Emily Stone looks to nature for happiness boost

We turned our faces toward the bluebird sky, closed eyelids against the brilliant sun, and soaked up its mid-afternoon warmth. Although the day was not especially warm, the whisper of a breeze let us keep every ray of the sun and every bit of heat we’d generated on a little walk. Knowing that we won’t get many more days like this before snow flies and temperatures plummet, my parents and I basked like turtles on that fallen log–lingering in happiness.
Recently I had another encounter with happiness: not only from being in a group of wonderful people, but also discussing how to measure happiness across an entire nation. Jack and Mary Wichita, local Museum members, spoke about a trip to Bhutan, and the “Land of the Thunder Dragon’s “Gross National Happiness Index”.
As a small country of 750,000 people in Southern Asian, Bhutan seems fairly unremarkable. But in the 1970s, His Majesty the Fourth King of Bhutan, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, coined the term “Gross National Happiness”. He started governing on the concept that “…sustainable development should take a holistic approach towards notions of progress and give equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing”.
As globalization, economic development, and television threaten their traditional way of life, the Bhutanese are making decisions with more than just money and “things” in mind. The values that contribute to happiness – actually measured in “sufficiency” – are presented as nine domains: psychological wellbeing, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards. If you were “sufficient” in all of those domains, wouldn’t you be happy?
Jack and Mary highlighted some of the practical applications of these values that relate to the environment. The Constitution of Bhutan says all citizens have a duty to prevent pollution. Organic farming is mandated by law, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides are banned. The country is 70% forested, and their policy dictates that it not fall below 60%. The export of lumber is prohibited.
Bhutan wishes to stay carbon neutral (plentiful electricity comes from hydroelectric dams), so citizens must apply to get one of the limited number of permits to own an automobile. As a result, traffic is light, smog doesn’t build up, and people stay healthy by walking.
Historically, walking has been the main of transportation in Bhutan, so access to health care is measured by walking time. Their goal is for each person to live within an hour walk to a clinic. Do you even have that level of convenience?
Bhutanese also promote health through value placed on getting sufficient sleep, which falls under the “time use” domain. (I’d love to have more cultural support for getting enough sleep…but how can I sleep with ideas like these dancing around in my head?)
What if our country–or even our hometown–governed based on these values? I’m already surrounded by people who strive to drive less, walk more, garden organically, and conserve resources. We’ve all experienced the ability of exercise, sleep, and time in nature to increase happiness. How can we promote these values even more?
Many studies have shown how nature can increase our happiness, and I’ve written about them here before. A common soil bacteria – Mycobacterium vaccae – has been shown to increase serotonin (the “happy” hormone) levels in mice. Even the nature within our bodies –bacteria in our guts – regulates serotonin levels. Vitamin D, synthesized with help from the sun, can help prevent depression. “Forest bathing” is a recognized relaxation and stress management activity in Japan.
As these ideas swirled in my head, I kept landing on the title of one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems: “Lingering in Happiness.” Lovely and short, I once had it memorized for easy access. It begins: “After rain, after many days without rain…” and then describes the dampness trickling down through the forest, permeating the soil, feeding the “roots of the oaks”, until even the stones “feel themselves being touched.”
Like raindrops that touch every bit of life in the forest, like the sunshine that soaked through our eyelids as we sat on the fallen log, like the conservation values that permeate life in Bhutan, I believe our happiness is inseparable from our relationship with the earth. Perhaps we should go outside–right now!–and find a forest where we, too, can linger in happiness.

The writer is a Naturalist/Educator at the Cable Natural History Museum.

[Courtesy- Emily Stone]

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