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How This Small Country Inspired the International Day of Happiness

How will you celebrate International Day of Happiness? Will you reach out to friends, family, or community? Or will you work on cultivating a happiness ritual that starts with yourself?
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Today, the entire world will focus on a movement begun by a country only half the size of Indiana. Last year, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution declaring March 20 the annual International Day of Happiness and called for everyone to celebrate through activities, awareness and education. Where did the UN get such a radical notion? Bhutan. This tiny country's philosophy, based on Buddhist ideals, encourages the world to believe that happiness can, and should, be accessible to all.

In Bhutan, only 35 percent of the population live in a town and only 21 of every 100 people access Internet. Of approximately 726,000 people, over 20 percent are considered rural poor. And yet this land and its people possess a wild and inscrutable spirit and rugged joie de vivre that leave modern countries seeming downright dull.

At the heart of this developing nation, Bhutan's government seeks to balance the personal happiness and well-being of its people with the economic advancement of their country. Certainly, Bhutan's political philosophy of "Gross National Happiness" was forward-thinking in 1972 when presented by the fourth Dragon King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Since then, successive leaders have fine-tuned the doctrine, which synergistically balances material and spiritual development. The government currently practices a culture of responsibility through the Four Pillars of Gross National Happiness: good governance, sustainable socioeconomic development, cultural preservation and environmental conservation.

Enter John Wehrheim, author of the book, Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness and the two-time Emmy award-winning film Bhutan: Taking the Middle Path to Happiness. Originally hired by Bhutan Hydro to help the Bhutanese find an environmentally conscious source of power, John was fascinated by the unspoiled beauty of the landscape and the upbeat, positive attitudes of the locals as well as by the government's progressive ideals. According to John, the culture's harmony and happiness stems from the people's connection to their environment and the beauty around them.

"Bhutan's development policy of 'Gross National Happiness' speaks to the modern search for fulfillment in an increasingly materialistic and impersonal world," he adds, "Bhutan is trying to take 'The Middle Path' -- balancing people's material and spiritual needs. I believe that a deep connection to living things in the natural environment is essential to maintaining balance. Bhutan is one of the most beautiful countries in the world and living in a setting like that makes everything better. It generates its own positive energy."

Returning to Bhutan over the next 20 years, John documented the country's spectacular natural resources, it's open-minded government, and the lives of the people in photographs, journals and on film.

As he grew to know them, he was struck by the Bhutanese people's optimism in the face of death, disaster, and simple bad luck, and was often buoyed up by their friendship. As he notes, "The Bhutanese are some of the most polite, soft spoken and devout people on earth; yet they are bawdy, fun loving and irreverent -- fitting in a bountiful land where work and worry are low priorities and Gross National Happiness wins over Gross National Product...".

His book, Bhutan: Hidden Lands of Happiness, is both a love note to the people of this land and a real story of Bhutan's history and its current struggle with modernity. Although we Westerners have had a long, slow introduction to things like radio, television, the Internet and cellphones, the Bhutanese were exposed to it practically overnight. Television first came to Bhutan in 1999, with Internet access arriving the following year. In that short time, violence and crime increased and family relationships were put on the back burner.

John asserts, "Before this onslaught, the Bhutanese's only vision of gods, heroes and idols were the sacred Thangkas and images of saintly lamas, great yogis and the Buddha found in each home. Tantric Buddhist precepts teach that vision creates thought and thoughts create our world. Your actions, perceptions, and vision create your reality. That's your religion. That's your world."

Today's Bhutan is growing and changing. More people have cellphones; young people wear Western clothes and hang out at nightclubs. But through it all, the Bhutanese have never lost their sense of the sacred in the world around them. They continue to meet the challenges of growth and modernity like they approach everything else -- with irascible good humor and, above all, happiness. Plus, with typical Bhutanese openness and warmth, the country petitioned the United Nations for an International Day of Happiness to share this gift with the world.

As we experience the International Day of Happiness 2013, we can learn a great deal about how to celebrate from the guileless, vibrant people of Bhutan. They show us that we can balance our modern world with uncomplicated mindfulness -- regardless of your daily schedule. To see the world as they do, we must open our eyes to the wonders around us: our natural environment, loved ones, pets, music, food, poetry -- simple things that we encounter each day. We must join with other happiness seekers to form a supportive community. And, most importantly, we must look within. As John notes, "... The Bhutanese believe in hidden lands of happiness they call "Beyul." I learned that those hidden lands can only be found within."

How will you celebrate International Day of Happiness? Will you reach out to friends, family, or community? Or will you work on cultivating a happiness ritual that starts with yourself? Either way, there's no need to travel to Bhutan to start the party. As John may tell you -- should you happen upon him in a high mountain pass in Bhutan, at his home on the beautiful island of Kauai or up to his knees in mud on a rainy jobsite somewhere around the world -- happiness is where you are, wherever you may be.