Happiness. How can you define it? What is it? Why is it so important? These are things i’ve been asking myself since going to Bhutan “the kingdom of Happiness” over a month ago. I learnt that there is a different way to live which starts with ‘inner-vation’. Bhutan showed me that the framework that they live by is centred on values, not only at the policy level where change is enacted but by the community and how they live their lives. This is a hopeful realisation that creating social change first of all must start with the individual and then filter through the community and society at large. Bhutan places wellbeing before profit which is a wonderful way to live.
I was honoured to be invited to partake in the Slow Change Experience and learn more about Gross National Happiness (GNH) as a way to govern a country. This is a country that rejects Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a means to measure progress and concentrates on the spiritual, social, physical and environmental health and wellbeing of its people and environment.
Bhutan is in the minority when it comes to adopting this type of governance and it is all done through GNH. In the 1970’s the fourth King of Bhutan introduced GNH which was embraced by the country and in later years (2008) it became official public policy.
GNH is broken down into four pillars to aid policy and decision making in the country. These four pillars include: prioritising preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, sustainable development and good governance. This is further evaluated by looking at things like: community vitality, health, education, time-use, psychological wellbeing, cultural resilience, environment, good governance and living standards.
The impact that GNH has had and continues to have is profound. Bhutan is not carbon neutral it is carbon negative, the only carbon negative country in the world. This has been largely due to the government adopting a strict, sustainable tourism approach to avoid any potential negative impacts upon the environment.
Bhutan’s policies show us what can be achieved when governance goes beyond GDP. Bhutan also highlights that having a balanced approach to life whilst tackling global, national and individual challenges seems an obvious approach to happiness and wellbeing.
As the former PM of Bhutan and Chairman of the GNH centre put it so perfectly:
Gross National Happiness measures the quality of a country in a more holistic way than GNP, and believes that the beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occurs side by side to complement and reinforce each other. We have now clearly distinguished the ‘happiness’ … in GNH from the fleeting, pleasurable ‘feel good’ moods so often associated with that term. We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realizing our innate wisdom and the true and brilliant nature of our own minds.”
– Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley, Former PM of Bhutan: & Chairman of the GNH Centre
The Slow Change Experience
This program was designed by the GNH Centre, Bhutan, Humankind Enterprises and Digital Storytellers to provide 20 young innovators with an immersive experience of positive development and deep understanding to enable them to bring back change to their own local communities and implement mindful solutions to their needs.
We explored the GNH model, ‘inner-vation’, and social innovation through the practice of mindfulness, storytelling and wellbeing. This concept was fuelled by the realisation that ‘deep rooted social change isn’t going to happen top down, or even bottom up. We need to change from the inside out. Social change is driven by human change.’ Reminding ourselves of what we are truly seeking and what it means to adopt ‘social innovation’.
There were no two days the same on the program but typically we took part in meditation, group storytelling, mindfulness practices, lectures and teachings of GNH from experts in the field. We went to local craft markets and explored the community values in Bhutan. We engaged in taking footage to make videos for Digital Storytellers and we enjoyed all of our meals together as a group often coupled with our reflections of the day. We visited a school in Bumthang and enjoyed a lot of time outside with nature. This is just a snippet of the experience and I wish I could have taken you all with me to truly understand how special and awe-inspiring this country is.
Something that I really treasure about Bhutan and the GNH model is that it looks at ‘happiness’ in a completely different way. It looks at the country and governance holistically, factoring in environmental issues such as climate change and pollution, looking at cultural issues such as health and education, promoting good governance and policy making and trying to find sustainable development proposals to implement into the country. It gave me the opportunity to do some ‘inner-work’ so that I can start realising what my core values are, so that I can start enjoying the ‘present moment’ and to manifest my values enabling me to serve others in a positive way.
Things to take away
On a personal level Bhutan has shown me a different way to live. I was honoured to be part of this experience and to grasp a different approach to happiness. I plan to hone my skills in Meditation and Mindfulness and to explore GNH principles as an alternative way to look at policy-making and change-making in a world where GDP has always come first.
‘Taktsang’ Tigers Nest
I wanted to leave you with a very special Bhutanese story and is something that I learnt on my pilgrimage to ‘Taktsang’ Tigers Nest on my last day of the experience. Tigers Nest is located in Paro and is a sacred temple site. Although the temple was built in 1692 by Tenzin Rabgye (the Paro Penlop) it was built as a commemorative site for Guru Padmasambhav (or Guru Rinpoche) who is said to have meditated there. Padmasambhav was a renowned and learned tantric saint from northern India and in the middle of the eighth century the Tibetan King ‘Trisong Detsen’ invited Padmasambhav, the lotus-born tantric master to Tibet. He remained there for fifty years founding monasteries and teaching the tantra doctrine.
Guru Padmasambhav in Bhutan
According to legend, Padmasambhav flew to ‘Taktsang’ as the fiery Dorje Drolo (one of his eight manifestations) on the back of a tigress, a form assumed to subdue the local demon, Singye Samdrup. An alternative legend states that ‘Yeshe Tsogyal’ willingly became a disciple for Guru Rinpoche in Tibet. She transformed into a tigress and carried the Guru on her back from Tibet to the present location of Taktsang in Bhutan. In one of the caves there Guru Rinpoche then performed meditation and emerged in eight incarnated manifestations and the place became holy. He established Buddhism and the Nyingmapa school of Mahayana Buddhism in Bhutan and has been considered the ‘protector saint of Bhutan’.
Since then many Tibetan saints and eminent figures came to Taktsang to meditate. I feel so lucky to have gone to this sacred place and I really can’t put into words how special and spiritual it really is. I was lucky enough to be blessed by one of the monks there with holy water placed into my hands for my mouth and crown of my head and I spent a good amount of time with my Bhutanese friends inside each of the beautiful temples praying and meditating. It’s such a quiet place and really allows for peace and contemplation and even as a budding photographer I didn’t feel disappointed at the ‘no camera’s allowed’ rule. This is definitely a place to be enjoyed in the present moment with no distraction and garners the individuals full attention.
If you have any comments or questions about Bhutan or you would like to learn more please let me know below x x x