Paula Francis begins with a basic question: “What matters most in life?”
The co-founder and vice president of Gross National Happiness USA, set out from her home in Vermont about five years ago to find the answer to that question. This, she said, gets to the core of what people value and evolves into a greater conversation.
On Monday — 5,505 miles, thousands of interviews and 20 states later — Francis met up with representatives of the Redwood Happiness Initiative as she walked into Crescent City. She spent the night with Gasquet resident Nancy Powers, gave a short presentation at a potluck on Tuesday and entered her 21st state, Oregon, on Wednesday.
“I think it’s important to keep a positive focus and recognizing that a lot of things are going in the right direction,” she said. “It’s easy to point to what’s wrong, and a lot of our conversations actually start out with what’s wrong; what’s not working. It’s a kind of a shift of a way of thinking that is looking at what is working and what’s positive.”
Before she began the Happiness Walk, Francis described herself as traditional, valuing her family and home. Now, she said she’s currently experimenting with not having a home. On Tuesday, she said her home was Crescent City.
Gross National Happiness USA is part of a growing movement to put happiness and wellbeing at the center of the country’s decision-making and policy discussions. Francis said she became intrigued after one of her friends made a trip to Bhutan, a small isolated country in South Asia.
“They never had a GDP,” Francis said, referring to gross domestic product, a measurement generally used to determine a country’s economic performance. “So, when they started opening their borders, reporters came in and they asked the king, what’s your GDP? He said we don’t do that, we care about the happiness of our people.”
Francis said Gross National Happiness USA and other happiness initiatives around the country have followed Bhutan’s lead and began establishing specific categories that measure happiness and wellbeing. These include economic and environmental indicators, education, the balance of time and material well being, she said.
After Gross National Happiness USA was founded, Francis said she and her colleagues realized that the measures of wellbeing in Bhutan likely aren’t the same in the U.S.
“We needed to figure out what they are here,” she said. “In order to do that we thought the sensible thing to do was ask.”
Francis, who had no experience with long-distance walking, set out for the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. where “the pursuit of happiness” is inscribed in granite. But she didn’t stop there.
So far, Francis has traveled down the Eastern Seaboard, across the South, through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and into California.
During her travels, Francis said her conversations often start by people approaching her, intrigued by her fluorescent yellow vest emblazoned “happinesswalk.com.” They’re curious about where she’s from and want to know what a happiness walk is.
According to Francis, the answers she receives don’t usually surprise her. Relationships matter, she said. The people we surround ourselves with, the larger community, those we may not know. People often mention a connection to nature and animals as being the thing that matters most.
“That begs the question, are our lives set up so we’re really paying attention to the people that matter in life?” Francis asked. “Are we so busy and distracted by other things? Our are communities built to support connectivity?”
Francis found that giving people a voice in governance is also important to those she’s talked with. She said she’s asked people what would be different if policy changes were based on happiness and wellbeing.
“Everything would be different,” she said. “People want to be heard. I think there’s a real lack of connecting with one another. Sometimes we don’t really look in the other person’s eyes when walking down the street.”
Powers, who hosted Francis at her home in Gasquet, said a shift needs to begin by deleting the word stranger from people’s vocabulary. There’s no such thing, she said.
Powers said she has experienced what she calls “the humanness factor” while walking the Camino de Santiago, an ancient pilgrimage route in Spain. While there, she said, two people left their cars to inform them that they were going the wrong way. Powers said she also met up with hikers from Canada and became fast friends.
“Every politician, every politician, needs to walk the Camino unassisted,” she said. “Because what happens is ‘Oh, you have a turban, but you have the foot ointment I need. You have a turban, but your child is walking with you.’ What you’re giving somebody like me is the opportunity to give back to somebody standing in the intersection trying to help me go the right way. It’s all connected.”
The Redwood Happiness Initiative was created locally in 2012. Denise Doyle-Schnacker, one of the founders, and several other core members attended a happiness workshop and learned about Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index.
The Redwood Happiness Initiative is spearheading efforts to establish a labyrinth in Beachfront Park. In addition to hearing Francis speak on the Happiness Walk, the potluck also included an update on the labyrinth, according to Doyle-Schnacker.
Francis, who is headed to Seattle, said once she plans to fly back east in May to visit family before returning to Washington State to resume her journey. In addition to analyzing the results of the interviews she’s conducted, Gross National Happiness USA is also putting together a documentary compilation of the different conversations she’s had.
People can also participate and provide their own input by visiting gnhusa.org and taking part in an online survey. They can also sign the Charter for Happiness, she said.
After being on the road for five years, Francis said she has noticed a change. In 2012 there was a lot of discontent, but there was also a lot of complacency, she said. Now, two election cycles later, Francis said people have begun to let policy makers know their opinions and thoughts.
But, Francis said, it really goes back to connecting with people.
“A lot of people are doing stuff, but what is possible for you to do to contribute every day,” she said. “It could be, and a lot of people say this, the eye connection. It simply starts there sometimes. I see you, and a lot of people don’t feel seen. Just that simple action can go a long way for healing.”
Reach Jessica Cejnar at firstname.lastname@example.org .