According to Dr Saamdu Chetri, Bhutan’s dedicated guru, we might be overthinking the matter.
Happiness, he says, is a very simple premise which is not necessarily connected to laughter or optimism, but has everything to do with knowing who you are.
“It is a choice to be happy or to be sad in any given situation,” Dr. Chetri, who is director of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Centre, told an audience in Sydney this week (as reported via The Age).
“People often ask me ‘if my friend is dying in the hospital bed, how can I be happy?’” he says. “And I tell them happiness is not to giggle, not to laugh, not to crack jokes. Happiness is to remain with yourself, connecting your mind, your body and your thoughts together, calming down.
“When you are calm you are able to send prayers to your friend who is dying in the hospital bed and you're still living with that happy state of mind. If you live in the present moment, whatever situation comes to you you learn to live very calmly and connected to yourself.”
The way to connect fully with yourself is also simple, Dr. Chetri believes: head outdoors.
“When you are depressed or anxious and you go to the ocean or to a forest you very quickly calm down because the organisms within you connect with the organisms that are out there,” he says.
“When we destroy our nature, there is no connection and we live very separate so it pains you. When two elements are joined and you try to cut that, you will feel that pain – a lessness, an emptiness in yourself.”
The remote mountain kingdom of Bhutan has focused on wellbeing since the 1970s, when the king declared that happiness was more important than Gross National Product.
The country has made Gross National Happiness a mainstay of its national mindset; “a dynamic design that must be constantly enriched and improved with the help of people from all walks of life who bring with them immense experience and knowledge with a shared inspiration to create a better world”.
As the leader of Bhutan’s first Gross National Happiness Centre based in Thimpu, Dr. Chetri is charged with showing people how to lead happier lives.
The days here start with compulsory meditation and there is an emphasis on the appeal of nature; “It's one of the most beautiful valleys in the country,” he says. “This is a place of happiness for me where I find so much relation with nature - the place itself is so serene.”
For all his talk of happiness – or perhaps, because of it - Dr. Chetri’s own background is marked by hardship.
He was born in a cowshed and left school aged 14 to work on his family’s farm. He was forced into a marriage at just 15 years old, an event that made him so unhappy he tried to kill himself. “I felt I was dead - I wanted to die that moment,” he recalled to the BBC.
He eventually went onto have two children with his young wife, but she suffered from mental health problems and left the family home; he brought up his youngsters alone and later re-married.
Dr. Chetri is now focused on creating the “conditions” that promote communal happiness rather than “fleeting, momentary feel-good moods”.
“The definition of happiness simply says serve others, including nature and live in harmony with nature, realise your human values and wisdom,” he says. “When we talk about the human values we talk about love as the foundation of a house of happiness.”