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Happiness: Wednesday, March 16. At Royal Thimphu College’s (RTC) auditorium, students are waiting for a special lecture.

A tale of two happy cities

Happiness: Wednesday, March 16. At Royal Thimphu College’s (RTC) auditorium, students are waiting for a special lecture.

The speaker today is a former mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania, Arturas Zuokas. And he is going to speak about happiness in city management – western approaches and practice.

Arturas Zuokas, journalist turned politician, served Vilnius City in Lithuania as mayor from 2000 to 2015.

Students are eager and excited because they all know something about Gross National Happiness (GNH), but not too deep about the philosophy itself.

And the talk opens.

Arturas begins with developmental approaches of a city with primary focus on happiness. How does it come about? This has the students sincerely gripped. And, as expected, there were mixed reactions from among the audience.

Arturas introduced the idea of happiness in Vilnius in 2008. His aim then was to make the city among the top happiest cities in the world.

The “sharing economy”, which Arturas believes is a basis for a happy economy was introduced in 2008.

The “sharing economy” is basically a system where all the citizens are given an opportunity to make use of government resources equally. Arturas show how it works through examples from his mayoral experience.

For effective and optimum utilization of available resources, he allowed his official vehicle to be used as a regular taxi so that those who needed could use to commute between the city edges.

“When you share something, you naturally become happy. Moreover, that act of kindness makes other happy too,” said Arturas.

He introduced in Vilnius a bike-sharing system. Several bike stations were placed in different corners of the city. The citizens were given a special card to lease the bikes and travel within the city. Upon reaching the users’ end, the bikes would be parked at the new stations, and from there, taken again. Quite a user-friendly system, indeed!

“It has become one of the fastest mode of transportation in the city today and, moreover, it is environmentally-friendly and very healthy for the commuters,” said Arturas Zuokas.

Implementation of the plan was, however, not very easy. In 2001, two weeks after the system was launched, all the bikes were stolen and broken. But the initiative was still carried on with the hope that something good could come of it.

Today, bike-sharing system has become one of the most helpful modes of transportation in the city. And Arturas Zuokas is proud of the initiative he spearheaded.

Arturas Zuokas also initiated several programmes to involve all the citizens to take part in the development initiatives of the city. To instil the sense of community among the city residents, Arturas Zuokas started a trend where during Sundays, restaurants in the city offered free coffee and tea for an hour to all elderly people.

“People had forgotten that the city belonged to them. They hardly came out and communicated with others,” said Arturas Zuokas. “We wanted to give them reason to come out and mingle with others and communicate.”

To address the problem of youth with drug-related issues, Arturas opened special restaurants for those who came back after their time at rehabilitation centres, so that they could have a new beginning. Youths were given jobs with minimum wage per month and trained them in certain specialty.

Arturas Zuokas said that today 90 percent of those youth has found purpose in their lives.

“It is important to create an environment that convinces you to become better citizens,” Arturas said. “With positive approaches, we can all achieve happiness.”

According to the European Union statistics for 2013, 93 percent of the people in Vilnius are happy.

“As a politician, I do not consider constructing building and bypasses as my achievements. But making my city people happy is by biggest achievement,” said Arturas Zuokas.

Younten Tshedup 

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