Sept. 19, 2012 -- "I want Colombia to be known as an exporter of happiness…rather than as an exporter of drugs," Mario Chamorro, the director of the Make it Happy Foundation, told me in a recent phone conversation. That might sound improbable, but then again, so is the story of Mario Chamorro.
Born in rural Pasto, Colombia (next to an active volcano, he likes to add), Mario left home to study in Bogota and eventually ended up working on social initiatives for the government of President Alvaro Uribe. While many considered him to have "made it," Mario had bigger dreams and soon left for the U.S. He learned English while parking cars and waiting tables in Boston and was eventually accepted to the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.
We first met when he was coordinating social events as president of the student association. It was apparent then that he had a gift for bringing people together and making them happy, but it would take a few years for him to dedicate himself to the effort full-time.
After getting his master's degree, Mario worked in the energy, finance and health industries. He was good at everything he did but nothing seemed to fully click. During the financial crisis, he lost his job, broke up with his girlfriend and, last year, was diagnosed with cancer. Combined, these events pushed him to ponder the single question that led to his big idea. What makes you happy?
One of Mario's first projects involved asking people to draw or write something that made them happy on a post-it note. "The Happy Post Project" started as a fun way to meet people at a bar but soon spread to the streets and art galleries of Boston and eventually to Tokyo, Times Square and TED conferences. Mario says he quickly learned that "one, happiness is contagious; two, happiness empowers people; and three, happiness creates social change."
He was on to something. In January, he received funding and office space from a sponsor so that he could expand his ideas. Eight months later, he was invited to Colombia to present the Happy Post Project to communities impacted by the civil conflict between the leftist FARC rebels and government forces.
The reaction surprised him. Inspired by all the messages of happiness collected by the Happy Post team, the mayor of Cali signed a "happiness pact" officially committing the city to measure and monitor the happiness of its citizens. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos mentioned Mario's work in a speech and invited him for a visit. President Santos' post-it note read: "a more peaceful and just Colombia."
"It was clearly a special moment because we were moving from awareness to concrete actions that will spark social change," said Mario, who is now cancer-free.
Like any good innovator, Mario is building on his early success to develop other initiatives. He recently created the Make it Happy Foundation, a non-profit organization whose goal is to spark a social movement to spread happiness. The foundation is creating a "happiness lab" to promote the study of happiness and support a network of social innovators. A consulting operation designed to help governments and companies learn more about what makes people happy is also in the works.
Mario continues to dream big. He wants to use happiness as a resource to promote the peace process in Colombia and beyond.
"If our project works in Colombia we can easily replicate that in countries such as Uganda, Palestine or Afghanistan," he says.
In a way, Mario is already Colombia's leading happiness export. He started out in Pasto as a raw material before moving on and adding value in Bogota, Boston and New York. As he moves up the value chain, the happiness he creates is inspiring people in Colombia and throughout the world.