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Modern technology is slowly killing the mood in the 'happiest country in the world'

Teenage monks practice playing prayer flutes at the Dechen Phodrang monastery on June 14, 2018, in Thimphu, Bhutan.
Teenage monks practice playing prayer flutes at the Dechen Phodrang monastery on June 14, 2018, in Thimphu, Bhutan. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images for Lumix
  • Bhutan measures success not by gross domestic product, but by "Gross National Happiness."
  • Although Bhutan is sometimes thought of as the happiest nation in the world, modern problems are hurting its reputation.
  • Technology and outside influences are slowly changing the traditional way of life in Bhutan.

For years, the small Asian nation of Bhutan has defined success not through its economy, but through happiness.

The Buddhist nation pioneered the idea of "Gross National Happiness" to measure the country's well-being, and supposedly, its prime minister once touted Bhutan as the "happiest nation in the world."

But Bhutanese people are discovering that perception doesn't always equal reality. Despite the government's efforts, Bhutan ranked just 97th out of 156 countries in the most recent edition of the United Nations' World Happiness Report list.

Part of the reason may have to do with technology. Although Bhutan resisted it for decades, modern advances like cell phones, TV, and computers are slowly starting to take hold there, bringing with them unfamiliar problems and causing old ways of life to disappear.

In recent years, TV has been blamed for everything from Bhutan's rising crime rate to its shifting demographics as rural residents head for bigger towns in search of work.

"Advertisements create desires, which cannot be satisfied by people's current economic position," Phuntsho Rapten of the Centre for Bhutan Studies wrote. "Crimes and corruption are often born out of economic desires."

Climate change, another modern issue, is taking its toll on Bhutan as well. Melting glaciers are threatening the industrial plants that provide the nation's energy, hampering progress in a country the United Nations considers among the world's "least developed."

"We have an increasing income gap, we have increasing youth unemployment, environmental degradation," Needrup Zangpo, executive director of the Journalists' Association of Bhutan, told NPR.

"We have a lot of things to worry about."

Statistics from Bhutan's own happiness survey illustrate the transformation: According to the most recent Gross National Happiness report from 2015, the number of people reporting negative emotions such as anger, fear, and selfishness increased from the previous survey, while positive emotions like compassion and forgiveness had decreased.

And although 90% of respondents reported being happy overall, it's worth noting that almost half of them, 48%, described themselves as "narrowly happy," as opposed to the more positive choices, "deeply happy" and "extremely happy."

As progress marches on, Bhutan is going to have to learn to adapt to modern challenges - and the shifting mood of its people.

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