The limits of happiness
Despite being a cynical New Yorker, I was charmed by Bhutan on a visit there a couple of years ago. The beauty of the unspoiled scenery, the rhododendrons in bloom, the mountains and the monasteries — all were uplifting. The quiet intelligence and the thoughtfulness of the people we met were inspiring. Bhutan is a country of traditions and pride in local culture. Visiting the villages we saw astounding feats of archery, which is the national sport, and we took long walks with a local guide who also happens to be a serious cyclist and has helped spread mountain biking throughout the country. One scene stayed with me: Walking to a monastery one day we passed a man sitting on a mountainside doing embroidery as he looked out over a dramatic view of cliffs and mountains covered with trees. With him was a friend who peered over the embroiderer’s shoulder as he stitched. We went for a long walk, and when we came back a few hours later, the two were still there embroidering and watching.
Peace and quiet and the time for leisure must surely be part of what makes people happy, and the Bhutanese have become famous for popularizing the concept of gross national happiness (GNH), which is a favorite cause of the current prime minister. The Sarkozy commission (which my husband co-chaired) also worked on the subject and in 2009 issued a report that provided a framework for how to think about going beyond gross domestic product and how to measure success in a broader way.
The Bhutanese are out in full force this week for a conference on happiness. There was an all-day meeting organized by Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University on Sunday, and on Monday diplomats from all over the world met at the United Nations to discuss what constitutes happiness and how it can best be measured and promoted. The star of the morning was Costa Rica’s president, who spoke about the country’s conservation laws and the need to protect the environment. It was also agreed that altruism, compassion, social life, feelings of belonging, political stability and good health are essential to happiness. The Bhutanese spoke of the importance of community and their program of introducing meditation into schools to promote contemplation, concentration and quiet reflection.
There are, however, people like me for whom complaining is essential to happiness. The right to kvetch doesn’t seem to be part of the happiness indices, and that could explain why the French, who live in a civilized society filled with good food, a strong social safety net and rights for workers – but who also find great joy in complaining – report only average levels of happiness.
The right to be unhappy and to tell people about it is, of course, related to political freedom. Also important is the feeling of equality and fairness. According to the Sarkozy commission’s findings: “If inequality increases enough relative to the increase in average per capita GDP, most people can be worse off even though average income is increasing.” Studies have shown, too, that there is a connection between inequality and health, so people on the bottom of the income pyramid are often less healthy and probably less happy, as good health is one of the top causes of happiness. Even in wealthy societies, the rich are happier and in better health than the poor.
But the proponents of happiness also stress that income accumulation is not conducive to happiness, and striving to become rich can cause unhappiness. This is where I began to get confused: How can poor countries be happy if they know there are richer ones? And is it fair for the rich countries to tell poor ones that happiness does not lie in becoming rich? Couldn’t that be interpreted as kicking away the ladder, in the same way that countries like the U.S., which consume far more than their share of resources, now lecture fast-growing countries like China about their carbon emissions? For the world to buy into the happiness agenda there must be some understanding that happiness should not come at the expense of basic needs. Happiness is a good thing, but essential to it are fairness, healthcare, social mobility, education and jobs.
PHOTO: A girl holds a parrot in Gundonovia at the Isiboro Sécure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) some 132 miles east of La Paz, Bolivia, March 17, 2012. The indigenous peoples who live in Isiboro Sécure have been protesting plans to build a highway that would bisect the park. REUTERS/Carlos Vargas