An interesting problem psychologists have been dealing with is that of the "happy poor," who are more cheerful and carefree than many rich but stressed people. One study undertaken by Robert Biswas-Diener among the homeless and slum dwellers of Calcutta found that in many spheres--family life, friendship, morality, food, and joyfulness--their satisfaction level was barely lower than that of university students8. Conversely, those who live on the streets or in the shelters of San Francisco, and who are generally without social and emotional attachments claim to be far more unhappy. Sociologists attempt to explain this phenomenon by the fact that many of the of the Calcutta poor have abandoned hope of improving their social and financial status and are therefore not anxious on that score. Furthermore, they are far more easily satisfied when they obtain anything, such as food and the like.
This is not merely putting a rosy face on things. When I lived in a poor neighborhood of Delhi, where I was printing Tibetan texts, I knew a lot of rickshaw wallahs, men who pedal all day long, carrying passengers on the back of their ancient tricycles. On winter nights, they gather in little groups on the street around fires fed with empty crates and cartons. Conversation and laughter are raucous and those who can sing belt out popular songs. Then they go to sleep curled up on their tricycle seats. They don't lead easy lives—far from it—but I can't help thinking that their good natures and insouciance make them happier than many a victim of stress in a Parisian ad agency or the stock market. I also remember an old Bhutanese peasant. Once when the young abbot of my monastery gave him a gift of a new shirt and one thousand rupees, he looked completely disconcerted and told him that he had never possessed more than three hundred rupees (about seven dollars) at any one time. When my abbot asked him if he had any worries, he thought for a while and then answered:
"Yes, leeches when I walk through the forest in the rainy season."
Modern states do not believe that it's their job to make their citizens happy; their concern, rather, is to safeguard security and property.
LUCA AND FRANCESCO CAVALLI-SFORZA25
At a World Bank forum held in February 2002 in Kathmandu, Nepal, the representative of Bhutan, a Himalayn Buddhist Kingdom the size of Switzerland, asserted that while his country's gross national product was not very high, he was, conversely, more than satisfied with its gross national happiness index. Bhutan's policy of gross national happiness (GNH), viewed with indulgent smiles or private mockery by reprsentatives of the "overdeveloped" countries, was established in the 1980s by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck and ratified by its parliament.
In many industrial nations, economic prosperity is often equated with happiness. However, it is well known that while buying power has risen by 16 percent over the past thirty years in the United States, the percentage of people calling themselves "very happy" has fallen from 36 to 29 percent. We are therefore heading for trouble if we peg our happiness on the Dow Jones index. Seeking happiness only by improving material conditions is like grinding sand in the hopes of extracting oil.
Unlike GNP, the economic indicator that measures cash flow through an economy, GNH measures the happiness of the people as an indicator of development and progress. In order to improve the quality of life for its people, Bhutan has balanced cultural and environmental preservation with the development of industry and tourism. It is the only country in the world where hunting and fishing are banned throughout the land. That is in happy contrast to the two million hunters in France. In addition, 60 percent of the land is required by law to remain forested.
Bhutan is considered by some to be an undeveloped country, but underdeveloped from whose point of view? There is a certain amount of poverty, but no destitution of homelessness. Fewer than a million inhabitans live scattered across a sublime landscape three hundred miles in breadth. Throughout the countryside, every family has land, livestock, and a weaving loom and can meet most of its needs. Education and health care are free. Maurice Strong, who helped Bhutan to become a member of the United Nations, used to say: "Bhutan can become like any other country, but no other country can ever return to being like Bhutan."
You may ask dubiously whether these people are genuinely happy. Sit on a hillside and listen to the sounds of the valley. You'll hear peole singing as they sow seed, as they reap grain, as they stroll down the road. "Spare me the Pollyanna stories!" you protest. Pollyanna stories? No, just a reflection of the GNH index!
Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill is copyright © 2003 NiL éditions, Paris. Translation copyright © 2006 by Jesse Browner.