Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Bhutan’

Sunday Repost: Happiness

In Family, Happiness, Memoir, The Examined Life on February 24, 2013 at 6:00 am
Your host in the land of Gross National Happiness--Bhutan.

Your host in the land of Gross National Happiness–Bhutan.

A repost from May, 2010.


There are lots of things I didn’t teach my kids. I didn’t teach them how to manage money or change the oil in their car or even how to cook an egg. I am hesitatingly interested in someday sitting down with them and finding out what I did, indeed, teach them.  I think their mother and I did a good job of instilling in them a thirst for life, that is, a way of looking at the world so as to render it exciting and if not exciting, at least interesting. That is, it seems to me, important. I know I failed in teaching them how to think about their life in some meaningful context, which is, I intuitively feel, part of being happy. It would have been good to teach them how to be happy. I’m not sure it’s correct to call that a “meaningful context,” as I refer to it above. But it doesn’t feel wrong either.

We live in a country that embraces the pursuit of this effervescent, ineffable thing called happiness. It is important–I guess–to have an unalienable right to chase it.* But it seems there are a lot of people who aren’t, happy that is, or even pursing it directly, there being too many other pressing issues. That is nothing more than my generalization, but I am, as I have said before, comfortable with generalizations (in general). I see a lot of people on the streets here who are struggling, a good many of them living hand to mouth. I don’t think they are happy, at least not the ones I talk to. At the other end of the spectrum, I see people on nice boats who seem happy, especially on pleasant summer days. But when I talk to boat owners they almost all express a degree of frustration about owning a boat. I am surprised how consistently the phrase, “A boat is a hole in the water you throw money into,” is used. If there is a creed for boat owners this seems to be it. People with money are worried, particularly as the markets are roiling, that they will lose it. People without money are worried that they will never get it, and the relief it grants. Don’t get me wrong, having money is better than not having it. Studies have shown that people with it, are likely happier as a result. But it’s not a sure-fire recipe for a hearty belly-filling meal of happiness.

There is a great deal of interest in happiness in physiology at present. At Harvard, in 2009, the class “Positive Psychology” by professor Tal D. Ben-Shahar was the most popular class on campus. In a phone interview with the Boston Globe, Professor Ben-Shahar said,

“When nations are wealthy and not in civil turmoil and not at war, then I think, like Florence of the 15th century, they start asking what makes life worth living, and that’s what positive psychology is about.”

It is time someone got to the bottom of this quest for happiness. One thing that troubles me, is how to go about understanding it. This is one reason I could never teach my kids anything much about it. I don’t really understand it, can’t put my finger just on it. I think we–their mother and I–showed it to them. They were raised in a household by loving parents, two adults succeeding at making a marriage work. That is a level of, a degree of happiness: a home, solid and unshifting. Such an environment is a garden in which happiness can grow. It is rich soil. Happiness doesn’t necessarily flourish as a result, but the odds are better. Perhaps it’s so simple as attending to your garden properly.


* It is no less than ironic, that in this time of Tea Parties and faith-based political initiatives, that “the pursuit of happiness” is an idea born of eighteenth century notions of European enlightenment. “I believe that humanism, at least on the levels of politics, might be defined as every attitude that considers the aim of politics to be the production of happiness.” (M. Foucault, 1967)

Gross domestic what? (Part II)

In Happiness, The Examined Life, Travel on May 25, 2010 at 11:56 am

I traveled to Bhutan in 2007. The day I arrived was marked by a festival in honor of the King’s birthday, November 11. Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth Dragon King (Druk Gyalpo) of Bhutan, was revered by his subjects, and this festival was clearly a celebration in his honor. No monomaniacal dictator behind the curtain here. (He has since abdicated his throne to his Oxford-educated son who continues to orchestrate the democratization of Bhutan.) At the festival I spotted a man holding a hand-made placard that read, in English, Bhutan – Gross Domestic Happiness. He was grinning from ear to ear.

Officially, it is called Gross National Happiness (GNH) and is an idea introduced in 2003 by the King–a monarch who is held dear by his subjects. “He cares for us,” I was told. At its core, the measure of GNH reflects the Buddhist concept that development, individual as well as the societal, is a blend of spiritual and sustained material  progress. By comparison, our measurement, Gross Domestic Product, is a reflection of economic growth, or lack thereof. The two–GNH and GDP– have little in common, at least in theory. There is, however, some confusion, I think, that the US measurement, GDP, might be reflective of personal happiness. Indeed, Nobel laureate, Simon Kuznets, the economist credited with assembling the indicators that led to the analysis called GDP, has expressed worry that the nation’s economic activity might be mistaken for individual well-being.

I think, truly, most of us don’t directly correlate GDP to happiness. Yet, the implication is that if GDP is increasing the economic environment is improving, and, ergo, the individuals living in that environment must be benefiting. If they are benefiting, they are likely happy(ier). There is no overt logic at play here, just some aberrant assumptions related to consumption, production and self-worth.

Guilty as charged. My personal journey of consumption and production has been long and varied. By most measures related to GDP, I have benefited a great deal. And, let the record state, I am largely happy. Really. Often blissfully happy. But here is what I find interesting as I analyze my blissful state. It would appear that I am happier directly proportional to my personal reduction in consumption, complimented by a different understanding of my production. Conversely, the years of my heaviest production and consumption, as GDP measures them, found me, on the main, at my least happy. In fact, I now employ the assumption that by further reducing my consumption and continuing to rejigger my notions of production, I can attain even greater and more consistent happiness.

Later in my trip, I had an opportunity to dine with a Bhutanese minster of the government, the Directory of Technology. I asked him about the government’s approach to GNH. “We are all subjects of the King,” he said. “But as a minister of government, it is my responsibility to ensure that the King’s subjects, myself included, are well fed, that the children of Bhutan are getting a good education, that housing is adequate and our culture and our environment are protected.” Those things, he said, are part and parcel to the happiness of the Kingdom’s subjects.


(to be continued…)