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Bhutan, a small country tucked away between Nepal, India, Tibet and Bangladesh, is famous for its dramatic, beautiful landscapes. But it is probably even more well known for having pioneered the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) back in 1972, when its then king declared “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product”[1].


The Gross National Happiness index looks at nine areas: psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. The Index checks 33 indicators in these areas and then identifies four sets of people: unhappy, narrowly happy, extensively happy, and deeply happy. It looks at the happiness people enjoy now, and how policies can make a difference in the ‘unhappy’ and ‘narrowly happy’ groups. In 2011, the UN adopted a resolution which promotes sustainable happiness and wellbeing.


Improving Bhutan’s students’ wellbeing

The Royal University of Bhutan (RUB), founded in 2003, is decentralised with 9 colleges and two affiliated colleges spread across the country. In 2016, it had 9,173 students and 982 members of staff. Its programme-offering is wide, covering teacher education, business and management, engineering and physical sciences, computing and information science, biological sciences and agriculture, health sciences, humanities and social sciences, and national language and literature. The university however faced some challenges when it came to students’ wellbeing. RUB never set up a counselling centre, mostly due to lack of expertise in the area and trained counsellors. There have been ongoing concerns regarding students in relation to substance misuse, stress, financial worries, family issues, relationship concerns and career worries. The persistent rise of globalisation, information technology and the use of social media has led to students subconsciously isolating themselves and losing touch with the more traditional counselling practices in Bhutan (e.g. talking to the spiritual head, the elderly, or going to the college community). The RUB submitted an Erasmus+ project with the aim to establish a counselling service at all the colleges of the university that would blend models of modern guidance and counselling with the traditional Bhutanese model, while incorporating the GNH concept. And this with the help from some European partners with expertise in the area. [continue reading below the pictures]

Bhutan Workshop at RUB

The project team at VUB's Study Guidance centre

VUB’s role

RUB is spearheading the Erasmus+ project, which started in November 2018 and will run until November 2020. The KA2 project is part of capacity building in the field of higher education within Erasmus+ along with the University of Birmingham (UK), ISMAI (Portugal), and Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) in Belgium. From the VUB side two counsellors are part of the project: Eva Vantournhout and Katrien Vanderstappen. Both work at the VUB’s study guidance centre which provides students with information, advice, guidance as well as training. The centre offers students free workshops but also individual guidance support. VUB has put inclusiveness, student support and wellbeing at its core from the beginning and has built up almost 50 years’ experience in the field. The study guidance centre has 30 staff members, including psychologists, learning path counsellors, and student counsellors. The centre runs on a demand-driven approach, always monitoring students’ needs. It has offices on the different campuses which are open every weekday.


Eva Vantournhout and Katrien Vanderstappen hosted a delegation from RUB in January 2019 at the VUB to kick off the project, along with the other two European partners. The intention was to align ideas, and work out the project timeline and designate tasks, as deadlines are tight. It’s an ambitious project though. Eva and Katrien explain that they will put together a manual outlining the theoretical basics of counselling for the Bhutan counselling centres, along with training sessions which will be given in Bhutan at the RUB in November 2019. A digital platform and app will also be developed to facilitate contact between counsellors and students at RUB. ISMAI will take the lead on this and use the manual as a basis. The University of Birmingham has already done an initial assessment study. They will also run surveys among the colleges and students, and eventually present the project’s results in August 2020. Interesting here is also the fact that one of the team members from the University of Birmingham has done lots of research in Bhutan on the topic of education and inclusiveness. He has been well-placed to provide the Western European team members with advice based on his experience and knowledge of Bhutanese culture and education system. [continue reading below the pictures]

Flags in Bhutan

Takshang in Paro, Bhutan - ©Adli Wahid

Marrying GNH with Western methods

There are some challenges and differences in the way counselling is done between Western European institutions like the VUB and Bhutan. The ‘marriage’ of Western principles and methods with the Gross National Happiness index is something that is constantly present and will be incorporated into the manual set up by Katrien and Eva and their colleagues. “In practical terms it means that some elements will be incorporated into the manual which are perceived as less common here, but very much a part of normal routine in Bhutan, like spirituality and meditation. Mindfulness is also an important concept in Bhutanese society. At VUB we try to incorporate the basics of mindfulness in some of our workshops and from this project we can learn how to integrate it even more. Another example is that RUB student volunteers are active at all levels to help other students in social settings e.g. This is not very routine yet at VUB, but it is gaining importance as community service learning is becoming more popular”, Eva and Katrien explain.


The project is moving ahead very quickly with lots of milestone-meetings set in place to ensure continuous progress. In July 2019 a meeting took place in Porto with all the partners, where the results from the initial assessment study were presented. A questionnaire had been sent to all the RUB’s students and staff checking their understanding, perception, and experience of mental health and well-being. When asked about stress and student life, the results clearly highlight the importance to students to have coping strategies and support systems in place. The results therefore clearly indicate the need for counselling centres and the relevance of the project. In addition, the team worked on defining the platform’s structure and setting out the manual’s content. The next step will be a trip to Bhutan in November to provide training.


It’s an exciting project, and Eva and Katrien are thoroughly enjoying working on the manual, consulting their team members for input, and learning more about the GNH, and how to marry it with their knowledge and expertise here in Belgium. And who knows, maybe incorporate some of the GNH’s ideas into day to day practice in Belgium too?