Hillary Keller is a graduate student in the International Relations program at UMass Boston.
“The pursuit of happiness.” This is one of the statements made in our Declaration of Independence, and for much of our history the question of how to define what make people happy has been asked repeatedly. But in looking at our country today, no one would say we have found an answer.
In the state of Bhutan, the idea of Gross National Happiness has been put forward as a way to work towards a happier population instead of focusing on GDP as the end-all in development. And in the measure that is known as Subjective Well-being, Bhutan ranked eighth out of 178 states overall, the only state in the top twenty to have a very low GDP. There have also been many conferences devoted to the idea of the GNH and how it can be used to measure people’s lives. The method offers an alternative way of looking at development issues.
So can we then say that Bhutan has the answer to the achievement of happiness? The story of a friend of mine (and others) shows us the cracks in the foundation. While she was born in Bhutan, her family is ethnically Nepali, as well as being Hindus in a predominantly Buddhist state. At a young age, her family was made to leave Bhutan by the government and to settle in Nepal. If one was to ask her about this Bhutanese way, she would have a very different answer than some of the scholars who have looked into this issue!
The flaw that lies at the heart of seeing Bhutan as having the answers for happiness is the notion that we have to reject the Western way of life. Many observers who note that despite our accumulation of material things we are often not happy may erroneously conclude that the way to happiness lies with rejecting the idea of material things. But if one looks at the Bhutanese ideal, which is due in part to enforced homogeneity, then the luster fades on their idea.
It would be a mistake to say that Bhutan has all the answers on happiness. Just as it is wrong to think that there is nothing that the Bhutanese way can teach us, it is equally wrong to feel that our Western views have nothing to offer in the matter of happiness. Everyone in this world is able to learn about what we define as being happy, and can hopefully use this knowledge to aid in promoting human welfare in the global community.