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When It Comes To Happiness, Community Is Key

The Gross National Happiness movement seeks to re-design systems with well-being in mind.

Nations often think about economic health in terms of the Gross Domestic Product. But a growing movement wants to look at something different: Gross National Happiness.

A group gathered in Burlington this past weekend to discuss how to measure and advance the goals of happiness.

The idea is simple. Everyone wants to be happy, right? So a country’s development should be measured by its citizen’s happiness as well as economic development.

At least that’s what the leader of the tiny Himalayan country of Bhutan decided in the 1970s. That’s when the Gross National Happiness Movement was born.

Over the years, people from around the world have traveled to Bhutan to learn more. Linda Wheatley is one of them. She describes one of the goals of the movement:

“For many of our systems to be re-designed so they consider and measure all of the conditions that contribute to well-being,” said Wheatley. “That’s the purpose of government. That’s the purpose of all of our organizations: to support our well-being.”

Wheatley is the co-founder of the Vermont-based group Gross National Happiness USA and an organizer of this conference.

She says a lot of research has been done on what factors contribute to happiness. The Bhutanese call them domains.

“Some examples of the domains are community vitality, good governance, economic sustainability, material well-being, psychological well-being, ecology and our relationship to the environment, education and health,” said Wheatley.

It might sound far-fetched. How can you map out something as subjective as happiness?

But some are trying. Two years ago, the Vermont Legislature established the Genuine Progress Indicator as another measure of well-being beyond the GDP.

"Vermont, I believe, also may be less bought into the material drivers for happiness. In Vermont we have a greater appreciation for our relationship to nature, for our smaller communities and the vitality of those communities." -Linda Wheatley, Gross National Happiness USA

In the state of Vermont’s case, it means potentially taking a more holistic approach to governing the state by considering the environmental and social impact of policy.

And there is a Vermont relationship to the happiness movement. In 2008, a conference like this was held in Bhutan. Of the 66 participants, six were Vermonters.

“Vermont, I believe, also may be less bought into the material drivers for happiness,” said Wheatley. “That in Vermont we have a greater appreciation for our relationship to nature, for our smaller communities and the vitality of those communities.”

There might also be practical applications of these ideals on a smaller scale, even outside Vermont.

Yvette Jarreau is with Eileen Fisher Inc., a national clothing retailer. She works on a staff development team. They’re attending the conference for ideas on how to influence organizational culture.

“We see happiness as a more dimensional kind of an idea than just a happy face,” said Jarreau. "So it’s more about meaning and purpose and satisfaction. Feeling like you’re part of something that’s larger than you. The culture in our organization is that sort of a culture.”

With almost 1,000 employees, Eileen Fisher Inc. is headquartered in the New York City metro area.

Jarreau says part of what helps the corporate culture are benefits like funds for wellness and education, organizational pride and making trainings available to staff.

But what about for individuals? Conference organizer Zelie Pollon points to one trend.

“The most important thing that comes up again and again is community,” said Pollon. “Being able to be with friends, being able to be in a social, strong network. When you’re having a bad day, having a community you can depend on.”

Annie Russell was VPR's Deputy News Director. She came to VPR from NPR's Weekends on All Things Considered and WNYC's On The Media. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School.
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