'Happy Talk': 5 things Bhutan taught me

Bhutan, a small country sandwiched between two giants, India and China, has made its mark on the world just like the striking Himalayas that run alongside it. But this is no ordinary development story. This is a country run by a government that pursues economic growth only if it doesn’t compromise ecological, social and spiritual health. This is a country with free health care, free education, clean water, zero billboard advertising, zero fast food restaurants, 65% of land mass being used for conservation, and school students who meditate twice every day.

For many years I have been interested in the intersection between inner transformation and social innovation. I’m passionate about bringing these ideas together in my own life and sharing them too, which is the basis for the book I’m working on, Inner-vate: creating change from the inside out. So when the opportunity arose to participate in a leadership program in Bhutan, and see first hand the work of the Gross National Happiness Centre, I was quick to sign up. I was already familiar with the theory of Gross National Happiness but I did not yet know how it could be applied in practice to create internal innovation and drive social change. I was keen to see things from a new perspective.

What I discovered on my two-week journey was no ‘out-of-the-box’ solution but rather a deep and sometimes subtle discovery of social happiness and sustainable growth in action.

How happy?

The values of Gross National Happiness (GNH) are kindness, equality, compassion and connectedness to community and the environment. So when Bhutan’s King announced to the world that GNH was the real measure of his country’s development, the global community quickly responded with questions: How do you define ‘happiness’? How do you measure it? What indicators do you use? At that time GNH was embedded in Bhutan’s culture; it was a way of life but they hadn’t really been able to explain it in measurable terms.

After the idea of Gross National Happiness was introduced to the world, a global team of 75 people, under the chair of Centre for Bhutan Studies, helped to tackle the idea of putting together a framework for measuring happiness.

Now happiness in Bhutan is measured every two years using a very detailed sampling of the country. Individuals are surveyed using an index tool that has established 4 pillars of Happiness, 9 domains and 33 indicators. However, the process cannot be perfect. The GNH Index lays out the conditions that are the precursors for happiness and captures the potential for happiness, but it can’t tell someone whether they are happy or not; only they know that. However, it can show them what is required to elevate their state of happiness if they have a low score.

So what did I learn..

1. Happiness (and change) is an inside job

Clean Bhutan is an organisation that is working hard to protect the country’s pristine environment from waste. Its slogan is ‘Clean the brain, and not the drain’.

Like many Bhutanese, the organisation believes that behaviour is an outside manifestation of a mindset, and mindsets are malleable to change. Rather than just pick up people’s rubbish, it prefers to change the belief that caused the behaviour in the first place. In this way, the focus is  on perceptions and attitudes, and reinforcing the values that create a caring, connected society.

A few years ago when I was working at Oxfam Australia, I came across the work of the The Common Cause Foundation in the UK, which is also working hard to place values that prioritise community, environment and equality at the heart of our cultural, political and civic institutions. The Foundation’s research indicates that when we take this approach we can have a greater influence on social and environmental behaviours. Unfortunately, our society and governments often try to influence decisions and action by indirectly and directly communicating using fear, the threat of separation, the need for consumerism and the glorification of greed.

But Bhutan is different. The King and the democratic government reinforce the values of Gross National Happiness, but make it clear that it is up to each person to internalise and embody these beliefs, otherwise GNH is just a clever term. It is a powerful idea – we CAN create conditions for happiness but change has to be self-actualised in order for it to be sustainable.

The Executive Director of the GNH Centre, Dr Saamdu Chetri, says that we can work towards happiness by connecting ourselves with

  1. Our innate wisdom and values
  2. The natural world
  3. Our ability to serve others
2. Productivity vs Wellbeing 
One of the most dangerous wars going on in the world right now is the one between compassion and capitalism. The world is becoming increasingly more industrialised while mental health and wellbeing are declining. Yes, our economy needs to be strong to ensure that there are enough jobs, but we know that MORE money does not equal more happiness.

Bhutan established an intentional protection of the cultural integrity of the country, only opening up its doors to foreigners in the 1970s and not introducing  the internet until 1999. Gross National Happiness is now taught in schools and discussed everywhere as a way of reminding the country of its innate values and ultimate goal of wellbeing. The impact this has had on young people is incredible. I met dozens of humble, kind, compassionate, generous young leaders who are helping to keep driving the GNH mission and secure their cultural values.

But of course Bhutan has its challenges. They have struggled to keep up with the changes that opening their doors have presented, and their youth are now influenced by the image of a western lifestyle with very different portrayals of success, beauty and happiness. Many are moving from the villages to the capital, Thimphu, to find a job, buy a car, eat imported packaged foods and save money to go overseas.

Although small, Bhutan has had a powerful influence on the UN including successfully lobbying them to incorporate social measures in the development indicators. These measures represent a new development paradigm and principles which Bhutan has stood by time and time again.

Enduring happiness, GNH believes, is a state of compassion for yourself and others. Happiness can be seen as ‘coming home to yourself’, accepting yourself (the good and the bad) and in Buddhist terms, ‘remembering who you really are’.

3. Heartware over hardware

‘I have no intention to allow technology and money to savage the ageless beauty of this land, its social harmony, the blend of its past, present and future. Bhutan will develop, yes but the Bhutanese people will keep faith in their traditional human values.’

– The Fourth King of Bhutan

During my stay in Bhutan, I went to a social housing complex that was designed with values of wellbeing and connectivity in mind. They had a central area where all the community could meet, play and connect, and there was a lot of respect for elders who lived together with the rest of the community rather than be put in a separate care home. There was an active youth centre and a library, and children roamed freely and safely. It was a thriving, happy place (we actually ended up having a random midday dance party with all the locals in the central square!).

One of the community leaders proudly said, ‘Here, we prioritise heartware, over hardware.’ It was such a simple tagline, yet it holds epic meaning.

The Bhutanese nurture their internal heartware through mindful activities like being in nature, cooking, finding ways to help others and being present with people rather than double tasking with technology.

When our heartware is strong, we can actually use it to improve our connection and synergy with others and foster community resilience. This has been proven through interesting studies at the Heart Math institute in the US, and Bhutan displays it in action.

We can all learn to reprogram, refresh and update our heartware through mindfulness practices and meditation. Even the UK Parliament is doing a trial to train ministers in mindfulness. Could this be a way forward for Australian leadership as well?  

4. Mindful action and leadership

The Bhutanese Government has a Happiness Commission that uses a policy screening tool to test every single proposed development to ensure it passes the wellbeing indicators for people and the environment. They believe that business can go hand in hand with wellbeing but cannot exceed it. The Commission has even rejected an offer from the World Trade Organisation because it was in conflict with the happiness mission.

To spread GNH globally, The Gross National Happiness Centre are currently developing a business screening tool, an adaption of the GNH Policy Screening Tool, for companies and organisations that want to check whether their activities meet wellbeing targets, and how they can improve their overall rating. I can't wait to get my hands on this amazing tool !

Bhutan has shown leadership in the area of development that is people- and earth-centred and globally we can follow suit by making social enterprises the norm and not the exception. We have already got to the point where our ecological footprint has overtaken our biocapacity and if we don’t change our mindset and business practices then Gross Domestic Product overdrive will lead to many more problems in the future. I believe entrepreneurs, intreprenuers and leaders in all fields have the potential to lead mindfully and assess the value of their programs and aspirations against wellbeing indicators, in order to create the right environment for Gross National Happiness to thrive.

5. Happy Jam

Happiness, like jam, can spread easily.

There is a great Ted Talk by Robert Waldinger, the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, that explains results of the longest ever study on happiness. He says the study has shown that relationships are the most important contributor to wellbeing.

On an individual level, we need to remember to meaningfully connect with those around us, reduce isolation of those who are lonely and remember our own important relationship with ourselves and our values. This is what we can all do to spread the ‘happy jam’.

On a country level, what can Australia learn from Bhutan and is GNH even possible in such a diverse, complex nation?

Watch this three-minute video to see what the Head of the GNH Centre, Dr Saamdu Chetri, said in response to these questions.

So, how has this experience changed me?

As a GNH ambassador, I will begin by prioritising the 'development with values' approach within my organisation, Humankind Enterprises, and I will also be running workshops for people who want to fuse GNH mindset and practices into their life and work.

Bhutan will be an enduring reminder for me that happiness isn’t an end goal but a sustainable growth mindset, a development agenda and a leadership strategy underpinned with universal values. This is a message and a mission that we can all spread in our lives. As a social entrepreneur, I am inspired to move from a problem-centred approach to an appreciative one that builds on what’s working, and find ways to scale that up.

Bhutan may be a ‘developing’ nation, but it's redefining what development really means for all of us.

Humankind Enterprises create experiences for people to connect. This is because we believe that a world of connection – to oneself, community and our shared values - inspires better health and understanding. Micro moments can become life changing experiences.

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