Vicki Robin

GNH… but what is happiness – actually?

In Uncategorized on November 20, 2009 at 8:43 AM

I landed in Iguassu Falls some 24 hours after leaving home.  When you travel you have to surrender for if you try to control your destiny you’re in for a miserable time. After some confusion getting all the international travelers sorted out into hotels, a small group arrived at the Carima and, after a nap, headed off for Argentina! Sounded like a great adventure so I of course showed up for it. But our first stop was the biggest Duty Free store in the world and I got trapped there among voracious shoppers for an hour. The irony was not lost on me that this was how the Gross National Happiness conference began for me. Because what is happiness? Clearly there’s some agreement that it is shopping, butin our conversation over dinner we tried to define it beyond the global ritual of acquisition.

Is it an inner state – or is there something “the state” can do to induce or facilitate happiness in its people?

If you  live a safe and prosperous life and are unaware of your good fortune, are you actually happy? This would pertain to the materially rich and poor alike.

Is happiness frothy or deep? Fleeting or a persistent state? If fleeting, how can there be such a thing as gross national happiness?

Is happiness in the US context the same as Brazilian happiness? (after half a day here I have to say, as I have before, that joy is simply in the water here and everyone drinks it) But further, is happiness relative or universal?

Which brings up the question: is happiness a sort of set point in both individuals and cultures – is it an attitude towards life or is it a reaction to life? If it’s a set point – if we each have a basic happiness quotient in our nature – then what use is Gross National Happiness?

Such a tangle! Is happiness even the best term for what we are trying to measure and thus preserve? It is so thoroughly subjective and psychological that it doesn’t go well in the world of the measurable. Other streams of study talk about “well being” or “quality of life” which seem somehow more pragmatic. But this very difficulty I think is what makes the idea of GNH so provocative and therefore useful.

The Bhutanese know that their effort to gauge their progess by happiness rather than product is a process. They understand that they merely had to start the inquiry, not perfect an idea and therefore a people and place.

There is a piece of this inquiry that is set in an historic moment in the life of Bhutan – a transition from rule by a King to democracy. With the King the people simply trusted him and accepted his dictates as best for them. They knew that if he promised something it would come eventually. They did not complain.

As a democracy, though, the people have the freedom to choose their future and thus have the freedom to be dissatisfied with the direction and pace of change. They have the ability to complain. To disagree. To throw the bums out. Thus they can’t simply refer to Buddhist principles or the wisdom of the King to determine right action. They are being called to think for themselves. And because of this, they and their leaders need to work together to determine how in the world they will assess how they are doing and exercise this amazing thing called self-determination.

A final thought… is there something about assurance that the future will be as good as if not better than the present or past that governs how happy we are? Is optimism a key? If so, can we collectively create conditions for hope for the future?  Perhaps that is as soft as happiness, but I think not. If the people believe life will be safe, prosperous and meaningful, they will risk and reach and hope.

Next post will surely include this morning’s session at the Water Conference where my dear friend and beloved spiritual teacher, Susan Andrews, gave a talk and we were given also a full report on the Itaipu binational effort to preserve a major watershed which also produces a great deal of the nation’s energy. So inspiring!

As we say here, “ate mais” – seeya soon.

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