The limits of happiness

By Anya Schiffrin
April 3, 2012

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

6 comments

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Although we consider ourselves the peak of the evolution chain as the most sophisticated living creatures, after all we are still biological living creatures as any other species in the vast natural system around us.
In natural systems every cell, organ or composite organism thrives for harmony, homeostasis in itself, and between itself and its environment.
Even if we consider our psychology, our mental health is also dependent on harmony and balance.
But if we observe how human society is set up, we are continuously competing, trying to overcome others, all the time making self calculation on the expense of others, the present economic and political system is built to favor a small minority while others have to work hard for things they do not even need, in order to help the top layer fill their bank accounts. But interestingly even those on top are unhappy, as depression, divorce and suicide rate, family breakup, drug use is very high in the top level of society, while poorer, developing nations, cultures are actually happier as they are still closer to the natural system they develop from.
Our present lifestyle has run into a dead end there is no way solving the global crisis as this socio-economic system is unnatural and unsustainable. This gives us a chance to build a new system that is thriving for overall balance and homeostasis within humanity and between humanity and the natural system around us.
The difference from pervious social changes is given by our new conditions: today we evolved into a global, integral system, humanity has basically became a composite super-organism, we are all interconnected and interdependent, there is no individual or even national happiness any more, in our new system each and everybody’s happiness depends on everybody else.
Exactly as in any healthy natural system thriving and continuously working for homeostasis.
Thus if we are searching for happiness we will not find it in economics, finances or politics, but only in an inner attitude change and in different, positive interrelationships between human beings.

Posted by ZGHerm | Report as abusive

You state “Happiness is a good thing, but essential to it are fairness, healthcare, social mobility, education and jobs.”

Thank you for not repeating the current trend of unmitigated BS that you can have happiness without money.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

Bhutan being used as an example for the world for happiness reminds me very much of something Joseph Campbell once said about Buddhism in regards to its ideology being particularly applicable for Western society; that our huge egos can’t just be swept under the carpet, or shattered, with meditation.

And besides this, we see that people in our world today continually seem to want more and more. Just look at the rates of depression on the rise globally, the discontentment of the younger generation.

Meditation won’t give happiness to those who feel continual lack; as if something pivotal is missing from their life and they don’t know where it is–which often, inevitably, leads many down the path of alcohol and drug abuse.

Happiness is something which comes from feeling purpose in life; it isn’t a mindless feeling. And because global happiness seems to be declining, and directly proportional to the rise of global crises, this tells us, I think, that just “meditating” or focusing on being happy, or calming down, will not truly help us in the long run today.

I think we should consider what Einstein once said [paraphrased]: That problems can’t be solved with the same level of thinking that created those problems.

And so I think that to truly be happy today we must learn how to live together more cohesively, globally, because of the perpetuation of global crises, and the lack of solutions for them.

And so it seems that education is what is needed most in the world today; to show us that happiness no longer is some personal thing, but a collective thing. And that only by studying our interconnection, and changing accordingly, will we be able to truly find happiness today.

Posted by davidprosser82 | Report as abusive

I wish happiness would come about merely pretending.. Perhaps people who have big wineyards in addition to the Bhutanese can do this, not many Somalians, Chinese factory workers, Syrians or Iranians… All in all, bringing this idea to the attention of diplomats worths credit.

Posted by hallofids | Report as abusive

“Happiness economics” was concocted by the field of economics as a distraction from the glaring failures of its growth models and its laughable contention that mankind is ingenious enough to overcome all obstacles to further growth. Now, in the face of obviously insurmountable obstacles to further population growth, the field of economics would have us believe that people will happily accept the necessity of being driven into poverty in order to make room for even more people.

Economists would have us believe that if we now turn our backs on development and consume less, that we can all be happier. They don’t answer the question of what we will do for a living in a world where we consume nothing. It’s a prescription for worsening unemployment and poverty.

Is there no one in the field of economics with the intestinal fortitude to challenge his peers to develop an economic model of a prosperous, stable and sustainable population?

Posted by Pete_Murphy | Report as abusive

Humans tend to see the forest but not the trees. Happiness is a choice to be made, as is unhappiness.

It is not dependent on wealth or the lack of it. It is not dependent on education, or the lack of it. There is a measure of delight present in most situations to be appreciated if we can perceive it. The satisfaction in the most mundane of pursuits deemed worthwhile and done “well” is but another word for happiness.

All too many of us come to believe that at some point in the future, when certain things have been achieved or come to pass, that we will be “happy”. Unfortunately, like the rainbow, when we “get there” we find that happiness is not there but in another direction we must move. Lives are wasted chasing such illusions.

Far better to conduct our lives such that satisfaction and contentment and satisfaction is part of each day on our life’s journey. Those who find and keep their personal happiness ever with them whither they go are evermore rich beyond measure.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive