In 1971, the small, remote Himalayan nation of Bhutan decided to reject the traditional measure of progress – gross domestic product or GDP – and adopted the measurement of gross national happiness, or GNH, instead.
“GDP does not necessarily translate into positivity for society and ecological growth,” Dr Saamdu Chetri, the executive director of the Gross National Happiness Centre, explains. “Anything that is destructive in nature, but transacts through monetary value is adding to economic growth, such as drug addictions, alcoholism, cigarette smoking, violence in cities, destruction of forest, etc. [These] are harmful to the society and ecology. Development – that has no threshold – must serve a purpose which we believe is to provide conditions for people to find their own happiness.”
Indeed, for Saamdu and the Bhutanese government, national growth (NB: happiness) is cultivated through nine specific domains – aspects like good governance, living standards, health and psychological wellbeing. Any increase in the happiness of its residents equals success.
“Bhutan has developed between 2010 and 2015 because its population’s happiness has increased by 1.2 per cent and reached 92 per cent of the population,” Saamdu explains. “It measures development more holistically because it looks to the needs of the people in completeness, both materially and spiritually.”
Although widely speaking the country has developed, yet the government has also identified 20 villages that classify as GNH “unhappy” (of which 8.8 per cent of the population is currently classified) and are directly targeted with specific programs, which includes targeted investment, development of both “grey and green” infrastructure, and a focus on creating equitable wealth and resources for the Bhutanese population.
In his role as the executive director of the Gross National Happiness Centre, which leads a department in developing happiness for others, Saamdu has a profoundly simple approach to the idea of joy.
“Happiness is individual and innate in all of us,” he tells us. “We can be happy at any given moment and always if we choose to be so, because happiness is inward and not outside. Material things only give us momentary happiness, and the lasting happiness is a skill that can be cultivated through practising loving-kindness, hugging, being grateful, and exercising for 30 minutes a day. It is also to realise that we are not permanent and we belong to the nature, and must live in relationship with family and the interdependence.”
While finding happiness in what one already possesses is a perfect lens through which to view the world, where does this sit with ambition, we wonder?
“Nothing is wrong in doing this if it is done through mindfulness without bringing damage to the self, the society and the ecology,” Saamdu explains. “However, we need to ask more for what? We all must remember that there are very few things that are absolutely necessary for living, which are nourishing food, few changes of clothes that take us from one season to another, roof over one’s head, and wisdom deriving from practical knowledge.
“If we learn to live mindfully, we can be who we want yet connecting self with the self. We must all remind ourselves that we will die one day, it could be the following day, and live as if it is the last by learning to live here and now, at the present moment.”
Dr Saamdu Chetri will be speaking at The School of Life in Melbourne on Monday 19 June and Tuesday 20 June and in Sydney on Tuesday 27 June. For tickets, visit theschooloflife.com