A Few Young Girls Carrying Baskets

Change From The Heart


Conversation 8 minute read

On a recent trip to Bhutan, journalist Catherine Fairweather gets beneath the surface of what makes a happy society – and talks to Daniel Cordaro, Founder of the Contentment Foundation, and Tshering Eudon, Director of their Bhutan operations.

A Group Of People Standing On A Hill With Trees And Buildings In The Background

Early one morning during a recent stay at COMO Uma Punakha, I followed a neat crocodile line of smiling schoolchildren, who were picking their way over stream and rock, past the local shrine and on to the village school, high above the hotel. They were immaculate in traditional dress with combed and braided hair. I offered them a handful of sweets from my coat pocket, impressed by how they divided out the treats, shyly and fairly, amongst themselves, bending down to retrieve stray wrappers. We passed gaggles of older teens, members of the Desuung volunteer corps — on their way, they said, to repair the Trans-Bhutan Trail. This ancient trade and pilgrimage trail dates back to the 16th century and extends 403 km; west from Ha near the Chinese border to Trashigang in the east. Before the first and only tarmacked road was built in1960s, the Trans-Bhutan Trail was the nation’s life-blood. For centuries, messengers, or garps, delivered news and mail on foot, running through the mountainous route, across flood plains and gorges. A section of the route threads through the valley, close to where I was staying, hence the brigade of volunteers. Many of them had helped rebuild the trail in the Covid-19 lockdown, but now a minor landslide was impeding passage. Brief encounter and exchange although this was, it was enough to offer a seductive glimpse into a society whose Buddhist beliefs, and spiritually-powered, non-materialistic practices of compassion are woven into the fabric of daily life. It contributes to the sense of a cohesive community, where the young and old are united by a common outlook and purpose. It’s perhaps why travellers cannot help falling in love with the place.

A Group Of Children Posing For A Photo
Clouds In The Sky

But can this Bhutanese sense of community, identity and belonging co-exist with the pressures of a new world opening up to technology and the allure of social media? The small, and until recently secret, Himalayan Kingdom is a geo-political flashpoint, between the behemoths of India and China. Earlier on my visit, hiking another region intersected by the Trans-Bhutan Trail, I’d been struck by the very visible conflict between the old order, represented by a ceremonial reopening in 2022 of the Trans-Bhutan Trail — deemed a triumph for conservation-minded environmentalists — with the very tangible encroachment of the ‘modernisers’ and developers. Along the route, seven India-funded dam sites bite into the flanks of the mythical Black Mountains where tigers roam, with bulldozers pushing boulders the size of tuk-tuks into our path. The official GR Codes which give you a sense of your location on the map, or put the trail into a historical or botanical context, had been hacked by a Chinese company advertising baby food. And in Thimpu and Paro, bands of disaffected youth hung around the parks with no employment and nothing to do. I came away with the impression that Gross National Happiness — a philosophy of living that guides the government of Bhutan and measures wellbeing according to spiritual not materialistic indexes — could be an idea more than a reality, at times. 

A Boy And A Baby Riding A Horse
A Person Wearing A Hat

The challenge for Bhutan’s young is where do they sit on the pivot between the old order and new? How do they find their place in a rapidly changing world? It’s a growing problem, which manifests in anxiety and mental health issues. But it’s a problem which has a potential solution — and with the King’s support. In 2023, the US-founded Contentment Foundation will be embarking on an ambitious project to empower children and teachers in the town of Paro with the support of a donor advised grant which the COMO Foundation facilitated. It’s a program being spearheaded on the ground by Tshering Eudon, a teacher and the organisation’s emissary in Bhutan. To find out more, I caught up with Tshering, and the founder of The Contentment Foundation, Dr Daniel Cordaro.  

CATHERINE FAIRWEATHER [CF]: Daniel, where did The Contentment Foundation have its genesis?

DANIEL CORDARO [DF]: I have a PhD in emotional psychology, and was a faculty member at Yale University, teaching psychology. In 2012, there was a tragic school shooting in Connecticut. Sadly, these kinds of events are a regular occurance in the United States. It’s devastating for our local schools and communities. And unfortunately nobody, then, at Yale had anything of practical value to contribute to abate the trauma, because academics work in the arena of theory, right?

So, my team got together, and we started to produce lessons combining 200 years of positive psychology and scientific research with ancient, long-held, human wisdom and traditions.

We sent out lesson plans on concepts like mindfulness, self-compassion, conflict resolution and trauma reduction, that would contribute to building safe and healthy school communities. They were well received. This sowed the seeds for a comprehensive plan that we called the Four Pillars of Wellbeing — the core of a mental health support system, focusing on Mindfulness, Contentment, Self-Curiosity and Community. 

A Man Smiling For The Camera
A Forest Of Trees

Fast forward 10 years, and The Contentment Foundation is now operating in eight different countries —  including, this year, in Bhutan in collaboration with the Cities of Wellbeing Paro Project. School shootings aren’t the problem here, but there are significant mental health issues, which have been intensified by the recent pandemic. COMO has lodges in Bhutan; they employ from the communities; they want to be part of the long-term solution. 

A Group Of People Posing For A Photo

[CF]: As a partnership it makes sense, especially with the wellness ethics of the COMO Group, which includes COMO Shambhala. I wonder whether the tenets of The Contentment Foundation are easier to implement in a Buddhist country, like Bhutan — a basically peaceful society grounded in an understanding of the meaning of mindfulness, and guided by principles of compassion and kindness?

[DF]: All cultures, since time immemorial, have been looking for a sense of peace and wellness that no-one can take away from you and that no-one can give to you either. It's like solar-powered wellbeing — something that comes from within. Whether you’re Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish or Muslim, every single religious tradition and our modern scientific tradition in psychology has been asking the same question: what does it mean to be content, to sustain and experience inner peace?

[TE]: So, Gross National Happiness is something that defines us here in Bhutan. It’s a set of abstract values and concepts that are among the highest ideals for Bhutanese people, and we try to build these values into everything  we do or aspire towards.  My own personal transformation was through The Contentment Foundation’s Four Pillars of Wellbeing program, which is a measurable, easy index of wellbeing, teaching modern self-management tools that anyone can use. Especially now, as we try to redefine ourselves in a post-pandemic world, while still grappling with the problems that were there even before Covid. It’s why I came on board with The Contentment Foundation. In a fast-changing, globalised Bhutan, where most children now have smartphones and both parents are working, I think the program is a strong way to help us move forward, whilst preserving our cultural and traditional values as well.

Do I need an international organisation to remind me of my traditional values? The answer is yes and no at the same time: the Wellbeing program consolidated everything I already knew, but had previously dismissed for not being relevant for success in the current modern world.

[CF]: But how do you manage the idea of wellness in a culture that stigmatises mental health ?

[TE]: Making the content as culturally appropriate as possible really helps us to address any concepts that may get lost in translation. We have a strong foundation in selfless service and being a good member of the community. The renowned Bhutanese generosity and openness is also a strong starting point for wellness. But I would agree that the words around mental health are often misunderstood in this country. For example, ‘anxiety’: it's not an easy word for most Bhutanese people to understand. Yet, when we try to understand it from the closest word in Bhutanese culture, which translates to ‘hot-cold’, meaning a sense of discomfort, the idea becomes a lot more approachable. 

[DF]: I've never met a person on Planet Earth who's told me that gratitude is a bad idea. I've never met a person who said that understanding their emotions is a bad idea. These are things that are embedded in every culture. We bring that essence of being into lesson plans that are suitable for everyone to engage in — even children. Wellness can be as simple as doing a compassion activity, focusing on how we can be kinder to ourselves or grateful to our families, or our teachers for helping us. If everybody gets on board with the idea, it becomes embedded into culture, and you see the impact.

Graphical User Interface, Application
A Group Of People Posing For The Camera
A Forest Of Trees
A Group Of People In Red Robes
A Building On A Hill With Trees Around It
A Close Up Of A Tire
A Couple Of People Standing Outside A Store
A Building In The Middle Of A Forest
A Landscape With Trees And A Building In The Distance
A Group Of Women In Traditional Clothing
A River Running Through A Valley

[CF]: I suppose Bhutan makes for a particularly interesting case study. I understand data collection is an important operational tool for The Contentment Foundation. Bhutan is a small country — the size of Switzerland. Everything has accelerated so fast in the last two decades; only 20 years ago there were no TVs or social media. So can the effects of this fast-tracking on mental health be impactfully and efficiently monitored?

[TE]: Yes. There couldn’t be a better time for a program like this. We’re a poor, developing country which is changing fast with all kinds of challenges including economic downturns, rural-urban migration, emigration and a declining population. At school level, The Contentment Foundation creates a space where teachers can express themselves fully and have honest conversations. Personally-speaking, it helped me overcome self-doubts about my abilities. It keeps me motivated to help as many Bhutanese as possible in the same way that this program has helped me; to come home to myself and to my country.

[CF]: You both mentioned the pandemic was a catalyst for change. What do you mean exactly?

[TE]: In Bhutan it confirmed our national sense of community and cooperation and values that aren’t based on a material life. For example, the volunteer group Desuung made us proud, as the frontliners against an invisible enemy, ensuring that the nation, including villages in remote communities, did not go hungry.

[DC]: Yes, the pandemic opened pathways to better mental support. You know, if I were doing this work ten or fifteen years ago, most people would roll their eyes and say, okay, that's a ‘nice to have’, not a ‘need to have’. They'd pat me on the head and that would be the end of the conversation. Now, post pandemic, presidents, prime ministers, kings are prioritising mental health on a national level.

In Bhutan, schools are open, I think, for the first time in history to these kinds of tier one mental health support systems.

In short, the pandemic consolidated the recognition that wellness does matter; that we need to have the right wellness infrastructure in place for the next generation of our children if they’re going to be able to lead us into the future.

[CF]: What are your ambitions for Bhutan specifically — to roll it out from Paro into more rural provinces?

[TE]: Yes, absolutely. For now we’re starting with Paro. But there's 20 such districts in Bhutan, Catherine, and this is just the beginning.

[DC]: This is a big deal. To be able to bring tier one mental health support to an entire city, every child, every educator, civil servants and family members will be an extraordinary breakthrough for the mental health revolution. If we can do it in Paro, on a citywide level, we’re hoping it may be a catalyst not just for Bhutan, but for other cities worldwide, supporting as many kids as we can through what we’re calling the Cities of Wellbeing movement.

A House On A Hill


“True indestructible wellbeing is found inside of us,” says Dr Cordaro; “it’s a skill we can learn how to practise, and a philosophy that’s part of our human legacy. In 2023, philanthropists looking to get involved can join Dr Cordano in Bhutan this spring, where we’re working to empower children and teachers in the town of Paro, local to our flagship hotel.

The inaugural donor’s journey will take place from 21st-30th April — a 10-day tour of Bhutan, which includes a stay at COMO Uma Paro. You will be hosted by Dr Cordaro, and joined by Bhutanese environmentalists, thought leaders and wellness experts on this life-changing journey exploring personal passion and purpose — with access to remote areas of the country normally off-limits to outsiders. You will learn the core philosophies and practices of human flourishing. You will also see what The Contentment Foundation is doing in Bhutan with the support of the COMO Foundation at its new Cities of Wellbeing project in Paro. To book a place, please email James Low, james.low@comohotels.com.