Despite economic challenges and struggles with poverty, Bhutan is often referred to as one of the happiest countries on earth. With a culture rich in community and spiritual practice, Bhutan considers it a major goal to create an atmosphere where every individual can seek and achieve happiness.
The government of Bhutan uses a Gross National Happiness index to measure happiness among its citizens. Other countries around the world, perhaps recognizing its importance in a wider context, are taking a closer look at what practices help individuals find happiness.
Taking a cue from Bhutan, the Seattle Happiness Initiative surveyed Seattle area residents to learn more about what it takes to be happy. The report notes that the City Council of Seattle was the first governmental body in the United States to say it would consider the survey results when making policy decisions and allocating resources, a sign that the U.S. is also getting serious about happiness.
It is human nature to seek happiness, but what does it take to be truly happy? We can be content with external things like a roof over our heads, food on the table, and a comfortable life. True happiness, however, is deeper, and in many ways, simpler than that.
"Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions." - Dalai Lama
A New York Times article earlier this year called the Greek island of Ikaria "the island where people forget to die," linking happiness and longevity to a sense of connectedness, community, and the lack of focus on material possessions.
Often times, we get hung up on our circumstances. Our feelings and reactions are influenced by our views, which are controlled by our minds. Being able to control our minds can lead to inner peace. In the class of the Art of a Balanced Life, Western Buddhist monk Gen Khedrub of Kadampa Meditation Center Washington offers a suggestion -- to fully and happily accept circumstances and then act on remediation. Inner peace comes from accepting, rather than fighting or being silently angry at the circumstances. Mind-body practices provide a way to train our minds and attain inner peace.
Practices such as yoga and Tai Chi move the physical body, but also offer a kind of "stillness" that can be difficult to achieve in our fast-paced society. "This can lead to a greater degree of self-awareness and good health, opening the door to meditation and a higher consciousness," says Hriman McGilloway, spiritual director of Washington's Ananda.
Jody Monahan, Kadampa's education program coordinator, says meditation can help us to overcome some of life's irritations, and bring us to a place of inner peace. "Inner peace comes from the mind, and when you find that inner peace, you find happiness."
People from a variety of backgrounds come to Kadampa seeking ways to reduce stress, relax, or to relieve physical problems. While many people can accomplish this alone, Ms. Monahan says, "A group setting makes it quite special. There is a power in group meditation. It can help us focus on good feelings and bring those feelings into our daily lives, helping us to keep a kind heart and to cherish others."
Through her work as manager of Seattle's East West Bookshop, Susan McGinnis has the opportunity to meet people from all walks of life who seek relief from things that block their happiness. She says most don't articulate a specific desire to find happiness, but a wish to embrace a wider view of the universe and to understand their place in it.
The shop features books about conscious living and functions as somewhat of a community center, or "an oasis to recharge," as Ms. McGinnis puts it. "We offer mind, body, and spirit support, and inspiration for life's journey."
McGinnis, who also teaches yoga philosophy, continues, "We fulfill the spirit of community, letting people connect with like-minded souls. Happiness comes from a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself, and of doing for others."
Even in the face of poverty, illness, or other worldly troubles, spiritual practice can lead us to happiness. "With an inner spiritual life, we realize that our power to deal appropriately with difficult circumstances comes from within, and from our center we can draw upon a higher power," says Mr. McGilloway. "A Spirit-centric life sees life's hardships as offering us wisdom, purification, and an opportunity to live by a divine rather than man-made will."
"God, as the source of all creation, is the ultimate creator and sustainer and contact with God [as each of us understands God] brings to us increasingly a sense of wellbeing, happiness, and fulfillment," explains McGilloway. "This is not exclusive to our family, community, or duties, for is not the Divine present in all creation? We cannot turn our back on our own and this world and expect to find a happiness somewhere else or in rejection of the reality in which we find ourselves."
McGilloway points to some of the world's greatest spiritual leaders, Mahatma Gandhi, for example, who were not only spiritual, but also realistic and very practical. Gandhi chose not to ignore the harsh realities of the world in which we live; yet, spiritual happiness did not elude him.
"Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony." - Mahatma Gandhi
When talk turns to happiness, a common theme keeps recurring - self-awareness, sense of community, and the feeling that we are part of something greater than ourselves.
McGilloway sums it up rather nicely, "If you're feeling disconnected, where do you begin, except with yourself?"
Photos courtesy of PhotoXpress.com
Ann Pietrangelo is the author of "No More Secs! Living, Laughing & Loving Despite Multiple Sclerosis." She is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and writes for sites around the web.