What I want you to know. Which is everything.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Happiness Runs

In 1972, the king of Bhutan declared that his Himalayan country (which is the size of Switzerland) would henceforth measure progress with gross national happiness instead of gross national product. It is still the only country in the world to do so.

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This article from Sojourners seems to contend that, according to Bhutan, property or land, power or influence, even money isn't taken into consideration when determining wealth. The only deciding factor when it comes to how rich and successful a person is is how happy a person is.

This brings a number of things to question: How do they determine how happy a person is? Does it matter if others even know if you are happy or not? In our country we quantify wealth and success by one's station, money, office held. These are all measurable, quantitative entities. If you want to know how much money I have you can peek a look at my bank account. If you want to know if I am successful at my job you could come watch me in action, or ask my superior. But, how would you know if I was happy?

If you know me you probably think I'm a pretty happy person. For the most part you would be right. I haven't many complaints. But, if you know me really well, you know that I don't hide my mood very well from people. If I am upset, you will know it. I may even tell you. It really isn't a plea for pity or anything like that, I simply don't feel the need to lie to people by acting completely happy when I am anything but. That is one thing that makes me an ineffective teacher at times. I don't take my bad days out on my students, but they definitely know if I'm not to be messed with. On the other hand my students benefit heavily when I am in a good mood because I can tell that they catch on to my enthusiasm and energy. Plus, when I'm in a good mood their little irksome tendencies are much less irksome.

So by the standards of Bhutan, I'm not doing bad. But, by the standards of the U.S.A., who gives a rip if I smile jollily down the street and whistle greeting each stranger as my own brother. (Not that I do that.) I'm a teacher with a steady, but humble income, I drive a decent, albeit used car, and I live in a suburb. I'm a pretty typical white guy you could say. While no one would ever say that teaching isn't a respectable profession, high school drama teachers aren't exactly being interviewed by 60 minutes. The article debates the question of whether or not a system like Bhutan's would ever work in America. I think we can safely say that we will never conduct our affairs based on the "four pillars." Too many people in middle-America would think that was too "gay." (Let me know if I'm overusing "quotes.")

So, how does one measure Gross National Happiness. Of course we could look at the quality of life, which a very subjective standard. Some people who live without a lot of "stuff" that many of us consider part of our quality of life consider themselves to have a very high quality of life. On the other hand, if they were offered those things perhaps they would take them and consider themselves happier for it. Maybe the Bhutan government just asks people if they are happy. Like an opinion poll.

"When asked, 75% of Bhutans say that they consider themselves happy." the report may say. Of course that would be a huge number but for a country that is focusing on happiness as a sole measure of national wealth I find it hard to believe that they aren't already on a higher level of content than most of the rest of the world. Who else but a happy person is going to say, "We may not be rich in money, but we have much wealth in happiness."? The general population in The Good Ole U.S. of A. buys and spends and rents and goes into massive debt so that they can acquire things that will supposedly make them happy. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that there is one factor much more important to determining happiness: sexual activity.

An essay by London economist Richard Layard asserts that as we have acquired wealth, health, and physical comfort that the U.S., as well as other wealthy, industrialized nations have become less happy.

So, what the crap? Are we simply making ourselves miserable as we shove ice cream down our throats? "This will make the pain go away."

Many of our present woes stem from the tragedies and economic difficulties of recent years. It seems at times that everything is getting worse and that the world is coming to an end. I had a student at school remark to me the other day that she felt the world was getting worse off every year. By her narrow viewpoint there were less jobs, more poor, a greater gap in wealth. On top of all that nothing is cheaper, on the contrary everything is more expensive which widens the gap even more. At this point I wanted to say, "Yes, it's because of the Republicans! Don't grow up to be Republicans! Talk to your parents. Let them know what is going on. We've got to stop this machine of greed and corruption in government. For that matter don't vote for Democrats either, but that would be a start. There's got to be a balance between Piggish Capitalism and oppressive Socialism!" And then I would sink to my knees, sobbing. But, of course, I can't say that in a public school. So, I reminded them that every decade, every century, and every year and even day has it's highs and lows. Some highs are going to be much higher than others. I reminded them that when they were children, growing up in the 90s America was wealthier than it had ever been. We didn't worry about terrorism, even if we should have, everyone had jobs and everyone was "happy." Supposedly. Certainly to 15 and 16 year olds the good ole day of yesteryear must seem like forever ago and the worries and hardships of today all seem to be the result of a strange, evil phenomenon. 9/11.

I must admit, everything seems to stem back to 9/11, even in my rational mind. Much like my students, 9/11 just so happened to come at a time of great transition in my life. They were transitioning from child to adolescent. I, on the other hand was transitioning from dependent to full-out adult, with all the responsibilities that came with it. To me, everything after 9/11 changed. Part of this change was obviously my departure from the carefree college life and my attitude toward it.

Am I sadder since 9/11? I don't know. If ignorance is bliss, and we can decipher how happy we are by how we have felt previously than I'm going to say that I am utterly depressed. I know more about the world, I know more about myself, I am aware of my own mortality, stupidity and other plethora of faults and so being I must be a rolling ball of melancholy.

But, rest assured, I actually feel happier now than I can ever remember being. Not that I've had a bad life, in fact, on the contrary, I've been blessed beyond compare. But, as a youngster I always seemed to be discontent with something. There was always something worrying me or standing in my way of complete satisfaction. I remember ending the school year after a rough semester in school. Tests, projects, auditions, etc. had finished and I was free from every burden that had been weighing on me. But then I lost my trumpet. I was borrowing a trumpet from the band and I could not find it anywhere. Suddenly I was struck with the prospect of having to pay for this multi-thousand dollar instrument and facing repercussions from my parents, band teacher, and my own self-image that already myself as forgetful and incompetent. I remember thinking to myself, "It will never end! There will never be a time when I can just not worry, sit back and enjoy not having any responsibility or problem." This greatly distressed me, at the time.

To my knowledge and memory, that thought has never been proven wrong. There has never been an instance where I was not without an upcoming deadline, a consequence of my own mistake, a debt to repay, or relationship that I needed to mend and was weighing on my conscience. At any time one moment in my life since I've been able to realize this fact I have possibly been under the weight of one or more of these burdens. As I type this I am dealing with at least one of each, if not more. I am currently under more scrutiny and contain more responsibility than I have ever dealt with.

So, why am I so happy?

In Paul's letter to the Philippians he writes, "I've learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances." I've always liked this verse because I think that I want to strive for that kind of mentality. No matter what life throws my way or what obstacles are presented I can handle it.

Of course, the main part of that verse is that Paul can deal with any situation because of his assurance and relationship with Christ. But in the context of a discussion on happiness I think even non-Christians can identify with a need to attempt an attitude of contentment regardless of how peachy or rotten life seems at the time. This is a lesson America, a "Christian" nation could certainly learn. It isn't what you've got, where you live, or what you drive. What makes us happy is the relationships we maintain and the attitude toward our problems. They are either road blocks or speedbumps.

1 comment:

jocelyn said...


A very thoughtful and engaging idea. I have been very guilty lately of being unable to see the good things in my life in the midst of the stress. It seems like the deadlines are constant and will never be met. Thanks for the reminder to breathe and reflect for a moment about those things that really make me happy...there are lots of things, even in this crazy last semester of grad school!


P.S. I still have your play in my inbox and have not been able to read it. I'm sorry. I know I told you I would give you feedback...but I am SWAMPED right now. I really do want to read it, though...Sorry I can't do it right now...