Happiness & Innovation: Insights from Bhutan

October 15, 2018


With such significant stresses and pressures to outperform competitors, stay ahead of the innovation curve, deliver high quality and all-the-while be seen as an industry thought leader, it's no wonder that the long hours required to achieve this have seen many reassess their careers. In fact, a survey of 6,700 workers in the US found that 42% of them have "purposely switched jobs due to a stressful work environment". It’s this sort of high stress that, unfortunately, seems to negatively impact performance, despite intentions to do the opposite. In fact, in a survey of 6,000 workers, only 10% of people said they do their best thinking at work.
Our best, most innovative thinking is actually believed to occur in environments that are predictable, consistent, clear, and nonthreatening, giving us the space to feel happier. So, instead of creating stress by focusing on output, perhaps we need to start focusing on creating the right work environments that support greater happiness, lower stress, and better thinking. Supporting happiness, while a rather intangible idea to many, is not a new idea, so why reinvent the wheel when we can learn from others? To do that, I thought, what better place to dig in than Bhutan, the country that's traded Gross Domestic Product metrics for measurements of Gross National Happiness.
My Bhutanese journey to explore what it means to support happiness took me from monasteries to mountain tops (including some monasteries on mountain tops!), giving me opportunities to speak with farmers, monks and scholars. And while numerous adventures contributed to my learning, my reflections on the trip highlighted three main takeaways that helped me to reframe the way I think about fostering happiness.
1. Happiness doesn’t require letting go of the past
Bhutan’s 4th king declared the value of Gross National Happiness (GNH), over Gross Domestic Product, in 1972, but that hasn’t meant the country dropped everything to become the happiest nation on earth. In fact, most Bhutanese will admit that the initiative doesn’t make them anywhere near the happiest country, but instead, has put them on a path to focusing their efforts on improving their population’s overall happiness.


For the Bhutanese, this process has revolved around the four pillars of GNH: good governance, sustainable socio-economic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation. You might notice that these pillars have less to do with the new things Bhutan wants to add to its society and instead focus on the balance that the Bhutanese want to maintain between the new and old ways of doing things.

On the whole, I found the trend of mixing the new and old throughout Bhutan. The country was an odd blend between modern conveniences, like iPhones and central heating, and traditional culture, like the mandatory traditional dress for all working people and the mandatory traditional facades on new buildings.


 In much of western society, we often show some of the greatest respect for our inventors and entrepreneurs who constantly create new things and share new ideas… and while the Bhutanese certainly appreciate innovation (in fact, one of their main exports is hydro-power), they show strong admiration and respect for those who honour their traditions. For example, being admitted into a tertiary school to study traditional Bhutanese painting, wood carving or weaving is considered a great achievement and the degree requires a minimum of 6 years of study!


But the balance between new and old hasn’t been an easy one in recent years. Bhutan has recognised that since the introduction of new technologies like gadgets and social media, the challenge to maintain a balanced approach to happiness has gotten more difficult, but there’s been a promising trend among Bhutanese youth… while many study abroad for university, almost all of them return to their home country upon the completion of their degree. They bring home with them a renewed appreciation for the balance between new and old that Bhutan provides but also a passion to share the insights they have learned abroad.
Many scholars and leaders that I met while in Bhutan felt that while those that go aboard love the convenience and excitement that western countries thrive on, they also recognised the negatives that come with such fast-paced progress that has seen most western countries all too readily let go of their traditions.
So, maybe we could learn something from the Bhutanese approach to happiness by placing more of an emphasis on honouring our past by bringing it forward with us as we progress into the future.
2. Happiness cannot be achieved 24/7


While visiting a family farm in Paro Valley, Bhutan, I had the great fortune of meeting 89 year-old Karma Chime. During the visit, Karma Chime sat in her farmhouse kitchen, calmly deseeding thousands of chillies by hand with just a small wooden tool, similar to a chopstick. I learned that Karma Chime sits for hours each day scraping away at the chilies, not for any real personal gain, but so that her family can enjoy the traditional dishes that they love and share them with their friends and visitors.
Not dissimilar to many working professionals around the world, long days of hard work is a normal part of daily life in Bhutan, but what I found most fascinating was how the Bhutanese frame the less enjoyable, exhausting, and sometimes saddening, parts of their day in their mind. They live with an understanding that happiness is not a 24/7 thing, instead it requires balance… they recognise that you won’t know the value of happiness if you don’t experience unhappiness.
Through my experiences in Western Cultures, we often seem to dread negative experiences always seeking to be happier and more fulfilled. Our society tends to strive for improvements and innovations that alleviate hard work and struggle and replace them with convenience and prolonged enjoyment. And, hey, I’m not saying I’ve not partaken in all of this… not by a long shot! But what I learned by spending time with Karma Chime or watching the Bhutanese women and men tending to their farmland by hand, was that there’s more to the old adage “Hard work builds character” than we might think.


 Being uncomfortable, working hard, and sometimes being totally unhappy, is actually what lets us really enjoy the good times when they come… it’s all in how we frame it in our minds. Do we dwell on the things that make us unhappy, fixating on how delayed our train to work is (for the third straight day) or staying angry at that driver who cut us off a few kilometres back, or do we recognise these experience for what they are… the momentary negatives that make us really value the positives?
I’m not saying that all hard work is miserable, but typically, I’ve found that we think of hard work as the path that we must follow to reach the success and happiness we’re after. What I learned from the Bhutanese is that, as Buddha teaches, it is during the times when we’re not as happy that we can reflect on those moments in order to later appreciate all of the positive things we get to experience.
3. Kindness isn’t a transaction…but it is contagious
When was the last time you showed kindness to a stranger? Sometime it can feel like we get so focused on our own needs that it’s easy to miss opportunities to show simple gestures of kindness. Instead we often show kindness when we know there is an opportunity for us to gain something in return. Some of us may try to minimise our natural inclination towards kindness altogether, especially at work, in favour of a more transactional form of kindness… because kindness just for the sake of kindness can sometimes be considered weakness. My time in Bhutan helped remind me of the importance of authentic kindness, without strings, and the contagious effect it has on those around us.
I saw this kindness in several different places. First, as Bhutan is predominantly Buddhist, all sentient beings are treated well and respected, even the street dogs. There’s no homelessness and family and community are a vital part of life. When it comes to the animals, the belief is that every animal has the possibility of being a relative or friend reincarnated, so each should be fed and cared for accordingly.
The contagious kindness of the Bhutanese became most evident to me towards the end of my trip. We’d received such hospitable treatment from all of the locals, especially our guide, Tsering and our bus driver Tenzin.


 While Tsering was very outgoing and spoke fluent English, Tenzin was much more reserved. As we got to know the two men, we would invite both Tsering and Tenzin to sit with us at meals. Tsering happily joined but Tenzin seemed unsure at first. Feeling empowered by the kindness we were given each day from the Bhutanese, we continued to invite Tenzin to sit with us at meal times… after about a week of offering, Tenzin finally took us up on the offer and joined us for dinner. We loved learning about his wife and children, as well as his expertise in the national Bhutanese sport of archery. For the last few days of our trip, we enjoyed the opportunity to chat with Tenzin at meal times. On our final day, our guide, Tsering, took us for a hike while Tenzin stayed with the bus. We journeyed for an hour or so through the hills before we arrived at a small dwelling. Outside the house was Tenzin who invited us inside his home, that he’d built BY HAND for his family, to enjoy a cup of tea with him. Tsering, our guide, explained that Tenzin had so loved spending time with us and chatting over meals that he asked Tsering if it would be okay to take us on a short detour to his house so he could have us over for some tea.


 Kindness is contagious, and when we limit it by making it transactional, giving it only to gain something else, we limit our opportunities to share wonderful experiences with others. My short time in Bhutan reminded me that kindness is something to be shared just for the sake of sharing, because when you do, unexpected, wonderful connections take place.
While I would like to say that my time in Bhutan handed me perfectly formed nuggets of truth on how to foster happiness in our organisations, it didn’t. What I've really learned is that supporting happiness lies less in a top-down approach and more in a bottom-up one. Instead of seeking ways to make people happy, we need to ask questions like, how can we better understand what makes our people happy? or How can we open up communication channels to encourage our colleagues or employees to tell us what they want or need to feel happier? Once we move beyond the focus on what can I do to how can I listen, I think we'll be much better placed to support the happiness that leads to lower stress, greater creativity and better innovation in our organisations.


Annaliese McGavin


A spirit for adventure and a passion for science has brought Annaliese across oceans, and labs, to find a home at SIL. Approaching the completion of her Master's degree in Organisational Psychology, she brings experience across marketing, consulting, research and psychology. She is passionate about interpreting and applying technical concepts in ways that individuals and organisations can embrace in order to drive improvement through innovation.

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