From War Zones to the Happiness Country — Review of the 2014 Cobb Peace Lecture at Naropa University

By Dan Halpern

I had the good fortune of attending the 2014 Bayard and John Cobb lecture (“From War Zones to the Happiness Country”) with Dr. Ha Vinh Tho at Naropa on February 19, 2014.

Dr. Tho described the roots of our current world ailments clearly and directly—starting with our alienation from ourselves and each other, extending to alienation from the source of life, Earth as living being. He described our alienation as a futile search to fulfill a “sense of lack” by consuming more and more, leading from inner discontent and to global warming, among other symptoms and consequences of greed and over-consumption.

While Dr. Tho’s analysis of the causes and conditions of our current crisis was familiar to me, when I heard him describe the vision and practical work of the Bhutanese Gross National Happiness (GNH) initiative, a new flame of hope and possibility began to warm my body. While holding the most idealistic of goals (i.e. an equitable distribution of the world resources, fulfillment of everyone’s basic needs, and respect for all beings, including non-humans), Dr. Tho brought this vision down to earth, speaking about practical, collaborative initiatives he and his colleagues are engaged in.

Dr. Tho described conferences that bring people from diverse geographical locations and sectors of society together to brainstorm concrete steps toward the development of compassionate, sustainable policies, practices, and life-ways. He reminded us that deforestation was not the forest’s idea but rather a human idea that we can change by working together. As Dr. Tho said, we have created the institutions of our world, and therefore, we can alter them. GNH is not just dreaming of a new life, but living a new dream. 

As I understand it, GNH is not about healing any one wound—from the prison system, to massive over-consumption, to unequal distribution of resources, and to oppressive political regimes—rather, GNH sees all these wounds as part of a diseased organism that can heal from the inside out.
After Dr. Tho delivered the public lecture at Naropa, he met with a group of students and faculty for an informal tea. I had the opportunity to listen to him speak more casually, getting to know him as a person as well as a public speaker; as I listened, my desire to contribute to the Gross National Happiness initiative grew. I will be graduating from Naropa in May with a BA in Religious Studies and minors in Writing and Psychology.

While having tea with Dr. Tho, I realized the obvious—GNH isn’t just happening half-way around the world in Bhutan; it’s happening right here, right now, where I live and work, write poetry and play music.

When he took the job in Bhutan as program director of Gross National Happiness Centre in Bhutan, Dr. Tho’s teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, reminded him, “There is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way.”

As a Naropa graduating senior, I don’t yet know how I will connect with and contribute to this initiative. Taking Dr. Tho and Thich Nhat Han’s messages to heart, I imagine a major part of my path will be to foster stronger, more sustainable and resilient communities in the United States, as community has been the source of the most lasting happiness I have found. Through living in community with each other and the planet, we can re-learn the respect needed to care for Earth, keeping it habitable for generations to come.

BIO: Dan Halpern is senior at Naropa University, graduating in May with a major in Religious Studies and minors in Writing and Psychology. As part of his undergraduate studies, he took a Peace Studies course called “Conflict Transformation: Theory & Practice.” To see the digital story Dan created in this course, called “Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost,” go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thvlX2gfleI