Diving into Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH)

Friday, May 3rd, 2013 | Uncategorized | 12 Comments

We just returned from a one-week deep dive in Bhutan, where we went to learn about the Bhutanese approach to Gross National Happiness (GNH). “We” were the participants in the Global Well-being & GNH Lab — an innovation collaborative that brings together change-makers working in government, business, and civil society from Bhutan, Brazil, China, India, Sri Lanka, the United States, and Europe. (The Lab is co-sponsored by PI, the GIZ Global Leadership Academy, and the GNH Center in Bhutan.) The deep dive in Bhutan was an eye-opening and awareness-expanding experience.
Here are a few observations.

Four levels of GNH

What is GNH and how does it work? Contrary to Western perceptions, GNH has nothing to do with the feel-good type of happiness. It is grounded in the Buddhist concept of compassion, of enhancing the happiness of all beings. Last week we heard the concept of GNH being used and referred to in at least four different ways:

1. As an index. The index is developed from 33 indicators that make the actual well-being of the population much more visible in the following nine domains:
o Psychological well-being
o Health
o Time use
o Education
o Cultural diversity and resilience
o Good governance
o Community vitality
o Ecological diversity and resilience
o Living standard

2. As a process and policy screening tool. All new policies and regulations in Bhutan are tested and reviewed for their impact on the well-being of people in the above nine domains;

3. As a development strategy. The country aspires to depart from the Western consumerism-based development models through an alternative economic paradigm that better balances the material, social, and the spiritual dimensions of well-being;

4. As a mindset of mindfulness. Mindfulness cultivates a positive attitude toward the world and the ability to become aware of oneself.

Western alternative indicators for measuring economic progress, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), often lack the teeth to influence actual policymaking. But the Bhutanese approach to GNH is full of very tangible effects on a policy level. A few examples: Bhutanese citizens enjoy free education and free healthcare services and a literacy rate close to 100%; 80% of the country is covered by forest, 50% of which is protected; Bhutan bans advertising in public places; it has implemented policies for achieving 100% organic farming by 2020; it limits the import of cars and helicopters; it puts a very high priority on the well-being of animals; and, for GNH considerations, it did not join the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Not everyone will agree with these GNH-informed choices. But no one can say that GNH is just about feeling good. In fact, the opposite tends to be true. GNH has had much more influence on real policy choices than any other alternative economic progress indicator to date.

The power of leadership

How is it possible that a tiny and poor country like Bhutan can be so much more innovative in creating alternatives to GDP than all the other much more resource-rich countries of the world combined? Because of leadership. GNH in Bhutan is not, like in the West, a bottom-up movement. It’s the result of enlightened top-down leadership. Jigmi Y. Thinley, the Prime Minister, explains why he sees alternatives where other world leaders tend to see none.
“The GDP led development model that compels boundless growth on a planet with limited resources no longer makes economic sense. It is the cause of our irresponsible, immoral, and self-destructive actions. Irresponsible, because we extract, produce, consume, and waste ever more, even as natural resources are rapidly depleting. Immoral and unethical because [we have] consumed far beyond our share of natural wealth… Self destructive, because, aided by technology, we are bringing about the collapse of our ecological life support systems. Having far outlived its usefulness, our fundamentally flawed economic arrangement has itself become the cause of all problems. Within its framework, there lies no solution to the economic, ecological, social, and security crises that plague the world today and threaten to consume humanity.” (UN Head Quarters, New York, 2nd April, 2012)

When was the last time you heard a Prime Minister (or any politician) being so outspoken and clear?

The power of entrepreneurship

GNH in Bhutan originated from the top. But it is also starting to grow bottom-up. We visited some of these social mission driven enterprises during the week. One of these learning journeys took us to the startup company Greener Way, an organization that has managed to change the face of the country in the area of recycling and waste management.
IMG_0860The idea for this company was planted a few years back in a student dorm, over a bottle of wine and some very inspired conversations among fellow students. Then, a small core group of them committed themselves to creating Bhutan’s first recycling firm. Over the years, with lots of support from family, friends, agencies, and donors, as well as waste generators, the group succeeded in creating Bhutan’s first waste management and recycling firm in the capital city of Bhutan, Thimphu. For more detail Picture: Karma Yonten, CEO (and Lab participant), Greener Way

The power of place

From the moment you arrive in Bhutan, located in the Himalayas between China and India, you can sense that it is a special place. You feel the presence of humanity in a more profound way than you do in other places. It’s as if Bhutan was a little island that globalization and Western materialism has not yet penetrated. Going to a place like this can make us question our lives on a deeper level. Who are we as human beings? What is our role and purpose? What kind of progress do we want to create? What kind of planet do we want to leave behind?
We reflected on these questions when we took a day in order to hike to Tiger’s Nest, one of the most sacred places in Bhutan (picture). On the way back, each of us took a couple of hours of solo time, in order to listen to our own emerging thoughts about those deeper questions. What is it that we are called to do now?

Prototyping to explore the future by doing

On our final two days in Bhutan we formed prototyping teams to explore the future by doing. The teams we created include a GNH Business Lab, a team to implement and scale a GPI indicator system across individual states in the U. S., a team that focuses on wellbeing and the informal economy in India, and a team that focuses on co-creating a web of Transformation Hubs in several parts of the world.


In the GNH Business Lab, for example, we developed an intention of reframing business in terms of being part of a larger social movement that then gives rise to new forms of eco-system wide wellbeing and related business opportunities. Our team includes entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, and senior business and government leaders from Bhutan, Brazil, and the United States. In the following six months we will prototype and scale a co-creative eco-system engagement strategy that will be tested in Bhutan, Brazil, and the United States. More to come…

SEWA: Self-Employed Women’s Association

Another of the prototyping initiatives asks the question, What development does India need to maximize the well-being of its people? It involves SEWA, Oxfam, and some company partners and focuses on linking micro, meso, and macro perspectives in order to empower young people in the informal sector as part of a broader discussion of the kinds of development India needs to maximize the well-being of all of its people.

On the trip home, some of us visited SEWA and its core leadership team in Ahmedabad. It was a very moving experience. Founded 40 years ago, SEWA today is one of the most significant and highest-impact NGOs on the planet. Its 1.7 million members all come from the informal economy. The informal economy in India is not exactly small — it represents 93% of the workforce in India. In spite of its significance for well-being in India, the informal economy remains largely invisible.

We were impressed during the SEWA visit with the positive approach to the future and to each other that the circles of SEWA leadership displayed (picture).
Despite daunting challenges, the collective will and spirit of change seemed more powerful than in most other places we have been to before. The prototype with SEWA and Oxfam will focus on reinventing SEWA’s approach in order to make it more relevant to the aspirations and needs of the next generation of women leaders in India’s informal economy. As one of them said in our conversations: “We aspire to create a different type of company. Not the old-style business corporation. But another one that is more cooperative, more creative, and more shared. We don’t want to replicate the old model. We want to create something new.”

Back home in Boston, I feel inspired and humbled by these connections and initiatives from around the world that aim at the very same thing: to shift the economy from ego (me) to eco (wellbeing of all). Its a movement in the making. Its a global field of inspired connections that grows, widens, and deepens every single day. Where and when do you feel connected to that movement? What initiatives do you see and what seed ideas do you carry that may be relevant here?

(see also next blog entry: opening remarks in bhutan, GLobal Wellbeing and GNH Lab)

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Gross National Happiness (GNH) Lab 2013: Seeding the Future

Friday, December 21st, 2012 | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

The last weeks have been amazing. The most intense workload and energy field I have ever experienced feel as if they are finally coming full circle and now moving to the next higher level, spiraling up. Here are a few highlights:

–In Beijing we completed a six-month U-based leadership journey with senior leaders from the Chinese government. It was an amazing experience that began when the group joined us here at MIT for ten days [in June, 2012]. After that I conducted three more modules with them in China, which were nothing short of amazing. When the group reflected on its own process, it took three or so hours to complete the sharing just on personal learnings. The participants felt a shift in mindset from head to heart. They also talked about a shift in relationships. And about a shift in how they approach their work. After just a few months, they also created some pretty amazing prototypes, including one on energy efficiency and one on the rapidly growing elderly population. What struck us was that in all these prototypes you could witness a shift of mindset in how they approached the issue: from “government knows the problem and delivers what it believes to be the solution” to “government holding the space for co-sensing across stakeholders and empowering them to co-create what they most care about.”

–In Denmark we continued our work with the health leadership team of a whole region (including the leadership teams of five different hospitals; see earlier blog entry). The prototypes this group managed to create in just two months were stunningly successful. We did a new Social Presencing Theatre practice on “current reality” (Sculpture 1) and the “emerging future” (Sculpture 2). They enacted the transformation from Sculpture 1 to 2, from the old to the new system, as a transformation from an institution-centric system that is organized around a fixed set of fragmented institutions (Sculpture 1) to a relationship-centric system of direct connections across institutional boundaries (Sculpture 2).

The new system was organized in two overlapping spheres. One revolved around the patient (for a seamless patient journey across institutions). The other one revolved around the citizens (the healthy people who pay for the whole show) and the communities—which is of course where health and sickness originate. In Sculpture 2 the management team of the hospital had to leave their old top-dog position in order to (a) hold the entire space of cross-institutional relationships and (b) reach out to connect directly to the sphere of citizens and communities. So interesting!

–In Austria I co-facilitated a workshop with the Minister of Education on her project to renew the Austrian educational system. She and her team have made amazing progress in just a few years! The meeting comprised school innovators, principals, and state and federal officials. Reflecting on what is dying and what is wanting to be born, here is what one of them said: “We are tinkering with all these reforms, with all these innovation initiatives, we are renewing the “house” of education with another window here or another door there — but frankly, what we need most is a radically different FOUNDATION for the entire house!” I loved that. Isn’t that so true?

–In Brazil we delivered the Presencing Institute’s Four Day Foundation Program for the first time. Wonderful experience! Also a very interesting meeting with the Minister and Deputy Minister of Environment and with folks from Natura who are founding partners in launching the Global Well-being and GNH Lab in January 2013.

–The Global Well-being and GNH Lab is a joint initiative by the Presencing Institute with the Global Leadership Academy of GIZ (German Ministry of Development Cooperation). With the Prime Minister of Bhutan as patron, this initiative brings together leading change-makers from Bhutan, Brazil, India, China, Europe, and the U.S. The organizing question for the Lab is, How can we shift the center of gravity of the economic system from material growth to real well-being, from transactional and manipulative relationships to transformative and co-creative relationships? Deep immersion learning journeys (in Brazil and Bhutan) lead to dreaming up and prototyping practical ways of implementing new measures of economic progress (“beyond GDP, beyond material growth”). The outcome of the Lab will be a web of multi-local prototyping initiatives that will span and replicate across cultures.

–The most important thing happened yesterday, however. We submitted to our publisher the manuscript for our book Leading from the Emerging Future: From Ego-System to Eco-System Economies. Finally! A small step for mankind, but a BIG step for us…

This IS a moment of real endings and beginnings. The door to the future seems wide open. Let’s plant our seeds of the future in this moment by contemplating the real intentions we have for the next few decades ahead. Now. And for the next two weeks. And then let’s go out and make it happen!

What intentions or seeds of the future have clarified for you or have drawn your attention? I will live with that question for the next week or two and share what emerges in the next entry. Feel free to start the sharing in the comment section below…


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