It’s also the youngest democracy of any country, and was a monarchy until three years ago I think, so you can definitely ask if they’ve made political sacrifices.

Humphrey: The real big question mark over these guys is they’ve been a very happy country despite their situation, but nobody knows what’s going to happen now that they’re a democracy, now that more people are flooding into the country in terms of tourism, etc.

Other questions include what the impact of refugees and migration is likely to be, and technology coming to the country – there’s one stoplight now, what’s it going to be like when there’s 20, when they have computers and the internet, what kind of changes will that bring? Basically is their philosophy only working because of the uniquely under-developed climate they have now? It’s going to be really interesting to watch over the next decade.

KP: So what does your trip actually look like?

Safran: We’ve designed the itinerary to be anchored in the five pillars of Bhutanese happiness we discussed above, cultural heritage, ecology, health and education… We’ll have elements of the trip that touch on each of those, so trips to hospitals for health and education, treks across the Bhutanese hinterland to really explore the ecological diversity, meetings with members of the GNH commission because good governance is one of their pillars, and so forth.

KP: What’s the best and worst part of this process been so far?

Safran: Doing the promotional video definitely, but then also this process of exploration and learning more, and getting the spark to do the IP has been really fun and gotten us really excited about pursuing the topic.  The best part’s to come, hopefully.

Humphrey: We’ve gotten some great engagement from some of the profs around what were doing, and the beauty of our IP is it brings together tons of different disciplines. We’ve got the sociologists and psychiatrists from over the river getting involved, we have the BGIE professors on board for the macroeconomic side of things, so it’s a really diverse group.

KP: The big question, HBS wants to rally behind you, what can we do?

Safran: We’re in the final stages, so it’s all about the votes we get now. If you go to //www.mostinterestingacademy.com/staythirstygrant and if you think we’re grantworthy just click “grantworthy”. It’s down to us and two other guys so every vote counts!

Humphrey: Leave a comment, share with your networks… We’re counting on virality!

Now, to the written!

Q: What most concerns you about traveling with the other?

Safran: I had the good fortune of traveling with Tom this past J-term, so I know the greatness and the risks of traveling with Tom.

I’d say I’m most fearful of his maternal instincts. He was totally the trip mom – making sure everyone had sunscreen, left the house on time, etc… I’m worried about what that might look like on a trek across Bhutan: “Ben, you sure you don’t need an extra fleece? It’s gonna be cold out there…”

Humphrey: I discovered, through an unfortunate experience this past winter, that Ben has a tendency to get violent, particularly in the vicinity of golf courses and general sporting venues. I think archery is Bhutan’s national sport, so I’m doubly concerned.

Q: What would you recommend HBS do to increase its GNH index?

Safran: Not sure I’m qualified for an assessment yet as an aspiring GNH enthusiast… but I’m a strong believer in context and for such an amazing campus there never feel like enough places to really connect and have a coffee chat with people – that’s why I really like the ideas and plans Kunal and Laura have.

Humphrey: Extend TGIF “happy hour” another hour, write off all student loans as bad debts, and offer Australia as a Field 2 destination.

Q: What are you going to miss most about HBS (American) life while in the wilds of Bhutan?

Safran: I don’t think Bhutan is known for its cuisine, so I’d have to say I’ll probably miss those Spangler sushi chefs pretty bad on the treks.

Humphrey: I’m stumped.

Q: Be honest, before this project could you have placed Bhutan on a world map?

Safran: Yes! But only because I have a friend from Bhutan who was at the Kennedy School with me. Before that, no! But I guess that’s part of the question we want to answer – is GNH real, or is it the world’s greatest national marketing campaign?

Humphrey: I probably would have spelt it “Beautanne” and thought it the capital of Idaho. I still don’t know where Idaho is.

Q:  What aspect of your Bhutan itinerary excites you the most?

Safran: I’m really excited about meeting the people. People I know who are from there, lived there, or have visited all say the same thing: the people are amazing – in their kindness, hospitality, warmth. Probably even more than all the beautiful landscapes and unique ecology and historical temples and cultural sites.

Humphrey: So, by custom, the locals paint enormous male genitals above the thresholds to their homes for protection (no joke). The opportunities for humorous holiday snaps will be endless! But I’d have to say the trek – we’re shooting to complete this great climb called the Druk path at high altitude. That’s probably what charges my batteries the most.

February 4, 2013
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