#17 sharing
Tho Ha Vinh

“Happiness Is a Skill”

Tho Ha Vinh, Program Director of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Centre, explains why happiness is a more important indicator than economic growth.

Religion plays an integral role in all societies and is the most important source of values for many people. Any development policy that takes the individual seriously must also take his or her world view seriously. For most people, this world view is fundamentally shaped by their religion. Therefore the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development organised the international conference “Partners for Change. Religions and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development” that will take place on 17 and 18 February 2016 in Berlin. DDD has talked with one of the participants Tho Ha Vinh, Program Director of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Centre (GNH), on happiness as an alternative approach to wellbeing. Read a preview of DDD’s upcoming issue #17 that will treat the topic of “sharing”.

You can follow the conference on twitter and share your thoughts with the hashtag #religion4development.

Bhutan's upbeat refusal to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) came as quite a surprise. The unconventional decision was based on a screening carried out by the country's Gross National Happiness Commission. Instead of considering just economic growth, Bhutan focuses on how to achieve more happiness for its citizens. This alternative approach to well-being has inspired a number of post-colonial debates all around the globe. Tho Ha Vinh gave DDD an interview in which he explained how happiness and social well-being can be integrated into the political, social and economic spheres. Along with its social implications, Ha Vinh argues that happiness is an individual skill that can be learned.

DDD: First things first: How would you define happiness?

…we are speaking about something more fundamental that arises from our feeling of connectedness and sense of the meaningfulness of our lives…

Tho Ha Vinh: In the context of Gross National Happiness, happiness must be distinguished from the superficial kind of good feeling it is often associated with. Happiness is more our ability to be deeply connected with others, to be connected with our environments and nature, but also with ourselves. So happiness is less concerned with moods because moods simply shift over the course of a day. When it comes to happiness, we are speaking about something more fundamental that arises from our feeling of connectedness and sense of the meaningfulness of our lives, which is deeper than just changing superficial moods.

DDD: What is the Gross National Happiness Centre currently working on?

The idea is that happiness is a skill and can therefore be learned.

I have been with the Gross National Happiness Centre for about four years now, and we have been working on developing programs to help people understand the general framework of Gross National Happiness. We also organise learning journeys and sensing journeys to help them experience it. One of the programs is the “Global Happiness and Well-Being Lab: Innovating Beyond GDP”, which we developed in collaboration with the GIZ's Global Leadership Academy. As part of this program, we bring together leaders from governments, the business sector and civil society to reflect on new measurements to broaden the perspective of development beyond just the GDP model.
Another field of work is implementing the ideas of Gross National Happiness in education – from kindergarten to university. The idea is that happiness is a skill and can therefore be learned. Our work is based on the latest scientific research, especially from neuroscience, which has come up with very interesting evidence on how certain factors contribute to well-being. Mindfulness, compassion, gratitude and altruism for instance, are qualities that contribute to happiness and well-being.

In Vietnam I just recently conducted a program for about 40 university professors in Ho Chi Minh City who want to implement a program called “Seeds of Happiness” at their university. It is a yearlong training seminar in which we work in all kinds of fields from business to education and public policy. The approach of happiness is transdisciplinary or interdisciplinary, so you have to bring together quite a few elements. We have also been working with companies in Thailand, North America and Brazil.

DDD: It seems as if these types of concepts originating from the South have started to gain attention globally. The entire debate around the SDGs has shown that ideas of happiness and the Latin American concept of buen vivir (living well) are gaining ground and challenging the paradigm of economic growth. Citizens of the global North are coming to understand that the processes in the North also need to change and adapt. Since you travel to various countries, do you feel the reception and perception of your ideas have changed?

…the field known as Happiness Research has become a quite developed scientific field…

Tho Ha Vinh: I think the situation has changed dramatically. About ten years ago, happiness was not really considered a serious topic. This has changed due to various factors: One is that the many crises we are facing have drawn attention to the fact that the current system is reaching a limit. This awareness exists in both the North and South. A second aspect is that the field known as Happiness Research has become a quite developed scientific field instead of just a vague discourse on what to do to feel good. Quite a few scholars are looking at it from different perspectives, such as Tanja Singer in Germany, the Oxford Centre for Mindfulness, and the mindfulness and happiness research going on at Harvard and Stanford.

For 150 years, every new idea came from the West, but they also brought a lot of suffering.

In the international community, I think this shift was partly due to Bhutan bringing the notion of happiness and well-being into the United Nations in 2011. Awareness has risen, but the reasons for this differ between the North and the South. In the North, I guess, one of the reasons is that in rich countries, people are becoming increasingly aware of the limits of material wealth as a contributor to their happiness. Added to this is the fact that economic growth is limited in the North anyway – there is a fear of losing what one already has. When I come to the North, I often encounter a rather gloomy feeling despite the Northern wealth. In the South, after the war ended in Vietnam for example, there was tremendous economic development. After the war, people managed to rebuild the country at a very great speed. But the generation that is coming into adulthood now also realizes the costs that come with growth for the environment, the social fabric, culture and quality of life. Life in cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh is very stressful. The fact that the notion of Gross National Happiness comes from an Asian country and has its roots in Asian culture makes it very attractive to people in Vietnam, Thailand and other Asian countries. For 150 years, every new idea came from the West, but they also brought a lot of suffering.

DDD: The whole concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) might be new to our readers. Summing up the research from recent years, what are the most important elements for the happiness of people?

Well, from a Gross National Happiness point of view, you have two fundamental factors: One is a social factor, which is how do we create a conducive environment in which people can thrive and develop. The other is an inner factor that deals with the question of how we can create inner conditions for happiness and well-being by training what we call happiness skills. Regarding the social factor, the four pillars of GNH are good governance, sustainable and equitable social and economic development, the preservation and resilience of the natural environment, and the resilience of culture. With these as the given exterior factors, the idea is that development should serve the well-being and happiness of the people and all forms of life, which is a very Buddhist idea. The other part is the inner dimension in which we consider happiness a skill that can be learned. Following traditional, Buddhist wisdom, the idea is that the mind can be trained, that the emotions can be trained, that one can work on oneself. This is also supported by recent findings in neuroscience, like I mentioned.

DDD: We have seen that societies are becoming more interconnected. Cooperation increases at a certain point, but competition increases at the same time as well. How is competition linked to happiness and cooperation?

I don’t think that there is an absolute polarity between competition and cooperation.

Well, I would definitely say that Gross National Happiness tries to promote an economy that is based more on cooperation and solidarity. That being said, I don’t think that there is an absolute polarity between competition and cooperation. Let's take the example of sports: Obviously competition is an important part of the motivation that helps people achieve higher goals or better performance. The issue is really how far do you take the competition? We have seen it in the current economy, where competition has become so much like a cut-throat struggle that excludes all forms of cooperation and leads to massive abuse in the same way that you see in sports when it comes to doping and illegal substance abuse. Think of the Volkswagen scandal: The competition is so fierce that people are willing to cross the line and do unethical things just to be number one in the world. I think the competition part has been so over-emphasized in our society and especially in our economy – I think we need to inject a good dose of collaboration, solidarity and cooperation. There is really not much scientific evidence to back up the idea that competition is the only driver of success. It is more of an ideology than an evidence-based notion.

DDD: While we are on the topic, one thing people know about Bhutan is that it refused to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Is this debate connected to the whole idea of decreasing competition? What was the debate inside Bhutan about whether or not to join the WTO like?

Every major decision in Bhutan is screened using a Gross National Happiness screening tool that actually considers not only the four main pillars, but nine domains, which include psychological well-being, time use, community vitality, education and health. When Bhutan first considered joining the WTO, the Ministry of Finance and Economy proposed membership and pushed for Bhutan to join because they thought it would have a positive impact on the economy. In the first round of discussions, the cabinet got together and about 18 of the 24 cabinet members voted for it with 6 against it. Then the WTO proposal went through the screening process, and it became very clear that while it would have a positive, economic impact, it would have negative impacts on other domains such as psychological well-being, time use, community vitality, culture and so on. Once the result was shown to the cabinet, the proportion of votes reversed – about 18 members voted against it and about 6 in favour of it. This is why Bhutan did not join the WTO. The idea here is that when making a political decision, you need to look at it from more than just the economic perspective. You need a broad screening of what the consequences of this decision would be for the whole of society.

DDD: What was the international reaction to that decision? Was Bhutan criticized or maybe pressured?

So other countries were really surprised that everybody wants to join and then along comes this little, funny kingdom that says, “no thanks!”

I think the West was mostly surprised because most other countries were sort of begging to become members of the WTO. I remember being in Vietnam when it became a member and they almost went on their knees, promising to do whatever congress wanted them to do in order to join the WTO. So other countries were really surprised that everybody wants to join and then along comes this little, funny kingdom that says, “no thanks!”

DDD: Let's talk some more about education and happiness as a skill: What does an educational program to train happiness look like?

Well, one part is that we need to be aware of the fact that most educational systems worldwide focus on a very narrow part of a child's development, which is intellectual development. I would say 90 percent of the effort of most schools and universities is about intellectual development. But as human beings, we are not just intellects. There are also emotions and social relations. We know from both research and our own experience that our emotional skills and our social skills play a huge role in our experience of well-being, of ill-being or suffering. So a lot of what we try to promote in GNH and education is how to take a more holistic approach to education that focuses on academic and intellectual skills, but also on social and emotional skills and the training of the mind. This is usually called mindfulness today, this ability to direct one’s attention intentionally or freely.

DDD: One might counter by arguing that this also opens a space for religion or ideology…

It is just what we have to deal with as human beings: How do we deal with our emotions, especially with our disturbing emotions?

Even in Bhutan schools are secular. There are monastic schools, which are Buddhist schools to train monks, and then there are public schools, which are secular. Although the majority of people are Buddhists, not everybody in Bhutan is a Buddhist. So the GNH programs are secular, non-religious programs. After all, when we speak of socio-emotional skills, we are speaking of aspects of human beings that are not connected to one specific religion and are much more universally human. Emotions are not something that belongs to a certain religion, and social relationships are not connected with a specific religion either. It is just what we have to deal with as human beings: How do we deal with our emotions, especially with our disturbing emotions? How do we deal with human relationships? And how do we create meaningful and good relationships? I don’t think that you need to have the religious dimension. It is more of a secular ethics and a secular approach to a more holistic understanding of the human being. Of course, in Bhutan it does have Buddhist roots, as it is a Buddhist country. But the way it is taught in class is different from the way lessons on Buddhism are taught. It is a different kind of setting altogether.

DDD: Is it possible to share happiness? Is it a common good that increases by sharing?

Well, I think that is pretty obvious. When you share material goods, then each one of us has less. If you have a cake, the more people who get a slice of the cake, the smaller each slice is. I think that is obvious. But the emotional side is completely different. For instance, if you are in a good mood, if you are feeling joyous and friendly and you share this kind of good mood with your friends, then it also has an infectious character. I mean, we know that moods are contagious. This is also a scientific finding. If somebody is really gloomy and depressed, it can spread in the family or at the office or wherever, and if people are in a positive mood or are joyous and friendly and so on, it also has a contagious effect. So obviously if positive emotions are shared, they do not diminish; they increase.

Interview by Frederik Caselitz.

Photo: “Superkilen, Copenhagen, Denmark - Color street photography” by Giuseppe Milo
2015 - licenced under Creative Commons Attribution (2.0)

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