Ten years ago, psychologist Adrian White compiled a global index of national happiness, based largely on the how the people living in 178 nations rated their satisfaction with life. Sneaking in at no. 8 on that list was the little country of Bhutan, a nation of a couple million people nestled against the Himalayan Mountains between China and India. Naina, a native of Bhutan, can remember a time when he counted himself among those remarkably happy people.
Bhutan is renowned for its natural beauty, and Naina can still picture the natural wonders that surrounded his home—the lush jungles, the brilliant green terraced rice fields, the soft pink peach and mango blossoms and the fiery golden marigolds that lined the streets during the 15-day celebration of Dashain—the traditional Nepalese festival of reunions and gift-giving that commemorates the victory of good over evil. Naina also remembers the simple joy of plowing fields with his oxen, working alongside neighbors at harvest, adorning the foreheads of his younger relatives with brightly colored rice to wish blessings of health and longevity.
But all that disappeared more than 30 years ago, when the government of Bhutan decided that the key to its happiness lay in privileging traditional Bhutanese culture. Naina, like tens of thousands of Bhutanese residents who traced their lineage to nearby Nepal, suddenly found their language, culture, religion—even their dress—outlawed. Many of the Nepalese people were pushed out of the country altogether, forced into crowded camps in India and Nepal. Three years ago, Naina and several members of his family eventually made their way to the United States as refugees.
Naina, now 60, is starting over. He’s learning English and the customs and culture of a new country. He is happier here than he was in the refugee camps, but when he wants to imagine true happiness, he must think of a home where he is no longer welcome.