I’ve been hearing about Bhutan a lot these days. Namely, I’ve been hearing about their pursuit of happiness as a country, as defined by their GNP or Gross National Happiness—the country’s answer to the almighty gross domestic product (GDP). So entrenched are we in the ubiquitous language of GDP, it’s easy to hear talk of National Happiness as synonymous with unicorns and pots of gold at the end of rainbows. How can a country hope to define its national well being in terms of happiness? It’s hard enough for us to say if we’re happy or not on an individual level, much less to try and tell the whole country, Come on, get happy!
In an interview with YES! Magazine Bhutanese Prime Minister Jigmi Y. Thinley attempts to explain how his country is pursuing the goal of happiness for all:
Second is the conservation of a fragile ecology, [using] indicators of achievement, [such] as the way the green [vegetation] cover in my country has expanded over the last 25 years from below 60 to over 72 percent….
The third strategy is promotion of culture, which includes preservation of the various aspects of our culture that continue to be relevant and supportive of Bhutan’s purpose as a human civilization….
Then there is the fourth strategy—good governance [in the form of democracy]—on which the other three strategies or indicators depend.
Those are lofty goals for any nation. But, then again, no one said it would be easy. Which is exactly Andrew Guest’s point in Oregon Humanities. An associate professor of psychology at the University of Portland, Guest makes the case that “Being happy…is much more complicated than it sounds.” The modern science of happiness, Guest tells us, is known as “positive psychology” and it focuses not just on reducing suffering, but increasing happiness through psychology and psychiatry. But just how to do that is still anyone’s guess, with much of the measurement coming from the subjective perception of individuals through rating systems where they define their own happiness (e.g. 1 for not all that happy; 7 for really happy). And while there is a whole field based around studying levels of happiness, Guest points out that happiness may not change much even when an individual’s circumstances change drastically. In other words, if you define yourself as happy now, you’ll probably define yourself as happy 40 years from now.
And then there are the critics who say the very pursuit of happiness is shallow and contributes to much of the suffering in the world. Guest references books like Bright Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich and Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges, summing up their ideas—maybe over simplistically—as, “Do you think gaping economic inequalities, unjust wars, and ferocious un/underemployment are problems? Don’t worry, be happy.”
So, are there ways to pursue happiness, both as an individual and as a nation? Guest says it may “come back to a formulation that Freud famously (and perhaps apocryphally) proposed a century ago: love and work.” That is, healthy relationships and meaningful work seem to be important factors in measuring happiness. Prime Minister Thinley seems to agree, saying, “Today, Bhutanese have an appreciable sense of pride and dignity about themselves, which I think, again, is key to happiness. Family values and community vitality are things that we are promoting in a very conscious way.”
Thinley is confused by what he sees as a lack of dialogue in the U.S. about “what matters most”—happiness. “I hope that more will listen, hear, think and speak out what they have in their mind,” he says, “rather than be afraid because it is unconventional to talk about happiness.” In Professor Guest’s classroom, though, that conversation is happening. When he hears his students proclaim that they “just want to be happy,” he wants to tell them, “Happiness…is more complicated than it sounds—but it is also much more interesting.”