Balloons of Bhutan is a portrait of happiness in the last Himalayan kingdom.
In Bhutan, happiness is no laughing matter — academics study it, spreadsheets track it, billboards tout it, conferences debate it, and every year, flocks of foreign intellectuals travel to Thimphu to share their ideas about what exactly makes a person happy.
Instead of "Gross National Product", Bhutan uses "Gross National Happiness" to measure its socio-economic prosperity, essentially organizing its national agenda around the basic tenets of Buddhism. Bhutan's fourth king, Jigme Singe Wangchuck, invented the idea in 1972, to give his tiny country some international clout and guard against potential future invasion by its two mighty neighbors (India and China).
Given the seriousness with which this topic is treated, I thought it would be fun to do something a little bit silly, so in late 2007, I traveled to Bhutan and spent two weeks handing out balloons.
I asked people five questions pertaining to happiness: what makes them happy, what is their happiest memory, what is their favorite joke, what is their level of happiness between 1 and 10, and, if they could make one wish, what would it be. Based on each person's stated level of happiness, I inflated that number of balloons, so very happy people would be given 10 balloons and very sad people would be given only one (but hey, it's still a balloon). Then I wrote each person's wish onto a balloon of their favorite color. I repeated this process for 117 different people, from all different ages and backgrounds.
On the final night, all 117 wish balloons were re-inflated and strung up at Dochula, a sacred mountain pass at 10,000 feet, leaving them to bob up and down in the wind, mingling with thousands of strands of prayer flags.
Balloons of Bhutan was sponsored by the Bhutan Youth Development Fund, an NGO working to provide opportunities for Bhutanese youth.