“What’s making you happy today?” I ask Dr. Saamdu Chetri, the Executive Director of the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan over Skype.
He replies, quite matter-of-factly: “I woke up in the morning and realised I was still alive and had one more day to serve people. That’s what makes me happy, today and every other day.”
Wedged between global giants China and India, the landlocked state and remote Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan holds a mythical reputation around the world for its approach to perhaps the most elusive of pursuits – happiness.
Encased by the Himalayan Mountains, ancient monasteries and magnificent fortresses, 50% of Bhutan is protected as a national park and prayer flags poetically flutter in the breeze. I catch a quick glimpse of this charmed country as Saamdu lowers his laptop for my viewing out the window.
While talking to Saamdu, renowned leader on cultivating happiness in our day-to-day lives, two questions begged attention: what’s the secret to happiness and how do you teach happiness to someone?
In his pragmatic, yet abundantly sincere way, Saamdu explained that there is a widespread misconception about happiness.
“You cannot ‘teach’ happiness. Happiness is a skill you acquire. To teach happiness implies that it exists beyond you, outside of you, and that is not the case… Happiness is within you and the skill is to nourish it mindfully to better understand and accept who you are and life’s realities.”
If you know very little about Bhutan, it’s important to understand that this tiny yet powerful nation rejected Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 1971 as the only means to measure progress and has been championing a different formulaic since. The country prides itself on evaluating the prosperity of its 788,000 citizens according to the principles of Gross National Happiness instead – a set of four purposeful pillars to quantify the spiritual, physical, social and environmental health and wellbeing of its people and ecology. They include good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of culture, and environmental conservation.
In addition to the Centre is the Gross National Happiness Commission, which is the key mandate of the government to ensure that the idea of Gross National Happiness is extended beyond the individual and mainstreamed into planning, policy making and implementation processes across the country. The Commission assesses the success of development in business and government according to the contribution made to the Bhutanese community and the world. Saamdu explains: “Will more roads lead to happiness in the long-term if it means more people are driving to work, spending more time alone and there is increased pollution? No.”
Bhutan may very well be an oddity on the global stage because of their priorities for national wellbeing over material growth, but the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has actually forecasted Bhutan to be the third fastest growing economy in the world for the past two consecutive years.
As economies crash, political and social tensions rise and our environment screams out for tender loving care in the face of global warming and great destruction, Bhutan stands alone as a model for slow, sustainable, values-based change that actually works.
“Change doesn’t happen from the top down or the bottom up. It happens from the inside out,” Saamdu explains. “Social change is driven by human change, and as humans, we need to change. We need to embody happiness as a living practice.”
So what does gross national happiness look like in action?
“It looks personal,” he replies. “It’s the simple, individual, value-based choices we makes each day mindfully that add up to national happiness in Bhutan.”
“Here in the centre, that looks like 10-15 minutes of meditation in the morning followed by six minutes of prayer. We eat all our meals together and are very open about our feelings. We are grateful and humble for all that we have, and we show love to everyone that we meet. We smile because we are alive and we show great respect to nature, because without the sun, land and water, we wouldn’t exist. We are all connected in this way, interdependently.”
This is the centre’s core mission – to support people all over the world to cultivate happiness as a skill.
“We might not be able to change industries, governments or corporations, but we can change as humans – as consumers. When we change as consumers, the system has no choice but to change as well,” Saamdu explains.
The centre runs regular workshops and retreats at its 58 acres of land in Bumthang, located at the southern entrance of the country’s largest national park, Wangchuck Centennial Park.
“We take people on a deep journey of inner transformation and understanding. We encourage participants to ask the right questions about their life and their purpose. We help them to see the world with their own eyes, to return and reflect on their daily lives and to reach a realisation – a deeper calling – to help them prototype what they want to change in their lives so they can make those exact changes themselves.”
“This type of change starts within, slowly and mindfully at first, and then rapidly transforms your entire way of being.”
Bhutan is now taking their holistic and sustainable approach to happiness to the rest of the world with centres soon to open in Vietnam and South Africa.
According to this way of thinking happiness is no longer a pursuit – it’s a skill that can be developed and it’s all within your control to cultivate it.
Slow Change Experience: Nov 12th – 22nd, 2016
The Gross National Happiness Centre together with Humankind Enterprises and Digital Storytellers has designed this program for 20 young Australian leaders, change makers, activists and visionaries who work in the social, government or business sectors. This 10-day experience will explore ‘inner-vation’ and social innovation through the lens of mindfulness, storytelling and wellbeing, leaving you with an enriched sense of confidence in humankind and your role in creating sustainable change through your work. After all, economic wealth does not necessarily guarantee a greater quality of life. This is an opportunity to learn from the Bhutanese first hand.