Happiness Matters: Tshering Tobgay at TEDxThimphu (Transcript)

Tshering Tobgay

Tshering Tobgay – TEDxThimphu TRANSCRIPT

TED is about ideas. It’s about smart ideas. TED is about smart people sharing smart ideas with other smart people.

I have a smart idea. It’s happiness. But I’ve stolen that smart idea, so, in a way, it makes me smart.

That idea is also very common. How common? I did a search online, and not on Google. I did a specific search on ted.com, and a lot of talks came up on “happiness.”

Here is a sampling; this is just a sampling. Dan Gilbert. He asks, “Why are we happy?” And then he goes on to say that we human beings can “synthesize” happiness; we can “manufacture” happiness. If we don’t get what we want, we can convince ourselves that that is actually good for us.

Nancy Etcoff. She tells us about the science of happiness. Who you see there is our friend Sigmund Freud, who said that happiness is not in our fate, that the pursuit of happiness is doomed. Look at him!

This is the real Nancy Etcoff. She really believes that we can train ourselves to be happy, and she really looks happy, indeed.

Now, my search for happiness on ted.com ultimately took me to spirituality and to Buddhism. Matthieu Ricard is somebody who comes to Bhutan quite often, and he says we can train our minds to develop good habits, habits that lead us to happiness.

Chip Conley talks of measuring happiness and measuring what really counts in life. And what he talks about is what he learned about measuring what really counts in life, from two people.

One is a Vietnamese refugee who took on an American name called Vivian, and Vivian worked as a housekeeper for one of his old hotels that he owned.

And the other person he learned from is His Majesty, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth king of Bhutan. He’s been to Bhutan, so he talks about Gross National Happiness.

And then, to TEDx in Canada – Silver Cameron. He talks of Gross National Happiness in Canada. He’s visited Bhutan, some time last year. He attended a GNH Conference, so he knew everything about GNH, and he talked about GNH.

He talked about the four pillars of GNH, nine domains of happiness, and 72 indicators to measure happiness. This is what he talks about, and we’ll stay with GHN.

Now in Bhutan, we have GNH for everything! Democracy, media, education, farming, and most recently, ICT. Just last week, we had an ICT Conference for GNH. There is so much GNH going on in Bhutan that we are convinced that we are happy. Really, really convinced.

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Happiness is a place. That place is Bhutan. Somehow, happiness seems to be hardwired in us. Or perhaps it’s the air, the thin air in the high mountains. But happiness is a place, and that place is Bhutan.

In 2009, a production crew came from Brazil to Bhutan to discover that place, and they wanted to interview me, and I was very happy to be interviewed.

The anchor lady, the one who was actually doing the interviewing, was a very attractive Brazilian lady. She wore a very disappointed look. She said, “What’s this? We came into the airport, and the first thing we see in this very beautiful airport are people, Bhutanese, lugging around large … television sets. Where is GNH?” she says. She’s very disappointed.

So I said, “What did you expect? Shangri-La? Did you expect that Bhutan is one big monastery, populated with nothing else but happy monks?”

“No,” I said. I said, “Bhutan is a real country, with real people, with real desires, and, yes, some of us like larger size flat-screen television sets.

So, anyway, our discussions got me thinking, “What is happiness?” If happiness matters, what is happiness? I’m not talking about illegal medication that can give you happiness or illegal drugs that can give you happiness. I’m talking about real happiness, sustainable happiness, a genuine contentment.

So, in Bhutan, we are told that to be happy, we need to balance material progress with spiritual growth. We are taught that we need to protect the natural environment, we need to fight against global warming, we need to nurture and celebrate our culture, we need to practice good governance. We need to meditate.

And we are told that we can actually measure happiness, that happiness has nine domains: domains called health and education, living standards, good governance, culture, ecology, time-use and psychological well-being. And that they can be divided into 72 distinct measurable indices. It’s complicating stuff for me. It’s very difficult.

And to make matters worse, we’ve had conventions and conferences, internationally and within Bhutan. And we have, as a result, a whole new breed of specialists and superspecialists telling us what happiness is and how to be happy.


So I went to the basics. I asked myself, “What does it take for me to be happy?” And the first thing that jumped: that I need a sense of security right away, OK? That I need to feel a sense of security.

If I am anxious, if I am uncertain, I am not going to be happy. I need a steady job, I need to have some money, I need to have some savings, need to have a home, need to be able to protect my family – I need to feel a sense of security.

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And then I need to have a sense of identity. I need to feel good about who I am. If I don’t feel good about who I am, how on earth can I be happy?


And third, I need to feel a sense of purpose, feel good about doing whatever I do. Here is a picture. This is a picture of my village, Dorithasa.

Imagine, if you will, nine households, nine houses – traditional Bhutanese houses – surrounded by golden paddy fields, and everybody there is happy. It’s easy to be happy in my village. You’ve got to walk for two days to get there.

But when you are there, you have nothing else. You need to work with the people, with the land, and you have a sense of security with them. You have a sense of identity, and you have a sense of purpose. It’s easy to be happy in my village, Dorithasa.

This is my new village. That is Thimphu. There’re tall buildings, bright lights, a lot of fancy cars. I can be happy here, too, in my new village, but it’s distinctly difficult to be happy.

And the reason is, I can choose how I want to have a sense of security and that identity and that purpose. In Dorithasa, my village, my identity was fixed for me: I was a farmer. My purpose was to make a living within my community. It was set.

In Thimphu, suddenly I have choices. How can I make myself more secure? How can I develop my identity and my purpose? So in Thimphu, it becomes even more difficult. As a result, we have many of us making the wrong choices.

We’re after money – well, we need money, but how much money? We spend money – yes, we need to spend money, but how much?

If you spend more than you can earn, it’s going to infringe on your sense of security; you’re going to be less secure. If spending the money on a brand-new SUV is going to determine your identity, that’s going to bring you very little happiness.

If your purpose is to make money to buy that SUV, it’s going to make you even more unhappy.

So in Bhutan, in Thimphu, we have gangs. We have very rich people. And, ladies and gentlemen, you have politicians. So this is – you’re familiar with this – this is Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and this actually relates to, somehow, to these three senses.

But while this is a hierarchy, the way I see identity, security and purpose is that they are not mutually exclusive, they’re not a hierarchy, and that they each reinforce the other. In fact, not just in one direction – in every direction.

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If you are an accomplished artist, like Sonam Kheng, you enjoy that identity, and you have a sense of purpose! You want to make us feel good. And I hope our artist, Sonam here, who plays very beautiful music, I hope he succeeds and he feels a sense of security for Bhutan, not just through income but by his ability to preserve Bhutanese music.

So we’ve talked about these three senses at the individual level.

What about at the national level?

At the individual level, it seems quite easy: I want to be more secure, I want to protect my identity, and I want to give a sense of purpose, I want to feel a sense of purpose.

At a national level, I believe that governments have a bigger responsibility to ensure that a nation as a whole is more secure, that a nation as a whole has an identity and has a sense of vision and a purpose to that vision.

That said, it is the sacred responsibilities of national governments to ensure that individuals’ pursuit of a sense of identity, their individual sense of purpose and building their own securities is not compromised by public policy.

But what’s interesting is the middle. How can you build, how can you invest in identity, security and purpose so that your families are happier, they have a basis to become happier families? And how can you build a sense of security in your employees? Give them a sense of identity and a sense of purpose so that your employees are happier and your companies are happier.

This is a number, an interesting number. This number is quoted in our constitution. Sixty-five is the retirement age for public servants. In fact, our constitution says even his Majesty, the King, must retire when he hits 65. It so happens, our fourth king retired when he was 51.

Anyhow, I’m 46, as I was just introduced. I am 46, and I know that I will retire when I am 65. With that knowledge in my mind, I should tell myself if happiness matters, and if happiness will matter when I am 65 when I am retired, how should I live my life now so that when I am 65, I can be retired, and I can be retired happily?

Am I going to invest in building a sense of security? Am I going to invest in building a sense of identity? And am I going to fill myself with a sense of purpose?

Security, identity, purpose: important for happiness, and happiness matters. Thank you.

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