I read an article in Orion Magazine the other day about happiness, and the pursuit of measuring it in a place that is on the other side of the world. I read about the clash of opportunity and preservation, and the struggle between progress and selling out. I read about what happiness is, and what happiness isn’t. I read about the tiny kingdom of Bhutan, and how their new consitution includes what they have dubbed the “GNH” or “Gross National Happiness.”
GNH is part of Bhutan’s plan for negotiating the wilderness of modernization without losing its soul. Every schoolchild, public policymaker, teacher, citizen, and civil servant has been asked to help create a society based on the four pillars of GNH: sustainable and equitable economic development, conservation of the environment, preservation and promotion of culture, and good governance.
I read about how the Bhutanese people have differing ideas on what will be good for the country, different ideas on what will lead to prosperity and happiness. I read about how people are starting to abandon bamboo lunch baskets called bangchung as insulated plastic lunch containers made in China are trucked in from India. And I read about a road that is being built up to a temple perched high on a cliff.
In a nation where there were no roads until 1961, this is a big deal. It means that the elderly can once again return to their holy place and take part in the ritual offering ceremonies, or pujas. It means no one will have to hike for miles with heavy packs, or use horses to transport heavier goods. It also means the use of cars becomes a reality, which means more people, which means more insulated plastic containers, which means more garbage. And it means more danger to the animals that also call the mountain home, and a loss of the health benefits from all that walking.
The road means so many things. This is what is happening. It is the thirst of people for an easier life. But there is a trade-off between peace and convenience.
It’s easy for me – here in the United States, sitting in my home office, typing on my computer, looking at my plastic pen holder – to look at the roads and modernization of Bhutan and think, “Of course, they should not allow that road, and continue to preserve the old ways of doing things.” It is easy to focus on the negative aspects that come with adding modern conveniences when I only read about them in a magazine. It is easy to forget that I don’t know what it is like to live without roads, or plastic containers or long treks to get to my sacred places. I wonder what side I would be on if I lived in Bhutan. Would I be against the road and the way of life that it threatens? Or would I be celebrating its promises of an easier and more connected life? I can only guess at how I might think if I had another culture and way of life coloring my perceptions of what is important. Of what is enough for a happy life.
What I do know is that Bhutan’s happiness doesn’t depend on the road, or how long it takes to get to the cliff side temple, or how many plastic containers are on the hillside. Based on my limited knowledge of this country and its people, I think life there will go on and happiness will be a part of it – because happiness has been acknowledged as an integral part of the human experience – contrasts and all.
…life includes suffering, and nothing lasts forever. Happiness is not something you achieve, or purchase, and then get to keep. As one Bhutanese friend explained when I tried to pin him down on the matter, “Happiness is a cloud. It comes and goes.”
So, I read about happiness and how one little nation plans to keep it central to what they know to be true. I read about the challenges that come with trying to define what ‘happiness’ means, and what it might look like to operate from such an awareness. I read that happiness doesn’t just go to the highest bidder and that it can exist despite brokenness. I hope, like the author does, that maybe this reawakening of what happiness might mean is the real gift that Bhutan is offering to the rest of the world.
And I hope that I can, like the Bhutanese do, agree to allow happiness to be the cloud that shadows my life, whatever it brings.
This post also appeared at enough.