Bhutan: Happiness in the Land of Enlightenment

by Cindy Long

Centre College News
CentreTerm class in Bhutan large group in front of temple statue

How is the success of a country measured? The answer often revolves around financial metrics or political influence — maybe military might. But students in the CentreTerm course, Bhutan: Happiness in the Land of Enlightenment are getting an up-close look at another way to gauge a nation.

“We are exploring Bhutan’s practice of measuring their economic and other success through the system of Global National Happiness (GNH), rather than Gross Domestic Product,” said Chelsea Cutright, visiting assistant professor of international studies and anthropology. “This is what Bhutan is most famous for – being the land of happiness – but of course, it is much more complex than that. It does not mean that everyone in Bhutan is objectively happy, but instead is an example of a government system that prioritizes things beyond economic and material value, such as sustainability, mental health, culture and tradition.”

The three-week January course included explorations of modern-day Bhutanese culture and how it has been shaped by its rugged and amazingly diverse landscape, the early influence of Tibetan Buddhism and the country’s robust tradition of resistance to outside rule.

Cutright and course designer Jennifer Goetz, Marlene and David Grissom Associate Professor of Psychology, used their combined experiences and interests in cultural practices related to well-being, psychology, culture, youth and sport to examine what this really looks like in practice in Bhutan.

Students in Bhutan

“The course is a combination of lectures by Bhutanese experts and practical experiences,” Cutright said. “For example, we had a talk on traditional archery, which is the national sport, and then got to try archery ourselves and watch an archery match in town.”

Other activities included sojourns to monasteries and temples, visits with local organizations working on women’s issues and mental health, a journey to a yak herders’ camp, learning about the Black Necked Crane in Phobjikha Valley and doing homestays. Additionally, students visited the Bhutanese Olympic office, and hiked to Tiger’s Nest Monastery.  

Samuel Cotthoff, class of 2026, an anthropology/sociology major from Hopkinsville, Kentucky, is soaking up the myriad sights and experiences in this isolated South Asian country.

“One of my favorite activities has been the hike to visit the Tango Monastery,” Cotthoff said. “It was the most difficult thing we have done, especially on the way up. We started at around 8,800 feet and ended around 9,700 feet (about twice the elevation of Denver, Colorado). The brutal hike was a mile nearly straight up but so worth it, as the monastery was gorgeous and the views of the mountains and Thimphu Valley are sights I will never forget.”

Students lived on the campus of Royal Thimphu College (RTC) during their stay. Centre also offers a semester-long study abroad and exchange program through RTC.

“I chose to study abroad in Bhutan for many reasons,” Cotthoff said. “But mostly, I wanted to experience a new culture and learn more about Buddhism. As an anthropology/sociology major, I wanted to travel somewhere that would allow me to immerse myself in an environment where I was uncomfortable and learn how to adapt. Though this trip hasn't been easy, it has been one of the most fulfilling experiences I have ever had, academically and socially.”

The two faculty leaders enjoyed watching their students immerse themselves into an unfamiliar environment.

“Students have been delighted by the intricate art and iconography in the temples and monasteries here,” Goetz said. “They are intensely curious to learn about Vajrayana Buddhism, which is infused with Tibetan and Bhutanese culture and is quite distinct from the pared-down mindfulness practices that have been imported into the west.”

“The physical surroundings are astoundingly breathtaking,” Cutright said. “The students are excited to eat all sorts of new foods and engage with our guest speakers and hosts by asking many questions about what life is really like here.”

Students in Bhutan

The experiential learning component of study abroad has had a profound effect on the visiting students, Cotthoff said.

“The thing that has delighted me the most has been the hospitality of our guides, hosts and guest speakers,” he said. “One of the strongest values in Buddhism is compassion, and as a heavily Buddhist country, the compassion and kindness of those around us has not gone unnoticed.”

Cutright admires the hard work the students put in to make the most of their learning adventure.

“They have all read a lot to prepare for this trip so to be able to witness them taking that knowledge and initiating conversations with Bhutanese experts about the topics they researched is incredible. It is a very meaningful way to learn.”

This article is part of a series featuring select courses from CentreTerm, a three-week winter term that gives students the opportunity to explore and experience immersive topics on campus and across the globe. Follow the international adventures of CentreTerm students by searching #CentreAbroad on social media.