Annalise Ritter is a student at UMass Amherst studying Community Sustainability and Art.

After 594 miles, Paula Francis and Linda Wheatley may not have had happy feet, but they certainly felt joy in their hearts. From August 25th to October 7th, 2012, the two women walked from Stowe, VT to Washington, D.C. in an effort to find out what makes Americans happy.

Disturbed by the detriment of human health and connection for the sake of economic growth, Francis and Wheatley looked at all the talk about Gross Domestic Product and realized that what we measure affects what we work towards—and that if we measure the right things, we will commit resources to achieving what really matters to us. In their presentation, they quoted Robert Kennedy, who said that GDP “measures everything in short, except that which makes life meaningful.”

Participants discuss the meaning of happiness

But what was it that really matters? Francis and Wheatley decided to get out and ask. They undertook a journey crossing seven states on foot, wearing T-shirts that stated “Serious About Happiness.” They asked people that they met what makes them truly happy. The responses reflected the women’s own theories: friends and relationships, giving to others, family, connection (through people, places, faith), meaningful work, nature, community vitality, good education and healthcare for all, good governance, fun, and other such unquantifiable values.

As they partook in the epitome of slow travel, the women experienced every day manifestations of these very values—strangers gave them food to eat, places to stay, and poured their hearts out about what was important to them. It was affirming, says Wheatley, because “sometimes I think that other people don’t think this way, but really they do.” Every day brought “surprises” of others’ generosity.

The walk also spoke to the power of getting out and sparking those conversations about what we really need in life. As Francis says, “it is in the doing that we create change.” By creating a peculiar disruption of people’s daily routines, the two women attracted curious passerby and drew them into the dialogue. And as one Summit attendee stated, the ideas were likely spread through each person they met along the walk.

Francis and Wheatley’s journey speaks of a slow approach to happiness. If what we really want in life is time with friends and family, connection, nature, and meaning, perhaps we are more likely to find it in the slow lane than the fast. As the women learned, “happiness is a choice,” and it is “a personal job” that involves conscious awareness, thinking, habits and attitude. This means that each of us can take our well being into our own hands by evaluating, in the spirit of slow living, what makes us truly happy and work to incorporate these things into our lives. For instance, rather than packing in the hours at work to make extra money for that new TV, we could use those hours to go on a family outing, cook more meals, explore a new trail, or read a fascinating book. We just might find that making room for happiness to visit us, we may not have to pursue it so desperately.

Wheatley and Francis believe that while approaching happiness begins with ourselves, we must expand the effort to our communities and country. They are part of a group called Gross National Happiness USA, which aims to shift our country’s bottom line from economic growth to providing health, autonomy and education for all. By redefining what matters, we will begin to act in ways that increase our happiness. And as Francis and Wheatley have found, this path begins with only a few steps.

 

Where did the concept of Gross National Happiness come from?

In the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan in the 1980s, king Jigme Singye Wangchuck recognized that financial gain is not an end but only a step toward the ultimate goal of contentment. He and his monarchy proposed that the central development plan for the country focus on increasing the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of individual citizens, rather than simply its Gross Domestic Product. This concept was introduced into Bhutan’s development model as Gross National Happiness, and includes four main requirements for well-being: economic growth and development, preservation and promotion of cultural heritage, preservation and sustainable use of the environment, and good governance. This framework was developed from the community level and upward, and serves as a broad vision statement to guide policy development.

Would Gross National Happiness actually work in the USA?

      Having studied abroad in Bhutan last summer, and hearing from some Bhutanese individuals on GNH, it is apparent that GNH is still a process and is constantly being revised. I talked to Paula, who has visited the country as well, about it and we agreed that its implementation would be highly place-specific. In Bhutan, GNH measurements rely mostly on qualitative data, for example from a questionnaire for citizens that asks people to rate certain aspects of their quality of life or their beliefs. A challenge is how to collect this information from Bhutan’s far-flung, mostly rural and often illiterate population—and even then, can these numerical entries really capture someone’s happiness? However, some scholars such as Alberto Rognoni (2004) have noted that Bhutan’s culture is much more comfortable with un-quantifiable, subjective aspects of life. Despite these drastic differences, though, Rognoni believes that GNH is worth pursuing in other cultures.

So what else is GNH USA doing to walk its talk and promote its goal? Here is what Wheatley and Francis told us:

-educating people on what the economy is and what it can be for all people

-influencing a new economy based on common values

-engaging people in conversation and decision making

-creating governing systems that focus on what people say matters most

-inspiring people to create their own happiness

If this or the Happiness Walk sounds like something you are interested in, visit www.GNHUSA.org to find out more. The ladies are planning a second Pursuit of Happiness Walk for later this summer, this time completing the path to the North from Stowe to Canada. Join them for all or part of the way—you are guaranteed a great workout and plenty of smiles.

To learn more about Bhutan and its Gross National Happiness, visit www.bhutanstudies.org/bt or www.grossnationalhappiness.com.

References:

www.gnhusa.org

Rognoni, Alberto. “Gross National Happiness or Gross National Product? A Social Analysis of Bhutan’s approach to development.” Dissertation, University of Birmingham, 2003/2004.