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Culture Of Happiness In Far Away Bhutan

Webster's Shelly Daly, recently returned from the Buddhist kingdom, shares stories of a peaceful civilization

Shelly Daly poses with her students at the Royal University of Bhutan, where she taught them entrepreneurship. photo courtesy of Shelly Daly.

August 18, 2017
Shelly Daly of Webster Groves found the Bhutan booth at the Festival of Nations a couple of years ago, somewhere between the Afghan and the Vietnam booths. This year she actually found herself physically in Bhutan, somewhere between India and China.

"I love the International Institute's Festival of Nations and visited the Bhutan booth every year," said Daly. "I purchased a book, 'Radio Shangri-La,' at Subterranean Books in the Loop in 2012 about the start-up of radio in Bhutan and my interest continued to grow during trips to the Festival.

"I tried the food at the booth, spoke with the people and asked them to teach me words of the Dzongkha language. I Googled everything I could about the country," explained Daly. "And finally I filled out a Fulbright application to go there and teach and it happened."

Daly is a global business professor at Lindenwood University in St. Charles. Daly's Fulbright award provided the means for her to get to Bhutan to teach entrepreneurship to students at the Royal University of Bhutan in Gedu.

"My expertise is in the area of developing and transitional economies in global business and Bhutan has a unique economy measured on happiness," explained Daly. "It's not about the gross national product, GNP or GDP. It's all about a gross national happiness (GNH) index."

The country is mountainous and isolated and it's leader, the Dragon King Wangchuck, is very protective of its culture and its Buddhist traditions. Based on experiences inside and outside the classroom, Daly said she is a believer that the gross national happiness level is pretty high in Bhutan right now.

Daly, who taught in Bhutan from January to July of this year, brought a number of games on her visit to play with her students such as Scrabble, Yahtzee and Monopoly. She recalled explaining the rules of Monopoly and how you must pay rent if you land on another player's property.

"They said, 'No, Professor Daly, we would never charge rent for someone coming to our house," noted Daly. "They said, 'We would invite them into stay and have some tea with us.'"

Two young boys strike a pose for the camera. The Bhutanese people, led by their king, practice a culture that stresses the "gross national happiness level" over any other measure of prosperity. photo courtesy of Shelly Daly.

When Daly asked a cab driver if it was customary to gouge foreign visitors traveling in Bhutan, she was politely, but sternly, corrected.

"He was appalled and said, 'I would never charge a tourist more. My king would be ashamed of me if I did,'" Daly said. "GNH is not a party line. It is their way of living, embraced and seamlessly interwoven into all that they do. People are kind, honest and generous. They do not act on an idea without gauging the repercussions – how will it contribute to GNH?"

Buddhist Influence

Buddhism guides their lives and daily choices. Bhutanese kill nothing, offer prayers in all situations and honor their monks at all times. They love their king and every home and business seems to have photos of him in every room. Daly went to a birthday party and the first slice of cake was put in front of the king's photo.

Despite the peaceful and respectful lifestyle in Bhutan, Daly concedes there are a few drawbacks and occasional inconveniences in the country.

Some towns do not have electricity and the king determines what technologies come into the country. Also, students have little choice as to fields of study and vocations, because those are all determined by test results.

An avid runner, Daly felt a little stifled by the mountains, hills and deep valleys. Hot chili peppers are a mainstay of the local diet, so if spicy doesn't sit well with you – a lot of plain rice is the regular fare. And then there are those leeches.

"When I told people back here about the leeches, most could not fathom it," said Daly. "It is hard to make people understand that every few steps in rainy season would bring a new leech on your boot, or coat or bag!

"A friend who visited was more appalled by the spiders the size of her hand and my daughter who visited could not believe there was a 'snake season' when we saw dozens of snakes every day," Daly said. "Everyone who visited was charmed by the loose dogs who mind their own business, lounge in patches of sunshine and eat rice left over from family meals. Yaks were my favorite and kids love the monkeys."

A yak herder displays woven items for sale in Bhutan. photo courtesy of Shelly Daly.

If Americans know little of Bhutan, the Bhutanese know even less about America – except for wrestling.

"They love WWF and were perplexed that I had never seen it or did not know the big name wrestlers," said Daly. "My college students, who lived with an 8 p.m. curfew at school and at home, were enthralled with the idea of 16-year-old drivers and midnight curfews in America. The general feeling was always that America is a very big, beautiful land of opportunity."


"I tried to encourage my students to think about their skills, potential export markets, and local needs," said Daly. "They spent weeks developing detailed business plans for their own small business. I wanted it to be realistic and possible given the needs and resources available in the country."

The relaxed nature and group-orientation of Bhutan are counter-intuitive to the individualism and autonomy that drives western entrepreneurship, according to Daly.

"It will be hard for many people there to embrace a mindset that drives ordinary people here to accomplish the extraordinary," said Daly. "They are not driven and motivated by the same things as we are in the West, but they will accomplish great things, I am sure of it, but it will be in their own way, that is culturally sustainable."

In any case, Daly is now encouraging her students at Lindenwood to attend the 2017 Festival of Nations at Tower Grove Park on Aug. 26-27. She hopes they will visit the international booths and maybe find themselves one day in an educational setting in Eritrea, Brazil, Senegal — or Bhutan.

"The Festival is more important for St. Louis than for most cities," said Daly. "International flights are not abundant to and from here, and we do not get the international tourists like Chicago does. Given this, cultural understanding can only grow, and be enhanced, if we bring the world here through events like the Festival.

"Culture underpins everything that happens in the business world – a country's legal and political system, its holidays and working hours, its economic choices," Daly said. "If we understand the culture, we understand the people and the country a little bit better. Friendships and empathy can then thrive."

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