Interactive Storytelling: Measuring Happiness in Balloons

Killey Wangchuck, a 10-year-old boy, wanted to go to school so he could learn to read, but his parents are too poor to afford it. (Jonathan Harris)

Bhutan is the only country in the world that uses a Gross National Happiness (GNH) Index to measure the quality of life. Inspired by Buddhist tenets, the GNH Index takes into account economic, environmental, physical, mental, social and political wellness. 

Responding to this phenomenon, American artist Jonathan Harris has created Balloons of Bhutan, an interactive project that explores this unique measure of social wellbeing from the perspective of the Bhutanese people.

In 2007, Harris spent two weeks in Bhutan speaking to 117 people of different genders, occupations, ages and social status.

He asked them five questions: 

What makes them happy?
What is their happiest memory?
What is their favorite joke?
What is their level of happiness between 1 and 10?
If they could make one wish, what would it be?

Based on the respondents' ranked level of happiness and favorite color, Harris inflated a given number of balloons (10 balloons for the happiest people and 1 for the least happy) and then wrote each person's wish on a balloon of his or her favorite color. At the end of two weeks, those 117 balloons were re-inflated and strung up at the sacred mountain pass Duchala, along with multiple strings of colorful prayer flags. 

Balloons of Bhutan is presented in a beautifully designed online archive that lets users interact with the 117 stories in multiple ways — by listening to audio clips, viewing photos, or diving into the statistics of it all.  

What's perhaps most interesting about this project is that even though Harris himself describes the concept as fun and "a little bit silly," some very thought-provoking stories — which reveal various social, political and economic issues underlying Bhutanese life — emerged from his process.

Chencho Doji, a 78-year-old itinerant farmer, wanted to come with Harris so he would have some place to live. (Jonathan Harris)

Chimi Dema, a 17-year-old student, wished she had been born a boy because she felt that men are the dominant gender and life is harder for women. (Jonathan Harris)

37-year-old road worker Salamon Ali arrived in Bhutan with a group of contract workers from West Bengal. Their story touches on migrant labour issues and the political tensions that exist between local Bhutanese people and Indian migrant workers. (Jonathan Harris)

Video: Harris's 2007 TED talk, in which he says more about Balloons of Bhutan.

About the Author

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Nadia Rasul is an Asia Blog Contributor. She is a human rights activist, and a media, technology and global politics enthusiast.