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It was a long hike, and rugged. The Himalayan altitude was almost as breathtaking as the scenery, which became more stunning with every switchback turn. I had arrived in Bhutan two days before on my second trip to the remote mountain kingdom. The first, twenty-four months earlier, was to attend a wildlife symposium. This time, I had come for a conference on happiness — and set aside five spare hours before my departure to attempt the steep ascent to Tiger’s Nest — a collection of temples on the top of the world…
Today is one of my favorite days of the year. I don’t think there are Hallmark cards for it yet, but we should all celebrate it — especially this year. Almost two decades ago, the United Nations passed a resolution, proposed by Bhutan, to mark March 20th as the “International Day of Happiness” and to recognize “happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.”
Bhutan created and championed celebrating this day based on its real-world experience using well-being as a goal of government policy. Many might think of something as fundamental as happiness as a “fluffy” or “first-world” concern with no place in policy discussions, or that it really doesn’t have anything to do with the environment or wildlife. But a growing mountain of evidence contradicts that view.
Nature, animals, and wildlife are fundamental to our happiness for one simple reason — they make us feel more human. Prioritizing government and corporate policies that protect nature – animals, plants, and the wild parts of our world – thus promote human happiness too. It is not the only thing we need to be happy – but it is one of the common denominators that crosses all boundaries political, geographic, and social.
We can learn a lot from Bhutan. Bhutan measures collaborative well-being to inform its leaders and citizens, and as a result, they have successfully contained the COVID virus and at the same time become the only carbon-negative country in the world. Think about that – the country of Bhutan takes in more carbon than it emits. Currently, 81% of Bhutan is forested and it has pledged to keep 60% of its land in forest cover, which enables the nation to absorb three times more carbon than its citizens give off.
How did they do it? Factors that allowed for both of these successes include promoting a sense of community, altruism and sacrifice shared by all; social capital and willingness to come together for the common good; trust between government and the people; and last, but not least, a decided emphasis on overall well-being, not just economic wealth.
Contrast Bhutan with other nations and the sad truth is that in most places, most people aren’t very happy right now. The one game-changer that has emerged globally from our time inside is that being outdoors and connected to nature makes people everywhere happy. Research shows that people experience greater well-being in nature and conversely experience deficit disorders when deprived of it. Personal feelings of well-being increase when people experience not just green spaces, but more biodiversity within those spaces.
But while many of these happiness-producing experiences with nature and wildlife are personal, protecting them requires the agreement of society. Indeed, here and around the world, there is growing recognition that while a country’s happiness is not unrelated to its prosperity, neither are the two in direct correlation.
The United States consistently generates the highest GDP per capita in the world. We can take pride in being the most productive but we don’t even make it into the ranks of the top ten happiest countries. Costa Rica achieves the greatest balance of happiness with the lowest ecological footprint according to the Happy Planet Index — a tool developed by the New Economics Foundation out of the UK. If we change our metrics to include value for conserving nature, we can ensure happiness and well-being for future generations before it is too late for the many animal and plant species facing extinction.
As Bhutan, Costa Rica, and other happy countries have realized, these concerns about extinction, loss of biodiversity, and the destruction of green spaces are not separate, they are inextricably linked. Positioning them as the centerpiece of the public policy, rather than as non-essential or in opposition to traditional notions of wealth, offers the best hope for extending and enhancing individual and societal well-being.
When we finally reached the peak, my guide and I stood shoulder to shoulder, silently surveying the vista – tiny, gilded temples neatly tucked into the crags of the cliffs before us – light touches of golden frosting adorning the jagged peaks. Their design seemed to proceed from nature, to extend and enhance it. As we began our slow descent, I reflected on the causes that twice brought me to Bhutan — protecting wildlife and promoting happiness.
The past year has been a long, difficult hike and filled with rugged peaks and valleys for each of us personally, for our communities, and our society. It has also brought each of us an opportunity to reflect on the importance and the ingredients of our own well-being.
As we celebrate this International Day of Happiness and look forward to better, brighter days ahead, let’s keep prioritizing happiness; our own, that of our friends, our families, and our fellow citizens. To extend and enhance it, let’s put happiness and well-being at the center of the policy process — let’s champion policy approaches that promote happiness for all — and let’s protect the natural world on which all our well-being depends.
OneNature protects wildlife and promotes human wellbeing through cutting-edge research, community empowerment projects, and engaging with strategic partners to ensure our system measures what really matters.
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