Thursday, October 06, 2005

Don't worry, be happy: You're in Bhutan!

What is happiness? How is it measured?

What is a healthy society? How is it measured?

Given our emphasis on money, on economic well-being, happiness is often linked to financial success both individual and political. Money may not be able to buy us love or happiness, but it can go a long way towards satisfying our most primal needs and our most desperate longings. Towering figures like Socrates were poor, to be sure, but they were the exceptions. Indeed, as much as Socrates himself managed to link true happiness to justice, that is, to a healthy, balanced soul, that is, to philosophy, he understood that he was the exception and that most men (and women) are more like the patriarch Cephalus and his son Polemarchus, both of whom link living well, and hence happiness, back to money. When you have money, after all, you can do what you want, and that means happiness.

Just read Book I of Plato's Republic. Then read Machiavelli's The Prince, where that great founder of modernity uncovered the desire to acquire at the core of human nature. Then read Locke's Second Treatise on Government, where that great founder of modern liberalism explains, among other things, just what it is that makes money so alluring. Remember, Locke said that we human beings have the natural rights to life, liberty, and property. Jefferson may have changed "property" to "the pursuit of happiness," but the connection between property and happiness wasn't lost. In America, and throughout much of the West and increasingly throughout much of the rest of the world, happiness means property and property means money.

Well, I'm not about to discourse on the nature of happiness, a task well beyond the narrow confines of a blog, but this cursory and somewhat pretentious prelude brings me to the purpose of this post: I came across an interesting article at the Times earlier this evening about, of all places, Bhutan, a remote kingdom in the Himalayas. (I don't know much about Bhutan, but it did produce a wonderful little movie called The Cup.) Well, it seems that Bhutan has found a new way to measure happiness -- and it isn't reduced down to a statistic like per capita GDP. It's a long article -- and I certainly recommend it in its entirety -- but here's how it gets going:

In 1972, concerned about the problems afflicting other developing countries that focused only on economic growth, Bhutan's newly crowned leader, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, decided to make his nation's priority not its G.D.P. but its G.N.H., or gross national happiness.

Bhutan, the king said, needed to ensure that prosperity was shared across society and that it was balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment and maintaining a responsive government. The king, now 49, has been instituting policies aimed at accomplishing these goals.

Now Bhutan's example, while still a work in progress, is serving as a catalyst for far broader discussions of national well-being.

Around the world, a growing number of economists, social scientists, corporate leaders and bureaucrats are trying to develop measurements that take into account not just the flow of money but also access to health care, free time with family, conservation of natural resources and other noneconomic factors.

The goal, according to many involved in this effort, is in part to return to a richer definition of the word happiness, more like what the signers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they included "the pursuit of happiness" as an inalienable right equal to liberty and life itself.

It's an interesting idea, and the article takes us well beyond Bhutan's borders -- to Canada, in part, but also to some serious discussions in contemporary philosophy and political science. Make of it what you will. I've studied enough ancient political philosophy, and I'm enough of a good modern liberal, not to discount the importance of money and property in our lives, and, like Machiavelli himself, I can hardly deny my own desire to acquire. But there's something awfully reductionist about the way we value money and property over and above non-economic factors that may constitute happiness in a truly fundamental, and truly human, way.

Even a rich man may have a barren soul, after all, and even a rich society may not be able to provide its members with genuine happiness.

Bhutan may not have all the answers, but it certainly seems to be onto something.

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