The Debt Ceiling, Happiness and Bhutan

Recently the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on happiness. Spurred by the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan, the country that coined the term "Gross National Happiness," the resolution has 66 nations as sponsors including the UK. The resolution urges member nations to develop their own more balanced approach to economic growth that takes well-being and human happiness into consideration.

Good news, no?

It's the way of the world that this little triumph was completely overshadowed by the mass murders in Norway, the debt ceiling fight in the US, the famine in Somalia, and the Murdoch hacking scandal in the UK, to name but a few of the world's worries.

"What role should happiness play in development?" asked the UN General Assembly to no one. We were too distracted, horrified, frustrated, and captivated, and doing what it takes to make it through our days. We hardly have time to even think about being happy. Or balanced. And if you have balance and any sort of happiness in your life, chances are you don't watch a lot of news.

Late at night, alone in the dark, we'll concede that happiness is the thing we want most, along with peace of mind. But happiness and a centered life elude us. Happiness is always the target, the reason we do what we do. But we seem to be shooting in the dark.

It's been said more than a few times, by Robert Kennedy, by The Fourth King of Bhutan, and many others, but it bears repeating: what a country produces, its Gross National Product, is not a very good way to measure how well a country is doing. Measuring products doesn't address human needs.

Bhutan's prime minister Jigmi Thinley, who recommended the adoption of the resolution on happiness at last year's General Assembly, believes "our economic models are greatly, deeply flawed" and unsustainable. You'd never get an American politician to even come close to saying something like that. The level of dysfunction exhibited by our political leaders as they spin their wheels and posture in Washington over the vote on debt ceiling is beyond the pale. It's going to cost us more than money.

Everyone knows we're running out of money and time and we have enough stuff. Bhutan's petition to put happiness on the UN agenda challenges the very definition of how we determine well-being, by attempting to measure happiness and spiritual development as well as economic prosperity. Bhutan uses four main indicators: equitable economic development, cultural preservation, good governance and ecology and all have equal weight when making policy. Any decision made by the government has to hit at least two of the goals. Why is that any more implausible than putting all of our eggs in an economic basket?

It's a brilliant albeit difficult concept, and Bhutan is trying to make it work, while its government makes an enormous change from monarchy to parliamentary democracy. Most people have no idea the country of Bhutan even exists. Some who know it think it's Shangri-la and this is dangerous because it holds the country to a higher standard. My sadness is that the country could become merely a target for people with political agendas, opportunistic journalists, and others, and the real message of the UN resolution will get lost. Whatever you think or don't think about Bhutan, remember this: happiness is all you ever really wanted. And what we have now doesn't work.