Home » Secrets from the Happiest Place: Ben Henretig at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

Secrets from the Happiest Place: Ben Henretig at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

Ben Henretig at TEDxStanford

Ben Henretig – TRANSCRIPT

So, yes. That is a selfie. But no, I didn’t have my fingers in the light socket, or had them in the blender. This image was actually taken at 6:30 in the morning, in a tent, at about 14,000 feet in Bhutan, which is a small Himalayan country above India and below Tibet that’s thought to be the happiest place on Earth. And I was weeks into one of the most challenging film projects in my life. A 42-day, 485-mile trip to cross Bhutan, border to border, by foot and by bike, with four adventure athletes.

Needless to say, I was in way over my head. So in addition to managing a film team of four, we, as a film team, we were carrying all of our film equipment. So we were tracking all the miles the team was tracking, but then we’d rocket ahead to get in position, to drop into plumber position, as I am here trying to get a shot of the team. And they’d rocket past, and we’d run and catch up. This was everyday. And we had stretches of ten days without power, so improvised a solar solution on our support donkey to keep our four cameras and two laptops charged for the duration of the trip. It was crazy.

And the irony was that, here I was, in one of the happiest places on Earth, and I, myself, was deeply unhappy. I came to Bhutan because I was fascinated by Bhutan’s concept of “Gross National Happiness.” And I really wanted to understand what we could learn from the Bhutanese about living happier, more meaningful lives. But here I was, so caught up in the frenetic pace of the trip, and was so much stressed in making this film, that I barely had time to stop, be in one place, and really connect with the beauty of where I was.

When I got home, it took me almost two months to unwind from the trip. And I reflected that this was a way that I’d spent a lot of my adult life: constantly in motion, often juggling multiple projects, experiencing lots of stress, and feeling like I didn’t have time for the things that really mattered most in my life. And so, I decided to go back to Bhutan. And the time I spent in Bhutan on the return trip was filled with some of the happiest moments in my life, and put me into contact with a way of being that was less about striving and ambition, and really all about connection — connection to others, connection to the natural world, and to a sense of purpose.

Today, I want to share with you a few stories from that trip to illustrate how the Bhutanese keep the sense of connection alive in their communities. First, I want to give you a little bit of context on Gross National Happiness because it’s how most people come to hear about Bhutan. For millenia, due to its geographic isolation, Bhutan had very little exposure to the outside world. And then in the 70s, as the first tourists came into Bhutan, the fourth king of Bhutan recognized that his country was at a crossroads. And that if you took the same approach to development, as other countries, his country’s unique traditions, culture, natural beauty, might be destroyed. So he declared Gross National Happiness to be more important than gross domestic product.

In the last thirty years, Bhutan has partnered with some of the world’s leading economists, psychologists, policy-makers, to transform gross national happiness from a slogan to a sophisticated indicator for well-being, with 33 indicators, and 9 domains, including things like time use, psychological well-being, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience. And it struck me as I went deeper with gross national happiness, that this is really a different way of conceiving of happiness and I think we’re accustomed here in the west.

We often think of happiness as the pursuit of pleasure, and I think it has something to do with our macro-economic picture as well. Aristotle coined this notion of happiness as hedonic happiness or well-being. But there’s another notion of happiness known as eudaimonic happiness or well-being, which basically says that happiness is the outcome or an expression of living a good life, living a meaningful life. a life with rich social connections, with a sense of purpose, where you feel life your strengths are being used in service of something greater than yourselves, than yourself. And I think this is what Bhutan is after with gross national happiness.

The first story that I’d like to share with you took place in a small village called Ura village. Because I was told that if you really want to understand the source of Bhutan’s contentment, then you’ve got to head to rural Bhutan, because this is where a way of being is preserved for hundreds of years. So we arrived in Ura, we were immediately welcomed into the monastery. Every community has a monastery. And in addition to being a place for Buddhist practice, it’s really a community hub.

Soon as we arrived, we were served a meal of red rice, chilly and cheese, which is known as “ema-datse” in Bhutan. You can’t escape Bhutan without having the chillies and cheese. It’s a favorite; they put it on every dish. It’s fiery and delicious. Completely delicious. We were introduced to this man, who was a visiting lama, and he had this beaming, electric smile. Almost jokingly, I said, “Oh what’s the secret to gross national happiness?” He said, “Oh it’s very simple. Happiness is when you’re less busy, and you have time to be together, like we are today.”

And as I looked around in that monastery, I saw Bhutanese from every generation gathered there. It struck me that if you were born in this village, as you grew up, every face that you saw would be an intimately familiar face. and it would not be an easy life. But it would be a life with this strong sense of belonging or social connection. The research is suggesting that this sense of social connection is actually one of the most important predictors for happiness, and that low social connection is actually worse for you than smoking or high blood pressure.

What concerns me is that, despite all of our technological conductivity, we’re spending more and more time by ourselves, commuting, at work, and on our devices. Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor, in her book “Alone Together” talks about how our relationship with technology has left us uncomfortable cultivating a sense of social intimacy. And often opting out of the sort of face-to-face time that we know is so important in driving social connection.

So what I took away from my time in Bhutan, and in witnessing all the diverse ways they gather, from the frequent tea breaks, and shared meals, to the beautiful, collective dances and festivals known as “Tsechus” was an appreciation for the power of coming together face to face, with a shared intent in creating this sense of social connection or intimacy. What you’re seeing right now is actually a collective dance featuring hundreds of Bhutanese from both political parties. Can you imagine Boehner and Obama rallying the parties? Together? I think it’d be disastrous and amazing. If you’re listening to this talk online, either of you, please, I’d love to see it.

The second story I’d like to share with you took place as we were travelling to eastern Bhutan. There was only one main highway in Bhutan, east-west road, and it threads its way to the Himalayas. We were driving for hours, and I was getting a little bit of carsick. So I stepped out of the car, and as I looked out, as far as my eyes could see was green and this dance of clouds over the forest. Our driver, who’s a former lama, explained to me that when they were building these roads, the monks did a set of “pujas”, or blessings, to honor the trees and ask their permission before building. I asked, “why?” And he explained that, in the Bhutanese world view, every rock, every tree, every sentient being is seen as deeply interconnected. And the rituals exist to help honor those connections.

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