As a teenager, I noticed (too) many sad and distressed people. I determined I would try to make choices that would lead to a good and happy life.
This was prominent in my mind when, some two decades later, my wife told me about a small Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas where the quest for happiness and wisdom were central to the functioning of society. In 2004, we traveled to Bhutan for the first time to see this for ourselves. That trip opened an entirely new chapter of my life. It was dedicated to a more quiet pace of life and the pursuit of happiness and its expression through art and photography, but also to research and the promotion of values that help others lead satisfying lives and spread happiness around them.
Since that trip, I have visited the country seven times, including with my family. I have a deep affection for the people and culture of Bhutan, and am touched by how Bhutanese people live their lives. Western societies have reached unprecedented levels of material wealth, yet all too often we are over-stressed and dissatisfied with our lives. Conversely, the Bhutanese are among the poorest people in the world, but cope in a more serene way. The country was the first to consider that a government should maximize its people’s happiness rather than only their material wealth.This philosophy led the King of Bhutan to develop the Gross National Happiness Index, a way of measuring wealth that includes human (and humane) factors, like fair economic and social development and the preservation of the environment. He said, “Gross national happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”
This trip was hugely significant for another reason: It allowed me to meet Matthieu Ricard, a French Buddhist monk, scientist, photographer, and humanitarian. When I left Bhutan, I looked for a book of photographs of this magnificent country, and the only one I could find was “Journey to Enlightenment” by Matthieu Ricard. A few days later, a friend invited me to attend a conference at the HEC school in Paris with an illustrious guest, who turned out to be … Matthieu Ricard. We quickly became friends and he was the first of seven to join “Project +,” a multidisciplinary research and reflection group on the question of happiness—this mysterious treasure that everyone seems to be looking for but no one can define. We wrote scientific papers on happiness and published a book called The Felicitators, about how to spread happiness around oneself. We are in the process of working on a second book.
In 2012, I advised the Bhutanese delegation to the United Nations in their work to include GNH in the Millenium Development Goals.