Can Happiness Change the World? Three Lessons from Bhutan

By Florence Scialom

This post was originally published via the Network of Wellbeing (NOW).

“Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing” – Arundhati Roy.

The powerful words above from author Arundhati Roy have often inspired me, because they remind me that many people are working – often quietly, yet powerfully – towards new ways of living, to counteract the environmental destruction and political chaos we see in the world today.

I felt honoured to visit Bhutan recently; a place known for its focus on Gross National Happiness (GNH) instead of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In Bhutan, the whisper of a new paradigm becomes louder and clearer, articulating ways of living that value wellbeing over profit.

I was in Bhutan on a wonderful programme called The Slow Change Experience, co-hosted by the Gross National Happiness CentreHumankind Enterprises and Digital Storytellers. In this post I’d like to share three lessons I learned or was reminded of through this experience.

1. Another way of living is not only possible, it already exists

Gross National Happiness is a measurement, a policy framework and – perhaps most importantly – an inspiring vision for change. It is about promoting a new direction for development that is led by values, rather than growth at all costs.

In the UK, where we’re still over-shadowed by the neoliberal mantra, “there is no alternative”, it can seem impossible to imagine the economy not being placed at the centre of all things. Yet governance in Bhutan is guided by the four pillars of GNH: economic development is included, but alongside (not above) the remaining three pillars: environmental protection, good governance, and the promotion of a vibrant culture. These four pillars break down into nine more detailed domainswhich are used to screen policies and guide decision making.

The impact of this approach is abundantly clear. To give one example, Bhutan’s constitution mandates that at least 60 per cent of its land is preserved as forest. This is one of the reasons why Bhutan is not only carbon neutral, but carbon negative; absorbing more carbon dioxide than it emits. The resulting natural beauty of the forests in Bhutan is incredible, and at times completely overwhelming; walking through the vast forests of Bhutan reminded me of the beautiful power of connecting with nature.

Bhutan’s policies stand as an inspiring example of what is possible when shifting focus beyond GDP growth towards a more holistic sense of wellbeing. Other examples of this type of approach can be found in different parts of the world, and they all provide practical demonstrations that there is an alternative way of living, that does not place the economy above the wellbeing of people and planet.

2. Wealth is about so much more than your bank balance

Money is not key to happiness, and some studies have shown that measures of wealth on a national (GDP) and personal (income) level have a diminishing impact on happiness. Of course, it’s important to meet basic material needs, but beyond a certain point chasing more money does not make people happier. At best, its impact is negligible; at worst, it is actually detrimental. This is one reason why the Bhutanese model of GNH appeals so much; the GNH framework acknowledges that there are more important things in life than money, and helps to define what it can mean to be truly wealthy.

Factors such as community vitality and time use are included in the nine domains of GNH, and many people in Bhutan prioritise these goals over money and material goods. While having a conversation with the Gross National Happiness Centre’s Wesel Xumthrel in Bhutan, she emphasised the importance of, “talking to each other when you go home and taking time for your family, and taking our time with the things you really care about”.

It is not that people in Bhutan do not care about material goods, but in general they acknowledge that there are more important things in life: taking time for what you love, building strong relationships, and caring for the world around you. I made some lovely new friends through The Slow Change Experience in Bhutan; getting to know them really highlighted to me the importance of connecting with like-minded people and building community.

3. Change starts with me and you

Although Bhutan is a strongly Buddhist country, the values behind Bhutan’s model of development can be seen as relevant to all cultures. Values such as compassion, fairness, wisdom and mindfulness are all emphasized through the GNH framework, and can appeal to people from all backgrounds and walks of like. Bhutan cannot shift the whole world alone, but its values-based GNH framework is inspiring others to change their lives. This needs to happen at the policy level, but can also start with me and you, in the way we approach our own lives.

Here, I am again inspired by my friend from the GNH Centre, Wesel, who said it is, “to do with living a simple life, really being happy with yourself, being content with what you have, loving yourself and then really living with a community, building that trust among your community, your neighbours, and really not getting scared of talking to people, smiling at times, hugging. These are really powerful, small, but really powerful acts. I would say start from small, and then you can think of doing bigger acts”.

After returning home from Bhutan, I am trying my best to follow Wesel’s advice, and it gives me hope to know that there are many others out there trying to do the same; creating positive social change through powerful everyday actions.

Thanks and further reading

Huge thanks to all who made my trip to Bhutan possible. If you’d like to read more about Bhutan and the Slow Change experience, check out:

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