Global Wellbeing and GNH Lab

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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Amazon U-School on Global Well-being

Monday, January 28th, 2013 | Uncategorized | 7 Comments

I am writing this on my return trip from launching the Global Well-being and Gross National Happiness (GNH) Lab with a journey to urban favelas in Brazil and to communities in the Amazon rainforest region near Belem and Santarem.

It was fascinating to hear each Lab participant reflect on these community experiences from a different angle. Where some of us (mostly participants from North America and Europe) saw a real sense of community, others, mostly from the Global South (who often have experiences of much deeper community), saw a lack thereof. Where some of us (from the Global North) saw unacceptable poverty, others, particularly from the Asian Global South, saw quite advanced conditions of material livelihood. Where some of us (from the corporate sector) saw good sustainability and community partnership practices (like revenue-sharing), others, from the global civil society movement, saw just another capitalist trick to manipulate and disenfranchise marginalized communities. Where some of us, particularly North America–based grassroots activists, thought that the positive contribution of government equals zero, others, particularly from East Asia, Latin America, and Europe, saw the government in a much more mission-critical role.

In short: the Lab is a bit like a microcosm of our global community, a diverse group that spans all continents and sectors and many systems and ideologies. Listening to the conversations in the early part of the week I wondered: did these people really visit the same community I did? We talked as if we had had immersion experiences in very different worlds—and I guess, we did.

That being said, one thing that everyone was deeply impressed and moved by was the power of the social entrepreneurs that we have met in the favelas and communities. Amazing individuals that effect incredible changes under the most challenging conditions. It makes you feel really really humble. In many ways, what we intend to do with the Lab is to help to unleash the power of social entrepreneurship from often local or project bounded impact to transforming and shifting the whole system.

In the second part of the week we went to the Amazon rainforest area. We will never forget the last 3-4 days that we spent on a regional boat that we boarded in Santarem and that took us via the Amazon, Tapajos, and Arapiuns Rivers to the Atodi community. The boat had three levels. The first level was for food and eating. The next level had 35 hammocks hung in two dense rows that allowed us to sleep— the whole group in a single space (picture).


The third level was the Global Well-being University deck on which we conducted our discussions under the open sky (the picture below shows a Lab participant from SEWA, the Self-Employed Women’s Association in India, presenting the work they do with their 1.6 million members).

Sitting in the circle of our open-sky Global Well-being School made me really happy. It’s what I dreamed the could bring into being. (I first experienced a similar feeling in 1988 when I teamed up with a dozen of European students and faculty to take the trans-Siberian train from Budapest to Beijing, where we joined a World Future Studies Federation conference.)

On the second last day we took a six hour silent hike into the rainforest under the guidance of the Atodi community. The experience was beyond words. We felt embraced by nature’s essence in our whole being. It was a deeply regenerative experience. It reconnected me and us with our source. (picture: a rainforest tree shot from the roots upwards)

Coming back from the Amazon, our group was no longer the same as when we arrived. Each of us had changed. We feel more open on more levels, in more profound ways. We could feel the collective body of our heart to heart connections. As a group we also realized that GNH and the Global Well-being Indicators — beyond GDP — are just a very small aspect of the profound changes that are necessary today.

As I write these final lines, I am sitting in my office back in Boston and watching the snowflakes fall. I feel blessed by the wonderful things that I have always taken for granted: access to clean water; access to food and shelter; access to quality space; access to energy and transportation, access to community.

I also feel that a part of the Amazon and of the whole Global Wellbeing Lab community is still with me, in my heart. Quite amazing change makers from Bhutan, India, Brazil, China, Europe, Sri Lanka, North America. I know that something will grow out of these seeds that this past week were planted in our hearts. But at this point, no one can say what it will look like. So let me end with a nice shot of our Amazon boat at night…

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