Opinion

Anya Schiffrin

The limits of happiness

Anya Schiffrin
Apr 3, 2012 18:19 UTC

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.

The plight of the economist’s wife

Anya Schiffrin
Mar 8, 2012 18:14 UTC

As a wife, I am always interested in other wives. So I couldn’t resist reading an email that came in this week from Columbia University professor Myrna Weissman calling on Nobel laureates and “intellectual leaders” to write to President Obama and urge him to appoint our Columbia colleague Jeffrey Sachs to the position of president of the World Bank.

In her letter she argues that:

Professor Sachs has been a trusted advisor to dozens of heads of state for two decades, and is the foremost expert on tackling poverty and promoting sustainable development in a globalized world. His vision for the World Bank is one the world desperately needs — making the World Bank the nexus of a global network of government, the private sector, academia, science, and civil society, working together to deploy innovative technologies and solutions for development. He has an astonishing track record of helping to scale up the fight for public health, disease control, food production, and access to basic lifesaving services such as clean water, always using a science-based approach, and consistently getting powerful results when the ideas are actually carried out (such as the scale-up of malaria control in the past decade).

Signing off as the “Widow of Marshall Nirenberg, Nobel Laureate 1968,” Professor Weissman adds: “I know that Marshall would have been a supporter as well and he often would sign letters for issues he felt strongly about.”

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