A year ago today, I was in Bhutan, as part of a delegation from the Kellogg Innovation Network (KIN Global) – to attend the International Gross National Happiness (or GNH) Conference. Gross National Happiness is the way the Bhutanese government measures its success, as opposed to GDP: they ask, in a variety of subjective and objective ways, are the people happy? Do the people feel that the government takes an interest in their wellbeing?
Not that long ago, Bhutan was a monarchy, one with a much beloved king, who, of his own accord came to the realization that the time in human history for monarchy had passed, that it was time for democracy. He put a plan in place to voluntarily transition the country to a democracy. Now, this is no easy task, to invite subjects to become citizens- to think differently and take on the mantle of self governance. The country had to establish not only a new set of skills and attitudes, but an entire infrastructure of democracy. They took a generation to make the full transition; for many years before the transition ran a parallel mock democracy to make sure it was all working well. In 2007, he handed power over to elected people. The transition to democracy was peaceful and conscious.
Now I want to share something amazing with you about their process. Something astonishing, are you ready?
In order for democracy to succeed, to prepare the people to be in civil discourse, to set the table for them to make great decisions together, the king believed that each person had to be able to manage their own emotions, and to enter into any dialogue putting compassion for the other person first.
To support this “citizenship” goal, the Bhutanese conceived of “enlightenment education” – an education system designed to impart values and practices that equip people to master their own well being and happiness. Kids as early as preschool get these skills.
Now, Bhutan is not America. It’s not a melting pot. It’s a deeply Buddhist and peaceful country, with common values, a culture that already practices a spirituality of compassion and benevolence. These are very dignified mountain people, and have learned from what happened to their neighbors in the era of colonialism. Bhutan’s borders are tightly controlled to stop the exploitation and degradation that happened in neighboring Nepal, India and Tibet. It’s a relatively homogenous test market for a form of governance that leverages ancient wisdom to make people happy at the city-state scale.
But, can you to imagine for a moment what it would be like if we had this here? If we claimed, for our own democracy, traits such as emotional maturity, self control, kindness and civility and placed it into our own democracy? What if every child learned from a young age how to listen inwardly and become aware of their own thoughts and emotions, how they rise and fall and pass in time? How to defend themselves from abusive strident adults in their lives? Or if they learned from a young age respect for all people, animals and the earth itself? Or their own magnificence and worth? What if the core story in America was like the core story of Bhutan, which is the cooperation story, where all types of people have a role to play, or the system doesn’t work?
I didn’t know a year ago sitting in the Punakha Dzhong what shameful discourse, and lynch mob mentalities, what hate in the heart we would encounter in this election year. They say never read the comments on the web, but I sometimes do, and it makes me fear for the lives of our leaders, it makes me weep for the women of the world, and sad for our nation and the earth. Any person in privilege or power who takes a stand for civility and respect right now is a great soul.
I can actually see a world where self mastery, self regulation, mindfulness, emotional intelligence, emotional self defense, self optimization, communication, conflict resolution, compassion and respect are in the core curriculum for every child. Can you see that? And what it would mean for the next 100 years if that happened?
Please reach out with your ideas and comments.