Opinions Column: Mysterious Happy-ness

By Annavajhula J.C. Bose, PhD; Department of Economics, SRCC (University of Delhi)

Unable to deal with their unhappiness–for whatever reason–through mind-management, countless young people make attempts at suicide and many of them actually murder their bodies as the solution. If you are unhappy, especially despite being economically prosperous, and off and on broaching the idea of suicide, then you must at once do one of the two things:   

Get into Happiness Express (see source below) like the Hogwarts Express in “Hari Puttar”. Happiness is an attitude. Happiness is a habit. Everything in this book will nudge you in this direction. The message is simple and yet empowering: “Instead of living life in pursuit of happiness, live your life as an expression of happiness!”  In fact, happiness can be cultivated. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has lately found that the training programme called SKY Campus Happiness, developed by the Art of Living Foundation, which relies on a breathing technique called SKY Breath Meditation, yoga postures, social connection, and service activities is most beneficial in six areas of well-being: depression, stress, mental health, mindfulness, positive affect, and social connectedness. 

Or, meet a good samaritan such as  Ajit Harisinghani for down to earth counseling, and travel long distance like him. One midnight, having got a distress call from a death monger and having heard on the TV his Royal Highnesss Jigme Singye Wangchuk saying that not GNP (Gross National Product) but GNH (Gross National Happiness) should be the true measure of a society’s progress in terms of personal and social well-being, Harisinghani planned a Royal Enfield 350 cc Standard motorcycle ride from Pune to Thimphu in order to checkout if Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon, could really be a country of happy people. He informs us that happiness is mastering one’s feelings or emotions. “The Bhutanese are aware that they are a happy people. You can see it in their eyes. You can hear it in their speech. Compassion, laughter, empathy, and gentleness pervade the air here. There is love and respect for their king. They all seem to agree with each other and their king. There are no religion-oriented conflicts. Corruption doesn’t exist. There is no security-phobia in either the government or the people, no video cameras monitoring everyone. The Police are friendly and helpful. Crime is rare. Smiling seems to be everyone’s favourite activity. On the roads of India one is always on guard against conmen and various other hazards, but in Bhutan there were no such challenges. I didn’t need to be wary. I could leave the back-pack hanging from the handle of my unlocked bike as I walked the streets of Thimphu and Paro, assured that it would be there when I got back. Bhutan makes it easy to be happy and I basked in this liberating ambience for ten days. Every day merged predictably, securely and happily into the next. Everyone seemed to be living happily ever after.” “Beautiful country, Beautiful people…Bhutanese people talk ever so softly with each other and their speech is punctuated by sounds of gentle mirth…Nobody seems to abuse their authority here…There are no skyscrapers here. Two or three storey buildings, most sporting the pagoda design with extensive frills of carved polished woodwork, house various shops and government departments, most painted white…No horns honk on the central street of Thimphu and traffic seems to move smoothly without a single traffic light…(Bhutanese are) the most unhurried people in the world.”

There is, thus, something definitely different about the Bhutanese but there are some intriguing snippets of information, though: No one can sell tobacoo. But men and women enjoy smoking when they get a chance to smoke cigarettes as well as hashish. There is no problem finding booze here. Almost everyone chews doma, which is something like the Indian paan, but there is no free-for-all spitting like in India. So, what is the takeaway for personal well-being?

Like Harisinghani’s, numerous other fascinating travelogues are there about Bhutan. People get free education, free health care and free electricity. Peace and harmony are valued and prioritized. There are no slaughterhouses but meat is imported from India! 

A problem is that there are many interpretations of the meaning of happiness. Variegated conceptualisation of happiness goes on endlessly even as the feeling of happiness is illusive and inexplicable. Imperfections of measuring happiness is another nagging issue.  

It seems happiness in Bhutan is actually learning the best ways in dealing with unhappiness. “Learning how to deal with the unpredictability of life, learning how to accept that life will be full of imperfections, and learning how to confront and resolve the sorts of unexpected challenges that frequently bring unhappiness into our lives — all of that creates a far better sense of meaningful happiness than simply being in a state of bliss. It turns out we are much happier in working toward happiness than in actually achieving it”. 

The downside of Bhutan is that it is after all a least developed country that also fares rather poorly in the rankings of the World Happiness Reports. There is increasing youth unemployment, income inequality, climate change and environmental degradation, cultural erosion, dispossession of farmers due to large scale hydro power projects; and there is the  highest debt to GDP ratio, and lopsided reliance on India for material development. Furthermore,  half of Bhutanese claim themselves to be in the “narrowly happy” camp, which is euphemism for “les miserables”, and  women are said to be much less happy than men.

That being said, the great positive externality of Bhutan is the way it has spawned a global industry in happiness. There is a take- off in the personal happiness quest of Westerners going to Bhutan.  There is also a take-off in the economics of happiness and  ideas of anti-Western development! At a low per capita income, it is possible to overcome scarcity and be abundant in terms of the subjectively measured happiness. We can also look up to the indigeneous traditions and knowledge guiding the quest for personal and social well-being in countries such as Ecuador, Costa Rica,  Bolivia and others in South America.

You can now aspire to do a PhD in the new branch of Happiness Economics, without becoming a victim of PhD as ‘permanent head damage’, so to say!

To the happiness economics, I turn in the next posting.

Sources:

Ajit Harisinghani. 2015. The Living Road: A Motorcycle Journey to Bhutan. Tranquebar. Westland Publications.

Brita Belli. 2020. To Improve Students’ Mental Health, Yale Study Finds, Teach Them to Breathe. Yale News. www.news.yale.edu. July 27.

Dczook.2016. What Bhutan Really Tells Us about Happiness. August 6. http://www.medium.com

Khurshed Battliwala and Dinesh Ghodke. 2018. Happiness Express: A Journey to Everyday Well-Being. Westland Publications.

Wolfgang Hoeschele. 2010. The Economics of Abundance. Gower Publishing.

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