Thursday, September 04, 2008

Happiness – the elusive dream

Happiness is a subject that has been debated more than any other topic throughout the history of mankind. Philosophers, priests, politicians, poets and even musicians have had a say on the subject. In 1988, for instance, Bobby McPherrin’s Don’t Worry, Be Happy was song of the year. If only life could be that simple as in the song, then we don’t really have to worry and we could be happy, all right.

The truth is, life is not so simple, and the quest for happiness is also one of the main causes of our unhappiness. Especially when we talk of happiness, not in individual terms, but in gross or national terms. We may, for example, ask, are Americans happy as a people? This question becomes relevant when one looks at American history to see if the United States has ever deemed the pursuit of happiness as a national objective. It may have been proposed for the first and the last time on July 4, 1776, by way of the American Declaration of Independence which considered the pursuit of happiness, in addition to life and liberty, as an inalienable human right.

But with the number of American soldiers dying in the war in Iraq, hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the city of New Orleans and its human landscape, and the unpopularity of Bush’s presidency, it’s probably safe to say that Americans are fed up and unhappy about the state of their nation. Here lies the difficulty in measuring happiness as a collective state or aggregate feeling. Individually, happiness may be gauged in relatively much easier terms to comprehend, depending on one’s personal objective in life, such as a stable job that pays well, a roof over one’s head, plenty of healthy food on the table, good grades in school, a nice car, or just being thin or fit. But we don’t measure the happiness of a country this way.

Economists have been content to use gross national product (GNP) as the litmus test of the health of a nation. Following Adam Smith’s philosophy, the wealth of a nation therefore determines the well-being of a nation. In his book, A Whole New Mind, Daniel H. Pink has observed that judging from the per capita gross domestic product of the United States, every American is three times richer today. But Americans do not feel one bit happier, according to Pink. He argues that there is enough evidence to prove that material wealth and happiness are no longer in sync in post-industrial societies. For instance, it has been observed that the number of people suffering from depression in industrialized countries had grown tenfold in 50 years.

An alternative approach to measuring happiness or well-being was developed by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck of Bhutan in 1972. He called it Gross National Happiness (GNH), an approach that departs from the economist’s reliance on quantitative indicators of human prosperity. Instead, GNH attempts to measure progress that accounts properly for the country’s social, cultural, and environmental assets as well as its economic development. In the words of King Wangchuck, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”

GNH can be best summarized by its four pillars: the promotion of equitable and sustainable socio-economic development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. Unlike conventional developmental models that stress economic growth as the ultimate objective, GNH emphasizes the true development of human society, and this is only possible when both material and social development is achieved by complementing and reinforcing each other.

The concept of Gross National Happiness has caught the attention of industrialized economies and it gave birth to other alternative measures such as the Happy Planet Index (HPI) used by the British think-tank, New Economic Foundation, and the Genuine Progress Index (GPI) developed through the Canadian Partnership Program. Bhutan and the more developed countries of the West are at opposite poles: Bhutan has the will, but not the information or basic data that advanced societies have.

It is quite convenient for a small nation like Bhutan to exaggerate the happiness of its people over economic prosperity by downplaying the significance of the quantitative measurement of its gross domestic product. But in the real world, when you add up the millions of people that live on the World Bank poverty line of $1.25 per day, the numbers are so staggering as to make this infatuation to the idea of gross national happiness appear rather silly and stupid. According to the World Bank, there are now 1.4 billion people living in poverty.

If King Wangchuck’s original idea was to equate gross national happiness as a public policy with how people feel about their lives, whatever meaning or import this concept has is already lost when we begin to think and worry about the 1.4 billion people wallowing in poverty on this planet. How are we going to deliver all these people from the pangs of poverty? Wouldn’t a lot of people be more than doubly happy to see this shameful number be reduced by half, at least? This preoccupation with the idea of measuring a people’s well-being through an alternative metrics that stresses the pursuit of happiness over purely economic terms is indicative of the idleness of the rich, a wasteful exercise by those who have very little to lose in psychoanalysing the roots of their own unhappiness.

There are more pressing issues on mankind’s agenda today: the inequalities of globalization (which creates new markets and wealth, even as it causes widespread suffering, disorder, and unrest), global warming and climate change, the threat of a nuclear war, and poverty and hunger. However, it could be in the pursuit of happiness that the solutions to these problems lie, and this is not an impossible dream, if we are really serious in finding true happiness.

Our sense of happiness is created by many things, assuming we have satisfied the basic necessities of human existence first. Just because we live in a rich country does not mean we should only care about the disconnect between our prosperity and our sense of well-being.

Perhaps we should consider that there are other higher values in life than happiness. That being happy by itself is not our life’s goal. That the good life is achieved through striving and yearning, improving and growing, inventing and discovering ways to make our individual and collective lives better. To live wisely and justly, with courage and generosity, or in the words of Aristotle, to be “great-souled” or magnanimous. Until we are able to reach out to the poor and the hungry, until we show respect and concern for others, until we see ourselves in the face of the other person, will we find our lives to be more meaningful, bring us closer to a blissful life.

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