Happiness: Hooked on a Feeling

The search for happiness and good coffee – and how the two go hand in hand.

Everyone searches for happiness, but in different forms and different doses. There’s the cherished long-term happiness, achieved through satisfaction with one’s life and accomplishments. Then there is the short-term variety. Strategies vary. For British Columbians, the long-term sort can involve the identification of a goal and its ardent pursuit. The short-term kind can be had with two shots of espresso, straight up.

Karma Tenzing is shooting for both targets with the same ammunition. And he is doing so in a country where happiness is more than a personal goal: it’s official government policy. Tenzing lives in Bhutan. Years ago the Bhutanese government captured world imagination by coining the term “gross national happiness,” basically a statement of intent to manage economic growth with an eye toward maintaining cultural and spiritual values and not to let rampant growth and development run roughshod over public well-being or the country’s traditional way of life. The idea that you can quantify happiness and make it government policy has inspired both fascination and skepticism. But there is no doubt that Karma Tenzing is bringing a little joy into his little corner of this mountainous country wedged between Tibet and India.

When I visit, Tenzing has just opened his new espresso café on a little side street in the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu. Karma’s Cup is the culmination of a dream – or will be if it catches on. “I am taking a big chance,” he admits. It’s not just that he left a safe, well-paid job as a loan officer at a Bhutanese bank to start his own business. There’s also the fact that in this part of the world, Tenzing is a pioneer. There are no Starbucks in Bhutan. That may sound like a good thing for a local café owner, but the green-clad armies of the Seattle mega-chain do serve as shock troops in new markets, introducing the joys of Italian-style coffee to new converts. Bhutanese consumers seeking that little shot of short-term happiness generally know only three options: alcohol, tea or Nescafé.

Cappuccino-addicted Vancouverites are in for at least one unpleasant shock when visiting this isolated Himalayan kingdom: the Land of Happiness also turns out to be the Land of Nescafé. Coffee here means a cup of hot water and a package of instant. Thimphu has a few espresso outlets, but very few, so Tenzing must be an educator as well as a businessman. “Local people like to drink,” Tenzing says. “But I did not get a liquor licence because I want to create a café atmosphere.” He spent two years at a café in Canberra, Australia, working for nothing just to learn the trade. “When I could make 500 cappuccinos in a day with no complaints,” he says, “I thought, ‘I am ready.’ ”

Karma’s Cup is marketing itself heavily to the tourist trade – visitors from espresso-friendly climes desperate for a hit. But to prosper he must do more. “My target audience is local,” Tenzing insists. “It’s not too soon because this is catching on everywhere.” As of now, the clientele seems exotic: the elegant hardwood-floored room contains a Japanese group and a visiting Russian with her guide. But it’s early days yet: as of late January, Karma’s Cup had been open only three weeks. And while there are particular logistical problems – chiefly the difficulty of procuring and importing good beans – the espresso is excellent: warm, rich and chocolatey.

Should Tenzing succeed in his enterprise, he will certainly provide both Bhutanese and foreign customers with a short-term route to happiness. But in pursuing his dream of small-business success and financial independence he will also be making a valuable point. Whether officially enshrined in government policy or merely implied, the paths to happiness often look the same wherever you live.