The secrets of national happiness

the secrets of national happiness U.N. building Turtle BayOn Monday, the U.N. General Assembly asked the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan to host a daylong special session on Happiness. As Patrick Stewart, author of a CNN article called The U.N. Happiness Summit, puts it:

What the heck is going on in Turtle Bay?

I don’t think it is any coincidence that Bhutan is a Buddhist country. Buddhism 101 famously explains how happiness is tied not to external happenings but to internal states of mind. As Geshe Kelsang puts it on the very first page of Modern Buddhism:*

In recent years our knowledge of modern technology has increased considerably, and as a result we have witnessed remarkable material progress, but there has not been a corresponding increase in human happiness.

happiness is modern technology
1902 Union Automobile Co. Ad

My grandfather lived to 100, through some of the most dramatic changes in human history. A cardiac doctor with an inquisitive mind and big heart, he was always fascinated in external development and technology, and drove all over Europe in a car almost as soon as they were invented. He kept abreast of all modern progress through magazines, TV, and conversations with anyone who would talk to him, and, had he lived long enough, I bet he would have surfed the net and enjoyed every minute of it. When he was about 98 I asked him what he thought about all the changes he had seen since 1902. He told me that he found them exhilarating. But, he added unprompted, they also added a layer of complication to life such that he felt people in general were not as happy as they used to be. Life was too fast for many people. People had become more materialistic as a result of all the societal emphasis on scientific, technological and material development, and although it was necessary for us to have food, shelter and medical care, materialism itself didn’t make anyone actually happy. He told me he personally managed to stay happy and enjoy watching the rate of progress due to his close, stable relationships with his family, and especially due to his inner life [which I wrote something about here.]

That happiness is a state of mind, and therefore depends on what we are doing with our mind, is obvious when we stop to think of it, but often we are so busy chasing dreams (or trying to avoid nightmares) related to fame and fortune that we don’t stop to think of it. We get caught up in material markers, not spiritual ones, and our life is poorer and more anxious as a result.

But perhaps the tide is turning a little? In answer to the question he asks above, Patrick Stewart replies:

More than meets the eye, in fact. One of the hottest fields in development economics has been, believe it or not, happiness research…. In recent years, a small but influential group of economists has concluded that traditional measurements of national progress, typically couched in terms of per capita Gross National Product (GNP), don’t actually tell us much about the wellbeing of citizens. This is partly a critique of modernization theory, which suggests that human welfare advances in lockstep with material enrichment.

Who is happier, your average Iowan or your average sub-Saharan African? We might assume this to be a daft question, but according to this article some of the highest levels of happiness have been recorded in low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

happiness in GhanaWhen I was in my late teens I lived for a while in Ghana, West Africa, where my father was posted as a diplomat, and I couldn’t fail to notice how cheerful and basically happy most people were. Even after a 1981 military coup, when supplies started to dwindle and life became more uncertain, my own and my parents’ Ghanaian friends (with some exceptions of course) seemed determined to maintain their joie de vivre. (We had quite a number of parties staying out after curfew, making the most of being unable to drive home.) I’m not recommending anyone seek out a shortage of food, or soldiers driving around in trucks waving guns, of course, but for me it was a pretty compelling example of the power of attitude.

As for Bhutan, it is apparently the happiest country in Asia and the eighth happiest in the world. Their gauge of national progress is the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, replacing the GNP! As Stewart says:

Improbably, the concept has taken off….

So much so that the U.N. General Assembly has passed a Resolution entitled: “Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development”, conceding:

The gross domestic product indicator by nature was not designed to and does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being in a country.

gross national happinessAs a society I agree it’d be nice to discourage “unsustainable patterns of production and consumption” and have a more “equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and well-being of peoples.” Positive attitudes, views, values, and intentions will be crucial for bringing these about. Of course we are all individually responsible for our own states of mind, but as we also always imitate each other, and attitudes are infectious, don’t you think it’d be quite fabulous if the concept of a GNH index did take off in our own society, and our governments heeded the call to integrate a “happiness agenda” into public policy?!

And in case you are concerned that all this discussion in the U.N. might just lead to a whole different type of Big Brother, one who says, “You WILL be happy, or else!”, the author Bhutan happinessreassures:

The Buddhists of Bhutan have no designs on the capitalist system, or the rest of our freedoms. In fact, the Land of the Thunder Dragon may have more in common with the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave than you might imagine. After all, they share the fundamental aspiration enunciated in America’s founding document: the pursuit of happiness. 

*Modern Buddhism, by the way but not incidentally, is currently at #1, #4, and #8 on Amazon’s Buddhist books list! You can download your own free copy here.