German Learnin’ and Gross National Happiness

25 Jan

It’s a sleepy Sunday morning in Vienna.  I woke up to the early morning sound of snow shoveling.  I peeked out my window and there it was.  A fresh blanket of snow.  It is a rare sight this winter in Vienna. It is funny how a little snow still evokes a child-like happiness in me.  While is it a quiet, gray day…the snow covered streets brought a bit of brightness into the morning.

I have been tucked in bed sorting through some of my German lessons for the week.  Our new trimester started a few weeks ago.  Beginning the new term, it was as if our German course went through a metamorphosis over the Christmas holiday.  The course, content and speed of learning has all increased.  With the new term comes a fresh new array of faces. Students from Italy, Vietnam, South Korea among other places.  All of us swimming together in the often foggy waters of learning German.


As part of my New Years enthusiasm, I joined a few expat groups to get my year started.  The AWA (American Women’s Organization), Inter Nations, as well as a group on called Internationals in Wien.  These groups have given a jump-start to my new year with a fresh array of faces and activities.

Earlier this week I joined the AWA on a tour of Webster University, an American University with a satellite campus in Vienna, among other locations. As a native of St. Louis, MO, I knew Webster University well. It’s main campus is based in a tree-lined neighborhood of St. Louis called Webster Groves. I went to high school just down the street. Months ago when I discovered Webster had a campus here it peaked my interest.  So when the opportunity to take a tour came about, I jumped at the chance.

WebsterCourtyardIt was great to be at the tour, see the beautiful building and reconnect a bit with the lively energy and intellect of Universities and all that comes with that.  Also great was to meet many of the women who attended.  I had the pleasure of connecting with American women who’s travels were rich and unexpected.  One lived four years in Cambodia.  Another was moving to Tokyo in a few weeks.  While in some ways I do long for a life and place that feels more like “home”, I can’t deny the stories of life in foreign lands still inspires me to the core.

While visiting Webster I learned they had a guest speaker that night.  It was Dr. Tho Ha Vinh, Program Director at the Center for Gross National Happiness in the small Asian country of Bhutan.  It turns out the Dr. Vinh grew up in part in Vienna and has ties with Austria.  His topic caught my attention, a theme in general of interest to me, and nicely in line with the book I am reading, What Happy People Know.  This was an opportunity not to be missed, so I returned later that evening to attend.

vinh_thoI first heard of Bhutan and their Gross National Happiness project while watching a documentary called Happy. It explores
human happiness through interviews with people from all walks of life in 14 different countries, weaving in the newest findings of positive psychology.  Bhutan and their GNH initiative was featured and it peaked my interest.

The general idea of Gross National Happiness is to take into consideration a wider, yet still specific and measurable, range of values and use this as a guide and tool for decision-making for the country. Bhutan is indeed a tiny little country with a total population of about 750,000 people.  As mentioned by Dr. Vinh, up until the 1970s they still had primarily a bartering economy. And while since then it has developed in more modern ways, the aim and priority is still to serve the people in a more balanced and complete way rather than being completely driven by financial gain and the GNP or GDP.

Dr. Vinh shared there are specific and measurable way that they define happiness.  Here are their qualifications:

  • Happiness cannot exist while others suffer.
  • It can come only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realization of our own inner wisdom.

Not the typical driving forces of a country!  He went on to describe their Four Guiding Pillars.

  1. Good Governance
  2. Preservation of the Environment
  3. Preservation of Culture
  4. Fair and Sustainable Socio-economic Development

It was a breath of fresh air to hear Dr. Vinh share Bhutan’s exploration.  Admittedly, he acknowledged this country is not without challenges.  He shared that as Bhutan continues to develop in modern ways, their challenges grow and increase.  But as a nation they are committed to decision-making based on a different set of values. Listening to his talk was a good reminder to consider a wider set of guiding pillars in my own life and decision making.

And so now my snowy Vienna morning continues.  My fabulous host family busily prepares today for their impending departure. The whole family will have an adventure together for a few weeks in the fine city of New Orleans, my former home. I will remain here and enjoy the progression of my life and German Learning in Vienna.

Bye for now from wintry Vienna!