Avoiding a Depression ≠ Happiness

By Jeremiah Eisele

Jeremiah EiseleBio: I am a student at the University of Alaska Anchorage where I am pursuing a BS in Electrical Engineering. I was born in Alaska, and I grew up in a rural area on the Kenai Peninsula. After high school, I attended vocational school, and then began working as an electrician. I worked as an electrician for about 15 years before deciding to return to school and pursue a degree in engineering. After graduation, I plan to stay in Alaska and work towards developing sustainable sources of energy within the state.

Most Americans have probably heard the phrase – money cannot buy happiness. But Americans spend much effort in the pursuit of wealth. Of course people need money to provide for themselves and their families, but once we have secured basic needs what else can money buy? Many people see the accumulation of wealth as a status symbol. We also use money to buy almost anything we might want, including luxury items, vacations, and even companionship or love. However, once we meet our basic needs, most other purchases satisfy some emotional need. The fulfillment of emotional needs with material possessions is typically short-lived. After all – emotions are feelings, not objects, and feelings fade unless rekindled.

The success of the United States as a nation is largely measured through the eyes of an economist. Arguably, the most important measure of the country’s success is its GDP – essentially the amount of “goods” produced by the nation. Economists use GDP extensively to determine the growth rate of the country. The growth rate of the United States has a direct correlation with the financial wealth of the American people. Since the prosperity of the country and its citizens are closely related, there is a great deal of desire to keep the economy growing. Therein lies the problem, and hopefully the solution.

If the majority of American citizens were able to approach emotional fulfillment there would be less desire for material wealth. As a result of decreased demand, the United States economy would not need continuous growth. Instead of United States policy being centered on greatest growth, policy could be written in a way that maximized the well-being and happiness of its citizens. Such an idea might sound outlandish, but there are countries that carry out such policies, one measure of their success is the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index. The US needs to move away from an agenda of continuous growth and its measurement through GDP. Is the GNH index a better measure of our prosperity? Which policies affect our happiness the most?

The United States needs to move away from a growth-oriented economy/society for several reasons. The most obvious reason is the drawdown of finite resources. There are simply not enough raw materials to support an exponentially growing economy forever. In addition, the mining and use of materials and energy is causing environmental damage, much of it in countries that are relatively poor compared to the United States. The resources that are being used to grow the U.S. economy could be used to give impoverished countries basic necessities. Alternatively, not causing environmental damage – by not developing the resources – could also provide a benefit to these nations. There are certainly other reasons to stop growing the United States economy, but the simple fact that it cannot continue growing indefinitely is reason enough to look for alternatives.

The concept of Gross National Happiness is rooted in Bhutan’s history. “The 1729 legal code, which dates from the unification of Bhutan, declared that ‘if the government cannot create happiness for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist (Ura, 2010).’ In 1972, the Fourth King (of Bhutan) declared Gross National Happiness to be more important than Gross National Product” (Ura, Alkira, and Zangmo, in Helliwell et al., 2012, p. 112). Since then, the national policies of the country have been directed towards increasing the national happiness and well-being of its citizens. The Bhutanese believe that the GNH is a better measure of a country’s progress than GDP because it is important for both spiritual and material advancement to develop together.

Educating for GNH, p. 99
Educating for GNH, p. 99

In order to promote GNH, it is important to have a method of measuring it. The GNH index consists of nine domains, and each domain has from two to four indicators. In total, the GNH index has 33 grouped indicators which separate into 124 variables. The variables are tested by surveying the population of Bhutan. The nine domains of the GNH are:

  • Psychological well-being
  • Health
  • Time use
  • Education
  • Cultural diversity and resilience
  • Good Governance
  • Community vitality
  • Ecological diversity and resilience
  • Living standards
Educating for GNH (Hayward & Colman, 2012, p. 52)
Educating for GNH (Hayward & Colman, 2012, p. 52)

The population of Bhutan is re-surveyed every couple of years. The comprehensive data from these surveys allow national policies to be structured in a way that maximizes GNH; this is usually accomplished by attempting to discuss the variables in which those who are “unhappy” are insufficient. It is important to note that “happiness” as measured by the GNH index can be somewhat different from the western concept of happiness. In 2009, at the Educating for Gross National Happiness Conference, the first elected Prime Minister of Bhutan gave his interpretation of happiness as it relates to GNH:

“We have now clearly distinguished the ‘happiness’ … in GNH from the fleeting, pleasurable ‘feel good’ moods so often associated with that term. We know that true abiding happiness cannot exist while others suffer, and comes only from serving others, living in harmony with nature, and realizing our innate wisdom and the true and brilliant nature of our own minds” (Jigme Thinley, in Helliwell et al., 2012, p. 112).

Bhutanese categorize themselves into four different groups of happiness. Group placement depends upon sufficiency of the GNH variables. Those who are sufficient in less than 50% of the variables are considered “unhappy” – this group makes up 10.4% of the population. A sufficiency of 50% – 65% categorizes a group as “narrowly happy” – this accounts for 48.7% of the population. Sufficiency of 66-76% places people in the “extensively happy” group – 32.6% fall into this category. The final 8.3% of the population are “deeply happy” and are sufficient in at least 77% of the GNH index variables (Ura, Alkira, and Zangmo, in Helliwell et al., 2012, p. 111).

Since there are 124 variables to the GNH index and the Bhutanese people have a multidimensional view of happiness, it is difficult to determine a single primary cause of happiness. However, it is clear that those who enjoy sufficiency in the majority of the nine domains are happier than those who do not. The domains that seem to affect happiness the most are good health, community, ecology, and psychological well-being. Additionally, Bhutanese do not necessarily need to have a high sufficiency score in education or good governance to be happy. An important component in achieving “national happiness” is that both the GNH index and local results have been presented to the provincial district level leaders; this allows them to determine the effectiveness of local policy.

“The wider goal is to promote a public dialogue around the index so people share their own understandings and appreciate how they could increase their own GNH. Policy and program screening tools have already been in use since the 2008 index, and all agencies, whether public or private, are encouraged to think holistically” (Ura, Alkira, & Zangmo, in Helliwell et al., 2012, p. 144).

Though it would be difficult to convince policy makers in Washington D.C. to abandon growth-oriented policy and redirect their efforts towards making Americans happy, the American people can pursue happiness on their own. In this respect, a great deal could be learned from studying Bhutanese culture and GNH data. In particular, I consider the Bhutanese Prime Minister’s definition of happiness especially meaningful. His definition sounds a great deal like self-actualization – which is at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Clearly, people are different about what makes them happy, and achieving self-actualization is something that takes place on a personal level. Even though the way one pursues happiness is personal, I am quite certain that one cannot achieve self-actualization through the accumulation of wealth.

While the pursuit of happiness is a personal journey, government policy directly affects many services that add to the happiness and well-being of its citizens. Such services include access to health care, a good education and public safety. Since public policy is continually evolving, it is important for people become active in the political process. Specifically, know what to vote for and vote for it! A great way to become educated about the political process is to attend and take part in local government and community meetings. And if you are interested in learning more about Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness process, take a look at the World Happiness Report.

Header from The Atlantic: School girls holding Bhutan’s national flags race down a hill to line-up with thousands of others gathered to see the King and Queen in Bhutan’s capital of Thimphu, on October 14, 2011. (Reuters/Adrees Latif)