Happiness….or something like it

This morning I attended a workshop on the living standards and poverty analysis of my country, Bhutan. Now, if you think you know something about Bhutan, I am pretty sure it includes words like happiness, peaceful, green, Buddhist, or simply Asia, and you are correct. At one point during the presentations, one of the statisticians from the National Statistics Bureau of Bhutan put up a slide that simply stated:

“In Bhutan, only 1 in every 100 persons reported to being very unhappy.”

This caused a few murmurs and giggles (for lack of a better word – what do you call something that is more than mere smiling but less than laughter?). The Bhutanese people in the audience (there were only 4 foreigners to put this in perspective) did not glide over the slide matter-of-factly as we should have, had we been so confident in our level of national happiness. What I am trying to say is, if we are so confident in being the happy little nation that the rest of the world perceives us to be, I am not sure we would have had any kind of “interesting” reaction to the slide. I personally thought 1 in 100 was much higher than expected since we are differentiating this fact to mean ‘very unhappy’ as oppose to, say, ‘slightly dissatisfied’ or ‘slightly discontent’. We can discuss the Gross National Happiness philosophy (as it has become to be defined by academics and policy practitioners) and the apparent happiness among our people with our eyes closed. Yet, I find that (and I could be completely wrong) the skepticism of whether everything is as rosy as we perceive it to be has grown tremendously in the past decade or so. The attention Bhutan has received for being so happy has made us Bhutanese uncomfortable with the term happiness (maybe even with the emotion itself to an extent – how happy is enough happiness to keep with our country’s image of being happy?)

The word ‘happiness’ all of a sudden comes with much weightage for a Bhutanese that wasn’t there before. ‘Happiness’ or ‘happy’ was merely a word within my vocabulary, just like ‘fork’ or ‘shoes’, but today when I am abroad and people say, “Ahh! Bhutan, the happiest country in the world,” followed almost immediately by “Are you happy?” I feel the pressure to say “Ofcourse I am, I am a happy and proud Bhutanese.” But the truth of the matter is, my happiness really depends, its circumstantial just as it is everywhere else in the world. I remember waiting in line at an apple store with a broken ipod (my escape on the long train rides to and from work in DC), I was quite distraught since the walk to the shop had cause my shoes to pinch and form a blister on my heel. Ofcourse the world’s chattiest man gets in line in front of me to ask where I was “originally from” blah blah and then happiness came up. I did my bit by smiling and saying ‘Yes we are a happy bunch because……’ and giving my usual spiel. I think its important to point out here that us Bhutanese are fiercely patriotic. We may complain and criticize things about our country and our people to one another, but the moment a foreigner so-to-speak says anything negative, we are more than willing to take them to town. Anyhow, my point is, at that moment I didn’t really feel like that happy Bhutanese I was suppose to be. I had had an extremely long week at work, then my ipod broke, I had blisters, and I might have been PMSing. I wanted to yell all those things to the person and ask ‘What do you bloody think?!?’ But I didn’t, because there is pressure. Pressure to be happy and appreciative and content that our country is peaceful, and our government provides us with free basic needs – health, education, etc. And I am all those things, but I think the world’s focus on whether we are happy or the happiest and why and how and in what way, etc. has made us tired of being happy for the world’s sake. I like to call this the ‘poster-child syndrome’ (I promise I came up with this on my own – just FYI – should something like this already exist, I apologize to the original brain behind it).

Here are two varied examples that establish the point I am trying to make: 1. Marky Mark used to be the poster-child for Calvin Klein underwear. Today, I’ve read, if you mention Marky Mark or the underwear poster to Mark Wahlberg he kinda gets pissed. What got him his initial fame is exactly what he does not like about his past. Its something he wants to grow past and that’s understandable. You do not want your legacy to be so limiting. 2. Sub-Saharan Africa as the poster-child for disease and malnutrition. You think of any food, water, disease campaign and you can picture a frail looking African mother and child on the poster. But guess what, poverty and disease are not limited only to Africa people! While these posters and campaigns have helped these nations get the attention they need to help their situation, I think using them as the poster child for poverty and disease is a bit overdone. The rest of the world is dealing with the same issues. I have friends from Africa who do not appreciate this poster-child image that tends to create a ‘they need help’ sentiment among the rest of the world. Don’t we all need help?

This is exactly what I feel is beginning to happen in Bhutan. We were obliviously happy and content, and then suddenly people around the world decided to notice it, and then point it out, and then latch on to it.  At first, as expected, we enjoyed the attention, and the publicity and praise (and what it did for tourism hahaha) but then it got so blown out of proportion that it’s almost become a burden (eek! I am going to get a ton of grief for this post I can tell already). In conversation with each other, Bhutanese people joke about happiness. Some time back, a colleague of mine wanted to buy an iphone because, well, because everyone else has it and she didn’t like the phone she had (which I think was an optimally functioning Samsung phone). She was complaining about wanting an iphone and not being able to afford it, and my other colleague says “Gross National Happiness, just be content with what you have, and be happy.” Okay, this is a bad example but the whole point of this is that we’ve started to take the whole GNH discussion so seriously that its original intention has come to mean something very light for us (it feels right to only point out again that these are solely my opinion and that I do not represent the entire Bhutanese community in my ramblings). I have gone through some very discontent and dark times in my life (I refuse to call it depression) despite being raised in an extremely peaceful country, with a supportive family that has always gone up and out of their way to make me have a comfortable life. I received opportunities to travel, study, and live abroad, when it was near impossible for the majority of the population, and yet in my own self-discovery and growth I ungratefully let myself go through a phase of utter unhappiness. This had nothing to do with my country or my family, but mostly to do with the way my mind started to perceive and make sense of things. It was a momentary thing that eventually went away and today I am just as satisfied with my life as the next girl, but had one of the surveyors from the National Statistical Bureau, who travel the country extensively to quantify happiness, shown up at my doorstep during that dim period to ask how unhappy I was, I would have surely admitted to being the 1 out of the 100.


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