No More Small Talk: Turning Big Ideas about Wellbeing into Action

I spend a lot of time thinking about how to achieve a Good Life for All—how a life built on a strong foundation of wellbeing would actually look in practice. While this may not make me the life of the party, I’ll gladly trade small talk for BIG ideas any day. The challenge now is turning those big ideas about wellbeing into action. And for that, we need examples as well as some defined goals.

As for examples, rather than cobbling together a series of stories to illustrate the multiple dimensions of wellbeing, I prefer one coherent case study, specifically, the Santi Asoke Buddhist Reform Movement of Thailand. My ethnographic research on the Asoke movement has provided rich fodder for an academic book and articles on sustainable human development and Buddhist economics, and it still has much more to offer to wellbeing seekers. At first glance, the Asoke way of life seems too austere and simply not amenable to life in (sub)urban, middle-class America. But once we boil down the key lessons and look at them through the lens of contemporary wellbeing research, this case study becomes more than relevant. It becomes our call to action.

Let me back up and give some context. The Santi Asoke Buddhist Reform Movement emerged in the early 1970s when a young monk critical of Buddhist traditions and escalating materialism in Thailand broke away from the mainstream monastic community to establish his own Buddhist group. Besides Buddhist reform, the Asoke movementseeks social reform: they issue a biting critique of capitalism, blaming greed, competition, and exploitation for Thai society’s problems. In their view, modern “social preferences” influenced by the global flow of Western culture and capitalism exacerbate human suffering and environmental ruin. Thus their mission is not a Western ideal—to accumulate high levels of material comfort—but a Buddhist ideal—to release attachment to the material world and attain spiritual freedom.

At the time of my research, the Asoke movement had over 7000 members and 7 communities scattered across Thailand. I lived at Srisa Asoke Buddhist Center, located roughly 50 kilometers from the Cambodian border in Srisaket Province, in Thailand’s northeastern (and poorest) region. The setting is vibrant: Srisa Asoke is surrounded by glowing green rice fields dotted with coconut palms, banana plants, and other shady trees under which farmers rest on low bamboo platforms and bulky grey water buffalo graze. The entire property spans 200 acres of fruit orchards and rice and crop fields, but the heart of the community — the village, temple, and school — occupies just 3.2 acres.

Map of Srisa Asoke (hand drawn by Juliana Essen)

A walk through these grounds shows a well-established operation. At the center is the Common Hall where both religious and secular activities take place. Surrounding this domain are tree-lined lanes of wooden houses on stilts; facilities for cultivating mushrooms, weaving cloth, and recycling trash; organic vegetable and herb gardens in every available space; forested areas; as well as a museum, a convenience store, a library, a rice mill, a boarding school for 200 students, and much more. It is astounding that when the first residents of Srisa Asoke came together, this beehive of activity was nothing but a bare cemetery.

Like other Asoke communities, the organization of Srisa Asoke could be called collective or cooperative. The 80 permanent residents (including 7 monks) volunteer for jobs that (ideally) match their interests and skills while fulfilling community needs. This labor is non-wage, but not uncompensated. In return, residents receive spiritual guidance and support and the four necessities for a comfortable material existence (food, shelter, clothing, and medicine), as well as free education and a positive environment for their children. While a few residents maintain private houses, money, and vehicles, most give up all ownership to the collective and equally share the common resources.

It is important to note that this community formed during a time when communists were killed in Thailand to preserve national security. So residents are quick to clarify that they are not communist: members are free to come and go, to choose and change their work, and to participate in decision making through democratic vote at weekly community meetings.

For a more detailed description of Srisa Asoke as well as their self-told history, see the article, “A Setting for Wellbeing: Srisa Asoke Buddhist Center.”

Big Lesson: Living Intentionally

From this description, you might be able to guess the Big Lesson I learned from the Asoke folks: we create wellbeing by living intentionally. Srisa Asoke is an intentional community. The residents weren’t born into it like a typical Thai village; instead, they came together as adults committed to living according to their shared values and purpose. Their story of developing a bare cemetery into a thriving community shows just how committed these individuals are. Especially since enacting their values results in a subsistence lifestyle that’s drastically different from what many residents experienced as educated, white-collar city dwellers.

Secondly, since we are talking about Thai Buddhists, living intentionally also involves keen attention to karma—the consequences of volitional thought and action that may positively or negatively affect this life (and the next, for those who believe in reincarnation). More simply: good deeds bring good results, and bad deeds bring bad results. Karma is not originally a Buddhist concept, but most Thai Buddhists I have known take it seriously.

I grew up with the Bible version of karma: “As ye sew, so shall ye reap.” Though the language is archaic, this is a principle any gardener would understand: If you plant turnip seeds, turnips will grow—not broccoli or beans or bok choy. The same principle applies to the seeds of thought and action we broadcast into the world. So to me, living intentionally means considering consequences of my choices. And not only for myself, but for those around me, for distant others I do not know, and for our environment.

Specific Wellbeing Lessons: INTENT

When I first started writing this book, I sketched out 44 lessons on living a Good Life Asoke-style that I wanted to share. That was overwhelming even to me! So after much thought, I honed my list down to 6 “ways of being” with 2 lessons each. Each way of being represents one dimension of wellbeing, and they are organized into an easy acronym: INTENT. Here are some brief descriptions:

  • Being In-shape (physical/mental wellbeing)

Getting into shape is a popular New Year’s resolution, but from a wellbeing perspective, we’re less concerned with a superficially svelte physique. Instead, we aim for improved energy and fitness that results from caring holistically for our health through wholesome food and active lifestyles.

  • Being Networked (social wellbeing)

Networking isn’t just about career advancement. Positive social networks enable us to feel good and do good, together, instilling a sense of belonging. And when we depend on our network, life is easier and our social bonds, stronger. Ultimately, we aim for mutuality—that sense of shared respect and responsibility on which vibrant communities are built.

  • Being Thrifty (material wellbeing)

Thrift, or not wasting money and resources, is a long-held American virtue that fosters material wellbeing. By reducing our consumption and approaching our waste with the 3Rs (reuse, repair, and recycle or upcycle), we can create a life that is both sufficient and sustainable—for ourselves and the planet.

  • Being Engaged (community wellbeing)

“Engaged” is borrowed from “socially engaged Buddhism,” which emphasizes community betterment. As citizens, our two main values are nurturance and participation, which help individual community members and our government, respectively, to be the best they can be. This process of creating a better community in turn enhances our own wellbeing.

  • Nature-loving (environmental wellbeing)

You don’t need to be outdoorsy to care for the environment, just realize that our wellbeing depends on it (and our children’s children will depend on it, too). This care extends beyond sustainability—maintaining the current state. With the global weirding of the climate and widespread degradation of land, resilience and revitalization should be our focus.

  • Being Time-savvy (existential wellbeing, a.k.a. life satisfaction)

Wellbeing is heavily influenced by how we spend our time. First and foremost, we need a balance of engaging work and leisure—activities that use strengths and contribute to wellbeing. On a deeper level, the human existence is fundamentally a quest for meaning. If we live with purpose and strive to connect to something larger than ourselves, we will surely experience it.

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Wellbeing is a continual work in progress. We may have a destination in mind, but as they say, it’s the journey that counts. Little by little, as we live with INTENT, with purpose and attention to consequences—and in particular by aiming to be In-shape, Networked, Thrifty, Engaged, Nature-loving, and Time-savvy—we will begin to see the sort of life we value take shape. And kudos to you! Because by taking this journey, you not only create a Good Life for yourself; you make possible a Good Life for All.

I hope I meet you at a party, because we will have something BIG to talk about.

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