If You’re Happy and You Know It

Imagine a place where your personal wealth isn’t measured by the money in your bank account but by the smile on your face. Imagine a place where material things and economic status don’t make you rich, but rather your experiences and the relationships that you form with others are the measures of your wealth. During the holiday season, we can often get caught up in our material belongings and our own personal lives. What if the government switched from measuring Gross Domestic Product to Gross National Happiness and the purpose of every decision that the government made—and what we strived for—was to increase each other’s happiness? Under King Jigme Singye Wangchuc, the small Himalayan country of Bhutan adopted the measurement of GNH in 1972 and has been working toward the good of its people ever since. So what can the Bhutanese youth and Harvard students trained in leadership learn from each other?

Even though Bhutan has one of the lowest household incomes in the world, the country strives to increase national wellbeing by taking into consideration things like time spent with family, the conservation of natural resources (it is required that at least 60 percent of its forests remain intact), and other non-monetary factors that influence the standard of living. Although Bhutan had no public school system until 1960, it now cycles teachers through cities and rural areas, so all students have equal access to the best education. As one of its initiatives, the Bhutan Ministry of Education contacted the Harvard Leadership Institute’s Social Outreach Committee in 2008 to plan and implement leadership curriculum in Bhutanese schools. The Ministry wants its students to develop the confidence and tools to take ownership for what happens in their country in the present and in the future. The Leadership Institute, under the guidance of Lectuere on Sociology David Ager, has been working on the framework for leadership programs in the context of GNH and Bhutanese culture. This J-term, they will travel to the small Buddhist country to lay the groundwork for a lasting relationship between the Leadership Institute and the Bhutanese education system.

A team of six social outreach committee members will travel to Bhutan on Jan. 6 for two weeks. During the first week, they will be exploring and taking a crash course in Bhutanese culture and tradition, and during the second week, they will meet with twenty teachers to share and teach their leadership pilot program to a selected fifty students from different schools. While the Harvard students have to pay for their airfare, the government is so eager to have them participate in this cultural exchange that it is providing their living arrangements and food expenses during the trip. The Harvard students know that in order to be good leaders, they have some learning to do as well.

“On the one hand, you have six Harvard students trying to convey the essentials of leadership and social change over an intense five-day period to a Bhutanese audience,” Ujunwa Anakwenze '13 concedes. “ On the other, you have a hand-picked group of 50 motivated Bhutanese teenagers and 20 teachers challenging us to think on our feet as we struggle to piece together the inner workings of their culture.”

Fellow team member Akansha Tarun '13 agrees that the experience will be “both humbling and exciting at the same time."

The students realize that two weeks isn’t enough time to implement a curriculum to its fullest, so this is just the first of hopefully many trips to Bhutan to work with their youth on leadership skills. The Social Outreach team expects this trip to give them a better lens through which to restructure their curriculum as well as provide valuable insight into how the government and the people use the resources available to make the most of what they have.

While Bhutan’s system of GNH certainly isn’t perfect, the idea of striving for happiness rather than material satisfaction is a noble one. As our holiday wish lists get longer, and as our parents groan about the state of the economy, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to adopt a bit of the Bhutanese mentality. We can do this by working toward achieving our greatest individual happiness by helping others achieve theirs, or by appreciating how lucky we are to be surrounded by inspiring peers and professors. As per my favorite Sheryl Crow song “Soak Up the Sun,” “it’s not having what you want, it’s wanting what you got."

Meredith C. Baker ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Currier House.