Come On, Get Happy



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:

First, we are promoting sustainable and equitable socioeconomic development which can be measured to a larger extent through conventional metrics.Yes-Bhutan-Happiness 

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.

Oregon-Humanities-HaAnd 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.”

Nicole Moen
2/11/2011 12:46:18 PM

I think we get ourselves all tangled up in "getting" happy instead of being happy. If we can relax our judgement on what's "good" and what's "bad" and see value in all of it painful, joyful, sad, loving, dismal, uplifting - then that is where happiness resides. It feels like many things not just one thing.

steve eatenson
2/1/2011 10:02:18 AM

Perhaps happiness is too vague and relative a term. Contentment which outweighs discontent may be a more attainable goal. Interesting article. Sustainability and ecological responsibility might promote contentment for future generations. I've heard that helping others is the only known way to lasting happiness and sanity. Bill Wilson discovered this to be true and launched AA on this premiss in 1937. It seems to have given millions of alcoholics a reason not to drink. Maybe ole Bill did have a spiritual awakening!

William Scarvie
1/31/2011 2:33:02 PM

David Doody has missed the point of Bhutan's Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI). It is an attempt to measure national prosperity using quality-of-life indicators instead of economic consumption indicators. The "mighty" GDP measures consumption and financial transactions, that's all. And it does so strictly in monetary terms. It doesn't matter whether money is spent feeding the hungry or cleaning up a massive oil spill. The amount of money spent increases GDP. At its fundamental level, GDP represents the cost of our national enterprise, not the value. Putting it another way, it measures the cost of destroying natural capital, transforming it into goods to be consumed and ultimately dumped in the landfill. Growing GDP means growing the cost of living on Earth. Successful enterprises minimize their cost: Name one that enjoys sustainable success by maximizing its cost. Wall Street is the only winner in an economy driven by a perpetually growing GDP. The GNHI strives to frame wealth in a new way, challenging those in power to make economic decisions that serve people and the planet. It is an alternative to the dominant paradigm that people live to serve the economy, and that money equals wealth.

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