It’s been over ten years since I retired from full-time practice and spent three months volunteering and traveling in Southeast Asia. One of the best parts of my trip was spending time in the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. It was their monarch who defined the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to measure quality of life. Bhutan is the only country in the world that puts happiness and general well-being at the heart of its government policy.
The Bhutanese distinguish four pillars of GNH: sustainable development, cultural integrity, ecosystem conservation and good governance. Their Buddhist ideals demonstrate how material and spiritual development can complement and reinforce each other. This tiny nation of less than 700,000 inhabitants is among the least populated in the world and it is situated between two of the most densely populated countries, India and China. Totally isolated, is it possible that Bhutan is happier than other countries?
Some North American scientists argue that happiness is largely determined by genetics, health and other factors mostly outside of our control. Other experts think that we’re all hard wired and stay at a certain level of happiness. They say that, with this set point, no matter whether we win the lottery or have a devastating accident, within a year of the event we return to a familiar emotional level. But recent research suggests that we can actually take charge of our own happiness and that a large portion of it is within our power to change. What follows are some ideas that you may want to put into practice and see if they can boost your sense well-being:
Be aware of what brings you joy. Set aside time to experience and acknowledge your gratitude. Research participants were asked to write gratitude letters to those who had helped them. They reported that, after implementing the habit, they had a lasting increase in happiness over weeks and even months. What’s even more surprising is that sending the letter was not necessary. Even those who wrote letters, but never delivered them, still reported feeling better afterwards.
Embrace simplicity and appreciate what you have. Step outside and enjoy a moonlit night or take you family camping and roast marshmallows over the fire. Those who practice writing down three good things that happen to them every week show a significant increase in happiness. When life is tough, be optimistic and try to find the silver lining in any situation. Being more hopeful about the circumstances, a process called reframing, can lead to increased feelings of well-being.
Practice random acts of kindness. Focusing on the positive can help you remember reasons to be glad. When we perform good deeds and assist others it also benefits us. A recent study found that the more people participated in meaningful activities, the happier they were and the more they felt their lives had purpose. Pleasure-seeking behaviors, on the other hand, did not make them happier.
Pay attention to the practical issues. Get enough sleep, stimulate your mind, eat well, practice relaxation or meditation, find your passion, exercise regularly, don’t hold a grudge and spend time with friends. Maintaining order also falls into this category – studies show that if you make your bed, that provides inner calm and helps you start the day off right.
Don’t expect too much. Unrealistic expectations can often lead to disappointment. Built-in obsolescence makes you a slave to the latest style and the next upgrade. It never ends, and leaves you dissatisfied with what you have. In some situations try not to expect anything and whatever comes your way will be a blessing.
Like many psychological and social indicators, GNH is easier to describe than to define with statistical precision. However, the Bhutanese people seem to know that happiness is multi-dimensional. The country has a matriarchal system, very few cars, no branding in the shops, a single television station and a passion for archery. Healthcare and education are free for life. Almost every citizen wears the national costume all the time and regulations on architecture preserve the craft industry of religious art. Yes, there is uniformity, consistency and they’re mobilized for the preservation of their values. Some of these standards may not work for us but there’s a lot we can learn from Bhutan.