My afternoon of ‘Wellbeing Discussion, Dialogue and Debate’

(Hosted by ‘The What Works Centre for Wellbeing’ @WhatWorksWB)

GDP = Growth Domestic Product (existing, flawed global system)

GHP = Gross Happiness Product (new, system more human and more beneficial)

It must be said that this this week started better than most, kicking off with a rather memorable Monday. Beginning my journey just after noon from a slightly grey and cooler southwest London, a bus ride, overground (SouthWest Trains) train and Tube train (Jubilee Line) later, I found myself in Westminster, surrounding by many parliament buildings I hadn’t been this close to for quite a while. After a short walk through Parliament Square, I arrived at the venue for the ‘Wellbeing Debate’, Central Hall — an impressive building with, as Wikipedia later told me, Baroque and Edwardian architecture. Also courtesy of Wiki, the building not only serves as a Methodist church and a conference centre, but also an art gallery and an office building.

Central Hall, as viewed from two different (but equally fascinating) angles

I arrived around 10 minutes before the advertised start time, allowing me to do a spot of mingling before walking into the main conference room. I immediately spotted a chap called Andy Woodcock, who I’d actually seen on the television on the Victoria Derbyshire programme (for which I wrote a detailed overview, here) talking with a small group of fellow attendees. A small world indeed.

Shortly afterwards we walked into the conference room, and chose one of the round tables to sit down at. The buzz of the conversation in the room could really be felt, and this was noted by Gregor Henderson, who was thoroughly amiable and witty throughout (not to mention very complimentary in introducing the various speakers); Gregor opened the discussion and was the introducer/chair throughout the course of the afternoon.

This was an event I had been excited about for a while, and I was quite looking forward to contributions from several of the speakers I’d seen listed, and perhaps especially the two whom had come from the Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan, the place where — I had come to read several times throughout various ‘happiness literature’ — was the happiest place on earth. Fascinating stuff. I was very much looking forward to what was coming up.

After Gregor’s short and humble introduction, Dr. Tho Ha Vinh kicked things off, with a guided meditation, having stated the importance of ‘being present for the conference’. For those of you who have not yet experienced it, this was amazing to have been part of. The silence that filled the conference room, save for Tho’s guidance, was exquisite. A wonderful way to fully ground ourselves and make us “fully present” for the conference and what we were about to hear and participate in. Having used the Headspace App, and thus hearing Andy Puddicombe’s voice and guidance daily, the motions and directions of the guided practice were very familiar to me. And it would have also appeared the same to the other attendees in the room, as everyone seemed to willingly take part and lap up the benefit.

On taking part in this, it is now my view that every conference should begin with a guided meditation. How wonderful that would be.

Next came the afternoon’s guest lecture delivered by Dr. Julia Kim, also from the GNH in Bhutan. We were treated to a number of slides and some remarkable information about the work and research on happiness being carried out in Bhutan, and what Britain and other nations can learn from this.

Dr. Kim described the surveys she had been carrying out, and the generosity of the strangers who, despite not having enough food day-to-day, invited her to stay in the evening for some dinner; this contrasted with the quite un-friendly feeling of stepping onto the Tube in London!

“See if this story resonates with your hearts, as well as your minds.”

Despite the current global economic model focused around GDP, in the last decade we have seen more social unrest than ever before — uprisings, riots, conflicts, all across the world. Never, Dr. Kim described, has the opportunity been greater to address the big issue around health, happiness and wellbeing for the world. She went on to describe how the approach must be multi-disciplined, and is not one that can merely be tackled by the health sector alone, this would not be sufficient.

She pointed to the multiple studies which reflect that, though wealth does contribute to life satisfaction, it has ‘rapidly diminishing’ returns above the “safety net’ (i.e. once basic needs have been fulfilled — food, shelter, and so forth). [See ‘Money vs Happiness’ for more on this.]

For example, the United States has one of the richest economies as we all know, however it only ranks 17th in reported life satisfaction.

It is therefore clear that we are in need of a new social movement — being termed “Beyond GDP”. This is effectively serving as critique of GDP as a model, a “serious interrogation” being carried out by economists and leaders.

I was astounded to learn that Senator Kennedy, as far back as 1968, had given a speech outlining some of the misgivings of the current GDP model. The speech was played to us, and the Senator’s words were powerful indeed, and are, as Dr. Kim rightly said, “as relevant as ever, today”.

Dr. Kim went on to described how ‘her heart answered’, when she asked herself whether she should be continuing to drive the shift at the UN-level (she had been working for the United Nations for a time), or should be stepping down to a more localised, Bhutan level; hence her decision to resign from the UN and focus her efforts with the GNH in Bhutan.

Bhutan has been slowly opening up to the world, with it’s Constitutional Monarchy adopted in 2008. Dr. Kim made the important point of noting that Bhutan is not claiming to have the answer, and is not immune to it’s own material-based challenges — e.g. television, tourism, etcetera.

The GNH has come up with 9 domains (and 33 unique indicators) for which researchers are trying to work out the ‘level of sufficiency’ that is required for one to be happy (i.e. how full each of the 9 cups — domains — have to be, in order for one to be happy). The domains themselves vary from Education, and Time Use, through to Environment and Psychological Wellbeing. The first survey was conducted in 2010, and this work is ongoing. Already, some interesting outcomes have been seen; for example, that television for children has the effect of increasing the chances of obesity, reducing sleep, and also increasing social comparisons (i.e. the child will compare him/herself with other children their age, in their class, etcetera). The overall aim of the GNH is to translate the vision of the 4th King of Bhutan into public policy.

The GNH wishes to bring about changes at both international an national levels, and hopes that it’s continue work and coverage will help to bring this about. We are already seeing these sorts of conversations taking place e.g. in Germany, Angela Merkel has stated the importance of starting conversation with people in relation to happiness and wellbeing.

We were pointed in the direction of the Global Wellbeing Lab, comprising of a number of different projects and people working on the ground, conducting research into wellbeing. The lab (1.0) commenced in January 2013 and it’s website can be found here.

Dr. Kim ended her presentation powerfully, stating that at GNH in Bhutan they are trying to bring the two themes of inner transformation and social change together; so that we can become more aware individually of the practices around happiness/wellbeing and adopt these, and also for a larger social change to happen, focused around attitudes to, and adoption of, wellbeing, and — crucially — seeking an alternative to the flawed GDP model which we are currently operating under., globally. To end with, we saw a call-to-action in the form of a video, showing us just what sort of world we might live in unless we act now.

Following this, brief introductions and presentations were given by the other Panel members, followed by audience involvement through an open discussion / Q&A session to finish off withI have provided a summary of these initial Panel introductions below, in addition to the contributions made during the Q&A session (the Panel members were also asked to prepare their “3 wishes”, and some of them gave some insights into these, too):

Nancy Hey (Director, What Works Centre for Wellbeing)

  • Wellbeing comprises both physical and mental health
  • The What Works Centre for Wellbeing collates and utilises high quality information in relation to wellbeing, with the view to discovering how particular organisations can best use and implement ‘wellbeing’ practices
  • In regards to evidence, we can use this to prioritise and work out the best interventions and practices which can cause the most impact in different settings (i.e. a particular workplace or school)
  • Evidence and measurements are needed, and useful in being able to draw comparisons
  • However, this doesn’t mean that we cannot use common sense in some circumstances, and merely not act before we have the evidence
  • When it comes to wellbeing, she has noticed that people tend to connect first with these things as a HUMAN
  • Mindfulness is one way in which we can access emotional intelligence, but not the only way; not everyone can access it using mindfulness, we need to find out more about the other ways

Saamah Abdallah (NEF — New Economics Foundation)

  • We need to make sure that we make wellbeing for everyone
  • By this same virtue (as per the NEF’s website), the NEF’s aim is to transform the economy so that it works for both people and the planet

Alfred Tolle (Google)

(In Gregor’s introduction of Alfred, we learnt that Alfred was once described as “the conscience of Google”)

  • Alfred joined Google 4 years ago, with the view to help to make the world a better place; he believed that Google was a good platform for that
  • Working at Google’s EU Headquarters in Dublin, he conducted various happiness work with neuroscientists and positive psychologists
  • He brought the Wisdom 2.0 Conference from the US to Dublin
  • Held a ‘Mindfulness Week’ at Google
  • He is soon to be leaving Google in order to create conferences, with Wisdom 2.0 as the inspiration; with the view to initiating transformation across businesses, countries and the self
  • Alfred feels that the time is good for this; when he speaks to various people around the world, he is seeing an increased openness to spirituality and related themes
  • He is “convinced that we can create really a better world”
  • Google is a big user of data to accompany it’s decision making
  • Alfred asked us to think about Artificial Intelligence which will, in a mere 2–5 years, mean that there could be chips with greater powerful than the human brain could ever achieve. If we each had one of these chips put in our brains, could it be said that we could rely on them to absolutely make the best decisions for us? The implications was no — as humans, we make decisions with our hearts, too; something which AI, however impressive, cannot — in today’s world — achieve. Therefore, we need to be wary of this when it comes to this big focus on data/evidence in relation to informing us when it comes to wellbeing
  • Alfred believes that “minds create reality”
  • We must change education fundamentally, so that it is not just giving us skills but increasing information about ourselves — who we are, why we are here in the world, etcetera

Dr. Katherine Trebeck (Policy and Research Advisor, Oxfam GB Global Research Team)

  • When it comes to looking at wellbeing, we need to go beyond the current elite-led policy system, and really speak to those on the ground in the communities affected by the policy changes.
  • We must focus on HUMAN NEEDS
  • Katherine referred us to the Humankind Index, which was developed following conversations with people in Scotland, looking at what people said “makes life worth living’
  • She continued to highly the importance of evidence which comes from talking to people, and then noticing the trends; when we hear the same thing(s) from lots of different people, this is generally a good, reliable indicator and ought to be noted
  • GDP is synonymous with ‘fixing things once they are broken’; the new (GHP) model needed is one that looks at healing, and health within communities

Dr. Tho Ha Vinh (Programme Director, Gross National Happiness Centre, Bhutan)

  • We cannot merely let Bhutan be a GHP nation amongst a sea of GDP nations
  • Bhutan is not perfect, and has it’s challenges too
  • We must all learn from the Bhutan experiment
  • There must be a shift in consciousness in order to cause a social change
  • The GNH Centre wants to collaborate with institutions all over the world
  • We need a deep understanding of happiness (over and above it being a temporary state/emotion)

Tho’s three wishes:

  1. A shift in focus of the economy towards a caring economy
  2. A shift in the political system (i.e. the way we live together and relate to one another)
  3. A shift in culture, with the root of culture being education; there must be a shift in the education system, so that it is focused on the understanding that happiness is a skill that can be trained

Dr. Julia Kim (Senior Program Adviser, Gross National Happiness Centre, Bhutan)

  • There are many “doors which need entering”, as there any different perspectives from many different people
  • We therefore need to be open-minded and patient, and listen carefully to the people in different settings with these different perspectives (e.g. governments, healthcare workers, teachers, etcetera)
  • Julia has had experience with the roller-coaster that is trying to get peer-reviewed; this need for evidence can sometimes hold us back — sometimes, “It’s just bloody obvious!”
  • Wellbeing and social transformation starts with ourselves; we must first energise and get ourselves together before we are then to start going about solving some of these challenges
  • Change is already in the air; it is not a question of whether GDP will fail, but rather how, and when (i.e. how we work together, and how long this will take to happen)

Comments are closed.