Sustainable Happiness: "Happiness that contributes to individual, community or global well-being and does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations." -Dr. Catherine O'Brien
Millennials don't necessarily place a high value on loyalty, but when they do, the reward is a month off from work! Just what I needed as I was looking forward to some time off for self-reflection, understand my motivation, my beliefs and find a little inspiration after 10 years at Swiss Re. And sometimes, you have to go the physical distance, climb real mountains to bring you further along that journey. I literally pushed myself mentally and physically to the absolute edge. It also led me to discover an alternate way of living. That it in this mad frenzy world, it is possible to live life with contentment, at a slower pace, in isolation, show compassion towards sentient beings and still eat spicy food. No, I was not looking for answers, but the cold mountain air and the Himalayan tea, certainly provided some clarity!
My goal was to walk the Himalayas. So I headed north with a backpack to the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, the size of Switzerland(they love their cheese too!), sandwiched between two of the most populous, polluted and fastest growing countries on the planet. The only region on earth that's carbon negative. A country that went uncolonised, skipped the industrial revolution, slept through two world wars and woke up to television less than 20 years ago. They seem to live life at their own pace. I covered over 120kms by foot in about 10 days through some of the most unforgiving terrain reaching an altitude of about 16'000ft. There was no looking down the slopes, no piggybacking and the nearest village was a good two days by walk. It was indeed a battle within, overcoming my fear of heights and pushing myself until I was convinced it was not my mind playing tricks anymore with my body.
However, more than walking, for me the way of living was a revelation. Having previously worked with my company's Sustainability Team looking at environmental, social and ethical risks facing our planet, I was keen on understanding firsthand, what these meant to the people of this rather secluded kingdom who's the fourth King, conceived the philosophy of gross national happiness (GNH). GNH is based on the belief that happiness is the greatest indicator of human wealth. GNH is an alternative metric that prioritizes human, environmental and cultural welfare. It's the kind of vision necessary to foster sustainable development in a developing nation. However to truly understand GNH, we need to first ask ourselves what makes us happy. What makes us content?
In my interactions with the locals during my two weeks crisscrossing the country, I gathered that material wealth or comfort alone does not bring happiness. Disassociating yourself from it and being aware of the unpleasant realities of the world around you while accepting some discomfort, will make you happier over time. Giving up, letting go, pushing away will make you more blissful. Happiness can't be willed, you have to get into the right situation and then let it come to you. And that situation will not arise if we feel content in our material gain because we will only end up destroying nature, our social networks and relationships that support us during good times and bad. To the average Bhutanese, it seems happiness goes much deeper. It comes from living life in full harmony with nature, in mutually supportive communities, and preserving their cultural heritage.
GNH is not without its critics, some calling it utopian, conservative and incentivizing traditionalism. But many have also argued that the alternate we are all used to- GDP, was never developed to measure social well-being or progress. Free education, free healthcare, access to electricity(sourced from clean energy) even in the most remote locations, and the abundance of some of the cleanest air on the planet, the people of this region do enjoy a good quality of life. I was delighted hear that there's a massive push for organic farming while the government has pledged to preserve 60% of the country's land under forest cover. I also found Bhutan expensive on the pocket as tourism is tightly controlled to minimize environmental and socio-cultural impact. It's a society that's steeped in ancient customs and beliefs while modernizing at a rapid pace. You can feel how vulnerable the society is to the forces of market economy in the capital Thimpu. Elders fear the younger generation are moving into cities in search of better opportunities where there are none bringing with it the ills of modern society. The government for it's part is trying to develop the rural areas to stem the migration. This in a way could help maintain the balance between rural and urban centres and preserve natural resources.
So can our desire to live sustainably lead to true happiness? It depends on the choices we make both individually and as a society. According to many scholars, our modern economic growth based system is a key factor underlying the environmental and social problems we now face and has alienated us from our natural world. The Bhutanese have shown that in a finite world, we can be more responsible in our growth, one that is compatible with a healthy environment and a more equitable society with respect to all living beings. Sustainable happiness is possible even today without the greed for more and staying more connected to our planet. While Bhutan's biggest challenge is their ability to manage rising consumption, my hope is it's people do not get disillusioned by money, status and wealth. Because studies have shown that sustainable development practices can make us happier, one that is not limited to a temporary period.
On a personal note, the Himalayas left me feeling refreshed, more content and positive than I've been for long a time. I found my inspiration in the people that occupy these mountains. They're extremely resilient in what's undoubtedly one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Their resourcefulness and respect to their environment is admirable. It's about living simply, giving more while not forgetting to take a deep breath!
Category: Funding longer lives: Social contract, Food security: Farming, Climate/natural disasters: Pollution, Resilience, Sustainable energy