Gross National Happiness

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I went to an incredibly inspiring conference last week. The conference was about ‘Happiness and What Makes a Good Life’ and featured many acclaimed speakers, psychologists, musicians and humanitarians. I was moved and motivated by just about everyone but the highlight for me was Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk and author of Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill.

Matthieu talked about cultivating altruism as a path to happiness. He explained how altruism and compassion are a win/win for happiness and wellbeing and how selfish happiness doesn’t work. In fact selfish happiness is really just another form of narcissism. He discussed research, which has shown that increased consumption leads to a reduction in one’s number of friends and one’s own happiness.

Matthieu focused on the idea of Gross National Happiness (GNH) and how currently many governments only focus on Gross Domestic Product (GDP). He talked about the three states for GNH, which include not only improved economical wealth but also improved social and environmental health. Unfortunately the latter two are seen as bad for the economy by many and therefore the focus remains on GDP while our other obligations as humans are left to the caring few who try passionately to ensure equality and support for those less fortunate as well as the future of our planet.

Given the timing of this message and the recent Australian budget I could not help but reflect on how poorly our, and many other countries, fare in the goal of social and environmental wealth. I wonder what good it does to purely focus on financial stability when people are left in poor health, bad housing situations and few opportunities for a good education. How can these people make a difference in the world if they are not provided with the opportunity to learn and grow and share their ideas?

Further, what good will this strong economy be if in fact our planet is dying around us. How can there be a future for anyone if we don’t take action to ensure the safety of all species, not just our own.

Most people I know have empathy for others who are less fortunate but Matthieu made an interesting comment based on his research, which shows that empathy without altruism leads to burnout. This suggests that just by feeling sorry for others, little will change and we will eventually stop caring so much. To me this just means that more of us need to do more to help. We need to put aside our individualistic attitudes and think about our connection to others and the world around us.

We all know how good it feels to help others and do the right thing and often we put our own needs aside to show care for those we love. Unfortunately though this may not be enough. We need to extend this altruism to the wider community and to future generations. I heard many of the conference speakers tell stories of what they, as individuals, had done to make a difference. People such as Jane Goodall and the amazing Anna Rose, these ladies made me realise that if they had been able to make such a difference through their own passion and hard work then imagine what amazing changes could be made if more of us took a stand and fought for what is socially and environmentally right.

So I’ve started thinking about ways in which my actions and choices can impact the future in a positive way. I’m going to be smarter in my purchasing decisions, I’m going to consider where my food comes from how it got to me and encourage others to do the same. I’m going to continue to focus on how I can help others and fight for those less fortunate. Whilst this latest budget does not bare a great impact on me I know it creates a greater imbalance in society and even though I don’t have my own children I’m going to ensure that my actions, the choices I make and the words that I use contribute to a better future for all.