Reflections from Gross Global Happiness 2023

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Since 2013 the United Nations has marked March 20th as the International Day of Happiness to recognize that happiness is a fundamental human goal of people around the world and it is a key component in creating a more inclusive, equitable, and balanced approach to the economic growth of countries.

The Summit

I am writing this energized from attending the Gross Global Happiness Summit at the University for Peace in Costa Rica where we had over 35+ sessions to choose from, 40 speakers, and 100 attendees from all over the world! We did everything from sharing profoundly moving stories, exploring research on socio-emotional learning, listening to our inner child through movement & breath work, dipping our toes into contemplative practices, talking about leadership, energy management at work, and systems change to a range of other topics related to #happiness. Virtually any topic can connect to happiness and affect happiness levels! Personally, for me, some sessions were deeply healing and cathartic. The conference itself was a much-needed pause from everyday life & work stresses and helped breathe in new energy and intentionality into life & work.

After finding the time to process, organize sprawling notes and reflect on my learnings here are my top 5 favorite ideas, tools & insights, in case you missed the conference! You might already be familiar with some of these concepts but it’s always good to revive dormant ideas, bring them to the forefront and renew your understanding through the lens of your current self.

#1. Emotions Matter, period. 

How many of you grew up internalizing the idea that “showing emotions is a sign of weakness?” Marc Brackett and Robin Stern introduced us to RULER, an evidence-based approach to social and emotional learning (SEL) developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. There were many ideas that hit home but something that is actively shaping my everyday interactions is the idea of the emotion scientist and the emotion judge.

In a nutshell, an Emotion Scientist is open, curious, and reflective. They view all emotions as information, is in learner mode, want to get granular and have a growth mindset. An Emotion Judge on the other hand is critical, closed, ignores emotion, views emotions as errors, is in knower mode (makes attributions) clumps emotions as “good” or “bad” and has a fixed mindset.

Ask yourself, are you an Emotion Scientist or an Emotion Judge? In which situations do you switch between becoming an Emotion Scientist vs an Emotion Judge? Who are you an Emotion Scientist with and who are you an Emotion Judge with? Were you raised by an Emotion Scientist or an Emotion Judge and how has that shaped you? The answers to these questions for me were not what I wanted to hear or acknowledge, especially realizing that I am often an emotion judge with people closest to me and an emotion scientist with complete strangers! I am actively working on that.

A summary about RULER: Research shows that emotions affect one’s decision-making skills, attention & memory, relationship quality, physical and mental health, creativity and goal achievement as well as academic performance. The acronym RULER stands for the following skills: Recognizing emotions in oneself and others, Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions, Labeling emotions with a nuanced vocabulary, Expressing emotions in accordance with cultural norms and social context, and Regulating emotions with helpful strategies. The RULER framework is creating an impact in 4.5K schools, in 27 countries, 150K educators and 4 Million students! If you are an educator, consider using it in your classroom. If you are a human being with emotions, consider their Moodmeter App to “build Emotional Intelligence to Last a Lifetime“.

Key Takeaway: Strive to become an Emotion Scientist, not an Emotion Judge. Socio-emotional learning (SEL) is about accepting all feelings and using them wisely. Lastly, developing SEL skills is a life’s work not just for kids in schools but also (especially) for us adults as colleagues, parents, partners, friends, siblings and all relationship roles that we play.


#2. Burnout is a systemic issue.

A timely session that hit home for me was a session by Marion Brastel and Erinn Woodside called Avoiding Burnout: How to shift Changmaking towards Regeneration. They run the initiative Regenerative Changemaking. The statistics on burnout post-pandemic are appalling and you might actually be experiencing some of the burnout symptoms as you read this. Burnout can disproportionately affect changemakers and other helping professions due to constant compassion fatigue.

This session helped debunk many myths about burnout. Myth 1. Burnout is a sign of weakness. Whereas, burnout is not a reflection of your personality, ability or worth! In fact, it is a physiological result of pushing yourself through over and over again. Myth 2. Burnout is your sole responsibility. Yes, you are responsible for your health and actions, but your work environment and employers are equally responsible for providing a safe and thriving workplace with the right policies in place to avoid burnout. Myth 3. Self-care is the best way to avoid burnout. While it can give temporary relief one needs to work on the root causes of burnout. As a non-profit professional working in the social impact space for the past decade at the brink of burnout, I related to the session deeply!

Consider the following questions and answer with a yes or no:

  1. Since you were little, did you know you wanted to help people/animals/the planet?
  2. Do you want to be recognized for your work but at the same time fear the attention?
  3. Do you believe that you have to struggle to deserve happiness/success?
  4. Is it hard for you to not let work become your life?
  5. Do you find it hard to take criticism?
  6. Are you constantly trying to “fix” things/situations?
  7. Are you constantly working on yourself and your self-growth?
  8. Do you have a sound sense of purpose?
  9. Do you equate your self-worth with your performance?
  10. Is success to you defined by being able to help even only one person?

If you said mostly yes, you probably will identify with the Wounded Healer Archetype! Wounded healers use their painful experiences to help others, are good listeners, empathetic, accepting, and resourceful. Wounded healers are not just limited to nonprofits or doctors and therapists, they can be inside or outside of helping professions. My biggest aha is that I am a Wounded Healer through and through and am exploring more on how to work on my shadow integration and other tools to recover from burnout. I am not an expert on the topic and highly encourage you to reach out to Marion or Erinn or explore their no-cost training resources and follow them on LinkedIn.

#3. Listen to your Body!

“As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself…The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”

― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score

One of my favorite sessions was Turning Pain into Power through Dance by Heather Zoccali, the founder of the No Barrier Caregiver Program. She shared her story with utmost vulnerability about her relationship with caregiving and it deeply resonated with me due to the tough experience I had a year ago of being a caregiver to my father undergoing cancer treatment alongside working a full-time job.

I never thought of myself as a particularly good dancer. But the way Heather led the session was instantly grounding and she shared the basic building blocks of interpretive dance interspersed with storytelling that took me deeper and deeper. Watching her dance was moving magic! She created a safe space where I could let go of my need for perfectionism, turn off my brain, slow down, channelize my emotions into movements to a piece of powerful poetry and music. I was silently bawling my eyes out in a cathartic release throughout the session. Suddenly the phrase “listen to your body!” made so much more sense. My body had so much to say.

One’s caregiver status is often not a choice and can affect the individual in multiple ways including their ability to work, engage in social interactions, and maintain good physical and mental health. Society or workplaces are not always attuned to these realities. If you are an organizational leader or work with #DEIA, consider adding Caregiver Status to your DEIA agenda in how you might support your employees.

Through the session, I realized how the body intuitively knows the answer and response in any situation and so much of our intuition is somatic. We just need to allow our bodies to feel. I highly encourage you to check out Heather’s page brutally beautiful life, and follow her on LinkedIn, especially for the soul cards that prompt daily practices for healing. Hope you find strength and inspiration in her story as I did. Let your body guide you!

#4. Ego is not a bad word! True leadership requires a healthy integration of the Ego.

A session packed with people was called Leadership and the Ego, by Rodolfo Carrillo – Conscious Leadership Shaman, who has been a meditator since he was 9 years old!

EGO is the Latin word for “I” and it can be understood as one’s sense of self or self-worth. The ego can both negatively and positively impact leadership. Like most things in life, the word EGO itself is not innately good or bad, right or wrong. It depends on the context, to which extreme we take it and with what intentionality we use it, especially as a leader!

The Ego is a part of us, and we cannot get rid of it and still function as authentic leaders. How might we develop a loving relationship with our Ego?

#5. When things go south, take the Self-Compassion pill!

One of the individuals I met at the conference, who embodies authenticity and radical self-expression is Svetlana Saitsky. Her session titled Mental Wealth: From Inspiration to Transformation and Resilience through powerful anecdotes left us with simple, relatable and actionable techniques to deal with tough mental health situations.

She came up with the revolutionary idea of the Compassion Pill which she led us through with the compassion pill activity. At first, I was skeptical about ingesting the pill she so thoughtfully packaged and surprised us with, by sticking it under the chairs of each participant. It looked like a simple mint with a hole. There was a clear sense of apprehension, intrigue and suspense in the room as she talked us through mindfulness instructions before we ingested it. It was probably the strongest mint I ever had! Parts of my mouth were still numb and tingling for many minutes after we finished the activity. Are all mints actually this powerful to shake us out of our minds and into our bodies or did I truly never pay as much attention while having mints in the past? Was it the placebo effect or was there indeed something special in the pill? Only Svetlana can say! She is currently working with Stanford to make it a legit & bonafide antidote to groundlessness, self-judgment, disconnection from self, overwhelm, and dread. Until it hits the market, try mindfulness with Altoids and Polo as an SOS to shake you out of your funk.

For the past 4 years, I’ve been on a spiritual path deeply steeped in Buddhist philosophy which has Compassion as one of its cornerstones. But my new favorite definition of compassion was introduced to me by my new favorite human Lars Kure Juul. “An interest in other people’s difficulties and a desire to do something about it.” By that definition, self-compassion would be taking an interest in our own difficulties and doing something about it.

Svetlana is an executive coach who works with mission-driven leaders and you can find more about her here. The session, pill and mindfulness activity were to me great reminders to check my self-talk and practice self-compassion.


The conference was brilliant and there were so many parallel sessions I heard great things about that I wish I could’ve attended! Even out of the sessions I did have a chance to attend, what I shared is just the tip of the iceberg. So of course, I could not stop at just sharing 5 learnings, here are some Bonus resources!

Bonus #1: It is never too late to redesign your life!

Special mention to Dave Evans, our keynote speaker and co-author of the #1 New York Times bestseller book Designing Your Life. I had taken his session about 4 years ago, as a part of a youth conference my then organization was organizing on the Stanford campus. Re-doing the “Odessy planning activity” with my current understanding of the world and of myself yielded quite different outcomes and led to cool insights.

Takeaways: Keep figuring out what you want to do next at every stage of life. Get Un-stuck from your dysfunctional beliefs. There is no BEST version of you, there are a lot of good yous! And none of them has an absolute certainty of happiness. It helps to find comfort in the fact that there are no perfect counterfactuals to your life and you can never objectively or empirically know if the alternative choice could lead to a better life! The choices you make today are life and it is never too late to make a new choice!

Bonus #2: Access free resources for self-care.

I want to acknowledge that affordability can sometimes be the biggest barrier to us finding the right resources, accessing conferences, seeking help, taking time out for ourselves, and indulging in retreats. Access Karuna by Arun Sardana is one such resource that is building a zero-cost well-being collective.

Bonus #3: Build Spiritual Intelligence.

We need the regenerative leadership mindset to enable and work in new paradigm shifts. There is so much power in developing Spiritual Intelligence, an integration of emotional intelligence and intellectual intelligence. The idea was brought forth by Umberto Rueda who posits organizations as the center of gravity for well-being, happiness, and peace.

In closing…

Find time to connect with like-minded people, especially in person in the post-pandemic world if you can afford it, take an intentional pause to connect with yourself, build a strong community of people whom you can support and who can support you, and find moments of inspiration and mindfulness to come out of your mind and be present in your body and your surroundings. Invest in your happiness and you can transform the world.

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