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Saturday, March 10, 2018

Are We Happy Yet? America, Bhutan, And The Happiness Index

Bhutan takes its happiness seriously.  It has a Gross National Happiness Commission which plans investments in the public sector.  All government departments must justify their budget requests to the Commission based upon public good.

Bhutanese grounding in Buddhist ideals suggests that social progress can only take place when material and spiritual development are complementary.  The principles of Gross National Happiness have been cited as the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance, psychological well-being, health, education, living standards, time use, and community vitality.

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Needless to say critics have been wary of such aspirational policies and highly subjective criteria.  Many have suggested that a profoundly religious, conservative, and highly homogeneous society, whose citizens all share the same religious, social, and cultural values would find the integration of Buddhist values into public policy logical and acceptable.  The application of such a policy to larger, more heterogeneous and individualistic societies may be impossible.  Bhutan’s attempt to go for the measurement of happiness has arisen not only from dissatisfaction with traditional correlations between economic wealth and well-being, but also from Bhutan’s unique socio-cultural Buddhist character.  GNH may correspond to historical religious principles and cultural practices; but for a large country having a huge population with diversified outlooks, attitudes and cultures, the Bhutanese concept can hardly serve as a template for emulation.

Some critics have been far more critical.

Putting GNH into practice has drawn sharp reactions as evidenced in Bhutan’s deportation of over 100,000 inhabitants of Nepalese ethnicity on the grounds of non-adoption of traditional Bhutanese language, dress and religious practices. Balaram Poudyal, president of Bhutan People’s Party formed by the deportees bewails, “It’s not gross national happiness; it’s gross national sorrow.”

The sympathizers of the exiles read into it a conspiratorial ethnic cleansing under the cloak of GNH mumbo-jumbo. Critics comment that GNH is, at best, an empty slogan including everything and meaning nothing; while, at worst, it is an ideological cover for repressive and racist policies

It is also questionable whether Bhutan’s pillars of GNH will survive the arrival of television and Internet; and the consequent onslaught of globalization. A media impact study, conducted by Sok Sian Pek for Bhutan’s Communication Ministry, detected huge changes in family life of Bhutanese. People adjust mealtimes for their favorite TV programs .People are becoming restless and materialistic. Youngsters have started watching pop music and playing video games in pubs. (Planning Tank, 2014)

In 2011, Bhutan’s National Statistics Bureau revealed high acceptance levels of domestic violence. Around 70 per cent of women felt they deserved to be beaten if they refused to have sex with their husbands, argued with them or burned the dinner (The Telegraph).  While few more recent data are available, observers note that in the absence of any strong public behavior change campaigns such as those mounted in the West to address women’s rights, these trends are likely to have continued.

Dr. David L Luechauer of Purdue University commented (2012)

Honestly, I have no particular “quibble” with GNH as a philosophy.  My concerns lie in the area of operationalization, Bhutan taking the “lead” in advocating GNH when so much basic work needs to be done for the people of Bhutan (physical infrastructure, social services, housing, etc.), and the deleterious effect the pursuit of this model particularly the “happiness” component  is and will continue to have on the people of Bhutan.

From a philosophical standpoint, if I had to state two major concerns they would simply be.  First, there is no consensus on the key variable “happiness.” what it means or how to measure it.  Second, it seems to be propelling Bhutan toward socialism at a time when even countries like China are moving toward a more free market capitalistic orientation.

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America is a different story altogether.  Our happiness has always been a function of economic opportunity, wealth, social status, and personal freedom as much as it has been of health, family, and spiritual belief.  As far as the rest of the Bhutanese principles, they fall into the national political agenda.  Issues of environmental protection, education, social welfare, health, and economic well-being are all contentious; and the idea of national criteria for their promotion is simply not in the cards. The political Left contends that Global Warming is an existential threat and that only through concerted, immediate government intervention can it be slowed if not reversed.  The political Right is diffident at best.  While some may agree that the climate is changing and that human activity is at least partly responsible, they also believe in the resilience of American entrepreneurial capitalism, human adaptability, and intelligence.  Our ethos is practicality and sensible response. Why should we not be able to adjust our population distribution, cropping patterns, urban environments, and transportation to a changing environment?

While the public school system in America might be failing, there is no consensus on how to address it.  While health care might be increasingly costly, few are willing to sacrifice high quality, high-tech medical services.  In other words, while the Bhutanese happiness principles are all well and good as general aspirational ideals, there can be no agreement on how to operationalize them.

More to the point, Americans’ happiness has little or nothing to do with the resolution of these social issues.  While there always has  been in America a loud clamor for social and economic reform, our happiness does not depend on it.  More than ever we are the legitimate heirs of the Founding Fathers – liberty, individual freedom, and economic opportunity remain our guiding, fundamental principles. We are happiest when we are most free – free from government regulation, taxation, and intervention; free of intrusion into our personal privacy, and free to express our opinions and political beliefs. 

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America is also a profoundly religious country, and our sense of security and well-being comes from a belief in a higher spiritual order and especially from charismatic religious expression.  There is joy at an evangelical service, a revival, at Easter and Christmas.  The joy may be temporary, but who other than the most idealistic assume that it can ever be permanent.  The Bhutanese apparently do.  Government can assure that everyone is happy all the time.  Of course family tragedy, unforeseen accidents and disease will all cause periods of unhappiness if not despair; but these are only short interludes in a life whose overall social harmony will always prevail. 

The comments of David Luechauer, above, regarding the inherent socialism in Bhutan’s program, are particularly relevant to the American experience.   Social harmony if engineered and enforced by the State is contrary to every republican notion we have.  In fact we assume that there is no such thing as social harmony.  American democracy is based on countervailing forces, debate, and contention; and survival and prosperity result through challenge not public patriarchy.

Perhaps most telling of all are the comments made about the homogeneity of Bhutanese society.  Bhutan is a profoundly Buddhist culture, based on traditional philosophical and religious principles set down millennia ago, and with few exceptions, its people subscribe to them.  While the younger generation will increasingly challenge what they consider archaic, limiting notions of social integrity at the expense of the individual, the culture is still conservative and uniform.  Americans on the other hand cannot even define let alone agree upon what is culture?  If anything we are a nation of a thousand cultures, diverse in race, ethnicity, gender, religion, geography, and political philosophy; and while conservatives lament the falling away from the traditional ideals of Jefferson and his colleagues, we live in a new, far different, and almost unrecognizable world. 

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Where would we fall on Bhutan’s Happiness Index? We might get credit for at least some attention paid to environmental and social issues; but the index measures results not intentions.  Good governance seems to be as elusive now as it ever was.  Corruption has always been endemic at the local level, ward politics unchanged, and political patronage as evident as ever.  Congress has always been self-serving and inbred, and its approval ratings are as low as they have ever been.  Community vitality is a pipe dream in a culture of identity politics. ‘The community’ is more often than not a code word for an aggrieved group; and there can be no settled harmony unless the grievances are addressed.  We are an electronically mediated country on the cusp of revolutionary advances in virtual reality and cybernetics.  A similar revolution in genetic engineering all but guarantee a post-human generation; and both will do more to encourage and promote individualism rather than community.  Psychological well-being in such a fractious country is another illusion.  In fact we seem more interested in expanding the definitions of mental illness and dysfunction than reducing them.  Everyone suffers from some bi-polarity, attention deficit disorder, and mild socio-pathology.

As the Australian psychiatrist and scholar Sidney Bloch has noted:

As the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud emphasized in his 1930 essay, ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’, we are much more vulnerable to unhappiness than its opposite. That’s because we are constantly threatened by three forces: the fragility of our physical self, “doomed” by ageing and disease; the external world, with its potential to destroy us (through floods, fires, storms and earthquakes, for example); and our unpredictably complicated relationships with other people (regarded by Freud as the most painful source of unhappiness).

While we may savor happiness episodically, it will invariably be disrupted by unwelcome negative feelings. Still, most of humankind will continue to harbor the expectation of living happily and remain oblivious that this wishful fantasy is an unconscious way of warding off the threat of psychic pain.

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The Bhutanese want to have nothing to do with Freud; but they soon will.  The closest political adventure to Bhutanese Happiness was Soviet Socialism.  The Communists, unhappy with the aristocratic, capitalist, monarchist culture of Russia and the West were determined to engineer social harmony.  Once wealth had been evenly distributed, social equality assured, and economic growth governed to assure simultaneous progress and universal access, happiness would be assured.  The experiment failed for many complex reasons, but the fundamental Soviet mistake was an underestimation of individualism.  With individualism necessarily comes conflict and periods of disunity and chaos; but that one most fundamental aspect of human nature can never be thwarted or denied.

While the Bhutanese governments persist in promoting the neo-socialist model of social development, once its borders have been breached, its insularity cracked, and its cultural heterogeneity challenged, it will become just like every other nation in the world.  There never has been an ideal society – not even, despite Margaret Mead’s enthusiasm,  the Trobriand Islands.  Happiness is elusive, relative, and intimately personal.  Bhutan’s experience is interesting but little more.

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