Gross studies of National Happiness

The Kingdom of Bhutan is not known for many things; hydroelectric power that it sells to India, and a population that in a creepy kind of cultural zoo, was ‘protected’ from the outside world for many decades. It also popularised the idea of ‘Gross National Happiness’ in juxtaposition to the economic measurement of Gross National Product.

An attempt at justifying the cultural protection? A policy sell to the population claiming that while they may not have TV and Levi Jeans, they were actually happier? Perhaps they were right.

Now Britain is on the bandwagon. A Guardian article outlines how the new coalition government is aiming to measure happiness and wellbeing (following a similar measure in France).

The problem is, how to define happiness? To measure something you need to have two ends of a scale, and then find the appropriate place.

We know what unhappiness is. Sadness, depression, pain, sorrow, lamentation, grief and despair  – according to Buddhism. But what is at the happy end? Really, in worldly terms, and certainly in terms of the British government, who knows what happiness is, or how it can be measured?

(Probably the last group to have any idea of happiness is the British).

Since we only know one end of the scale, the other direction can only be defined as ‘a little less unhappy’.

Which echoes what Spike Milligan said about money:

Money can’t buy you happiness, but it does buy you a less unpleasant form of misery

“Happiness’, in the article, quickly gets diluted into ‘general wellbeing’, which will be measured by an independent national statistician. Does not sound like the ideal person draw up a set of criteria of happiness.

The article continues:

It will be up to …[the statistician] … to choose the questions but the government’s aim is for respondents to be regularly polled on their subjective wellbeing, which includes a gauge of happiness, and also a more objective sense of how well they are achieving their “life goals”.

Are people who attain to ‘life goals’ happy? Part of Bhutan’s argument was that ‘success’ does not equate to happiness. What about people who parent abnormal children? Surely that is an objective they ‘failed’ to gain, but it definitely does not mean they or their children are unhappy.

Anyone can be happy, even if they do not attain to their life goals.

As for the many people do attain their goals, how many come to realise those goals were not so great afterall.

The new scales promise not only to measure ‘life satisfaction’, which is something the government already monitors … but also ‘psychological measures of subjective wellbeing’.

Now, if we are going to bring psychology into the mix, lets bring up the idea of homeostasis, and motivation. The theory says that any motivation is caused by a disturbance in ones wellbeing, that we seek to eliminate. So hunger arises, and it is not a desire for something, but a desire to eliminate the hunger.

By this measure then, true happiness arises when we stop desiring… When everything is perfectly ok, then we are at rest and happy. Of course the psychologists that thought up the idea of homeostasis had no idea about what a state of genuine rest and fulfilment might be.

Only in meditation can this be attained. In fact all religion points to this; that it is the seeking of outward pleasure that hides the spiritual happiness which arises when the mind stops still. We find this in the Old Testament many times, for instance when God rained manna down on the Israelites, which was perfectly fulfilling. Yet the people foolishly were not satisfied, and wanted the taste of animal flesh (desires). Buddhism has the same message. When desire is put away, suffering ends.

The reason people don’t experience this is due to the way they have trained their minds. By habit we reach out all day long for things to satisfy.

Meditation goes against this flow, and those who pursue meditation through to its deeper stages claim to know a happiness that is beyond the normal ken. Delusion or something real? It can only be experienced. In fact, even just trying, starts to change the  mind, calm it down and give a sense of background peace behind all the activity. A place to abide peacefully.

So will these new measurements help the British politicians make a happier country? Maybe a weather control machine would have more effect in Britain. Or jazzing up the candidate selection process to put party clowns in parliament ….. as just happened in Brazil.

4 replies on “Gross studies of National Happiness”

  1. Hi All

    The Buddha not only defined suffering [dukkha] but also happiness [sukha]. As we read the suttas more, we come to know more and more of his insightful definitions. In the Bahuvedaniyasutta {M 59 : M I 396-400}, the Buddha talks about the 10 levels of happiness.

    See the following link for three English and one German translation: Nikāya&type=Division&division_acronym=MN

    The first is the happiness/pleasure of the five senses. Then there are nine more levels. Though he doesn’t specifically say in the sutta, it seems likely to me, that the other nine levels deal with the sixth sense – the mind.

    Kind Regards

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