There are often implausibly simple solutions to the implausibly convoluted problems that unsettle us, according to the director of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Centre, Dr Saamdu Chetri.
“It is a choice to be happy or to be sad in any given situation,” said Chetri, who spoke at the Conscious Club in Sydney on Wednesday night following other talks around Australia.
“People often ask me ‘if my friend is dying in the hospital bed, how can I be happy?’ And I tell them happiness is not to giggle, not to laugh, not to crack jokes. Happiness is to remain with yourself, connecting your mind, your body and your thoughts together, calming down. When you are calm you are able to send prayers to your friend who is dying in the hospital bed and you’re still living with that happy state of mind. If you live in the present moment, whatever situation comes to you you learn to live very calmly and connected to yourself.”
Living in connection to yourself is also simple, he believes.
“When you are depressed or anxious and you go to the ocean or to a forest you very quickly calm down because the organisms within you connect with the organisms that are out there,” Chetri said.
“We change nature according to our likes and dislikes but we are part of nature. Two thirds of our body is water. All of nature exists in us. If we are not there, nature does not die but if nature dies, we all die.
“When we destroy our nature, there is no connection and we live very separate so it pains you. When two elements are joined and you try to cut that you will feel that pain – a lessness, an emptiness in yourself.”
Chetri continues saying that our disconnection from nature – our disconnection with a part of ourselves – is to blame for more than the spiritual or emotional problems we face.
“It is the same when we eat junk food that’s been made chemically or we wear chemically produced things, what happens is our system tries to orient to those things and of course they are not part of nature and nature retaliates with new diseases, mostly from our living habits and eating habits and this is mostly because we are detached from nature,” Chetri said.
While nature – and what comes from nature – certainly has healing powers, it would be easy to dismiss Chetri as being overly-simplistic or not really understanding suffering.
“I have never had a challenge to be unhappy or sad,” he revealed, recalling when his father died everybody around him was crying.
“I didn’t understand why they were crying because he’s not dead according to [my philosophy] – his body is old and he has left and his soul is still alive,” said Chetri, who has seven brothers and four sisters. “His genes are in me, my brother and sister so he is still living. Not feeling that pain … I had to pretend to cry.”
But Chetri has endured more hardship than he lets on.
He was born in a cowshed and attended school between the ages of 9 and 14 before he left to help his parent so on their farm, rising at 4am each day to walk a kilometre to fetch water before working all day.
At the age of 15, he was forced into marriage, a situation that left him feeling ‘dead’. “I wanted to jump into the well and die,” he told the BBC in 2015.
Years later, battling mental illness, his wife disappeared, leaving him to raise their two children alone.
In spite of his suffering, he managed to return to school and worked his way up, attending to Bhutan’s Royal family. Back in the 1970s, the king of Bhutan announced that the happiness of the population was a truer measure of growth than Gross Domestic Product and the concept of Gross National Happiness was conceived.
In 2013, Chetri was chosen to head the Gross National Happiness centre, no insignificant task considering the Bhutanese face high levels of poverty (the average annual income is US$2380) and rising rates of mental health issues.
A study Chetri and his colleagues released in 2015, found that 91.2 per cent of Bhutanese were “narrowly, extensively, or deeply happy”.
“The aim is for all Bhutanese to be extensively or deeply happy,” the report read. “Bhutan is closer to achieving that aim in 2015 than it was in 2010.”
Chetri explains that Gross National Happiness is more about creating the “conditions” that promote happiness rather than “fleeting, momentary feel-good moods” or a more subjective kind of individual happiness.
But, there are similar factors that help to create both individual happiness and happiness on a broader level in the community.
“People feel empty in their hearts so they are looking for something but they don’t understand that to to feel the heart is to serve others, live in harmony with others and realise your human values and wisdom. They feel empty and feel something is missing in their lives,” he said.
“The definition of happiness simply says serve others, including nature and live in harmony with nature, realise your human values and wisdom. When we talk about the human values we talk about love as the foundation of a house of happiness. There are four pillars that hold the roof. Those four pillars are RICH – relationships, integrated/truthfulness, compassion, humanity on top is a roof of trust.”
A hugging meditation for a dose of happiness
“There are four chemicals in our body that arise when we are happy. it is really a does of happiness – dopamine [loving-kindness], the second one is oxytocin [the cuddling hormone], serotonin [you are sharing with the person you are hugging] and endorphins – you need to do exercise for endorphins – exercise and sweat for at least 30 minutes,” Chetri said. “In other words, if you just do the hugging meditation you get three of the four chemicals that are required for being happy.”
How it works: “You touch your left to left heart, chin over each others shoulder and then you breath together three times third time you squeeze for a few seconds. While breathing you say [in your head] ‘I love you, I send you energy, I wish you all the best, I’m grateful to you, I know you have a good nature, I respect your nature’ – things like that. So you are sending loving-kindness and you are also being grateful.”