Gross National Happiness

Filed Under (Uncategorized) by Estee on 07-03-2009

Are you happy? Just think about how loaded a question that is. Just thinking about it makes me dizzy. The question leads to many others, like what will make me happy? Am I happy now? How do we measure happiness?

I’ve done what most people do upon a major life change: I’ve made lists. Wish lists, to do lists, travel lists — all in the name of happiness. Instead of a list of what makes me happy right here in the now, don’t we all tend to make lists of what will make us happy if only or when we… I plead guilty.

I know that books prescribing ways and means to be happy must be flying off the shelves in contrast to a threatening economic depression. I find the dichotomy quite revealing. Just yesterday, I bought more books on how to be happy right alongside Harvey Dent’s The Great Depression Ahead. What an irony! Yet is is a fact that books on how to be happy are popular in times of financial strife. As I must manage my own finances now in the face of divorce, I find myself swallowed by the deluge of material I feel I need to learn about financial markets — they don’t seem to be making anyone happy these days.  (In fact, in his Washington Post article A Year of Living Gloomily, Weiner suggests we have a proclivity to live negatively). As an artist, a writer and a creative spirit, I feel sort of overwhelmed by the confusion out there among the very financial “experts” — everyone scurrying to be the next correct financial prophet. If too much information leads to stupidity, then we must certainly be on the right path.

Money just doesn’t seem to buy happiness outright. Research has shown that as soon as our needs our met, money alone cannot make us happy. British academic Avner Offner said that “affluence breeds impatience and impatience undermines well being.” Just think about all the inattention and information out there. I can’t remember when a person has simply paid complete and utter attention in a deep conversation with me. Minds are drifting in and out of blackberries, wants, what-must-I-do-next worries, and to-do lists.

So what is happiness, then? Is it an attitude — that happiness is not the destination, but the journey sort of thinking?

I’m enjoying my latest read by Eric Weiner, The Geography of Bliss. Just halfway through in one sitting as of yesterday, my flu just easing enough to enable my eyes to focus on the printed word instead of sleeping through the day, I realize that this is all that’s been on my mind since I can remember. Is happiness a “pursuit” or is it an attitude? Is it right here in my lap, or snuggling in the crook of my arm at night before he falls asleep? Or is it “out there” somewhere yet unidentified?

As we stimulate an economy in order that we all remain happy (or as we try so hard to hold on to the happiness we equated with consumption), we might be amused yet confused at what Bhutan has prioritized in its government policy as Gross National Happiness: “In a nutshell, Gross National Happiness seeks to measure a nation’s progress not by its balance sheet but rather by the happiness — or unhappiness — of its people. It’s a concept that represents a profound shift from how we think about money and satisfaction and the obligation of a government to its people,” writes Weiner (p.56) The author then spots a hand-painted sign in a country that otherwise lacks billboards and advertising which reads,

When the last tree is cut,
When the last river is emptied,
When the last fish is caught,
Only then will Man realize that he can not eat money
. (p.57)

Hmmm. I feel like putting that sign up on my door. What a great little mantra for a world gone mad — we Westerners who seem to have lost the meaning in our lives — and in a time when we face the reality that consumption leads down a road of despair with scarce enough resources to survive (if we keep along the same path say the environmentalists), let alone be happy.

How much do our expectations infringe upon our potential for happiness or mere contentment? I mean, I am content with a book in my hands that I enjoy reading. I am content watching a good movie. I can become ebullient when dancing, or sharing a deep and attentive conversation with another person. I think that’s it for me — a contentment and connection with a person or myself in a moment. I can be content with Adam just as he is. We are going to the art gallery today and we will simply enjoy each other’s company with no grand affair. I can be happy even when I am going through crisis with the mere realization that there are moments that make us happy within more difficult times, like the times I am going through right now. For me, even these simple revelations are the essence of happiness.

Weiner writes, “In America, high expectations are the engines that drive us, the gas in our tanks, the force behind our dreams and, by extension, our pursuit of happiness.” Just in that one word alone “pursuit” I am exhausted. It truly doesn’t make me happy — this race to find what makes us happy. I don’t believe that the grass is greener on the other side, as the saying goes. Something deep inside me has always told me that my happiness has to do with my outlook on life. It’s something that I always have to re-confront.

Weiner interviews Karma Ura, a part of the Bhutan government’s think tank. Karma (I like his name for I believe we reap what we sow), says, “My way of thinking is completely different [than an American’s way of thinking]. I have no such mountains to scale; basically, I find that living itself is a struggle, and if I’m satisfied, if I have just done that, lived well, in the evening I sigh and say, ‘it was okay….’ Even if you have achieved great things, it is sort of a theatre playing in your mind. You think it so important, but actually you have not made such a difference to anyone’s life…We like to think we really made a difference. Okay in the week’s scale it may have been interesting. Take another forty years, I’m not so sure. Take three generations, and you will be forgotten without a trace.” (p. 65)

Like Karma, I think about death every day. Like him, I find it “sanitizing,” not morose. I think about it to remind me of the pleasures and gifts of today. I find that the work of being happy much too exhausting. Rather, the realization of what I have today, seems to bring me unadulterated contentment.

I hope your day brings you contentment, even if it’s just washing the dishes, walking outside, reading a book or…going to the art gallery. Today, I’m not Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat Pray Love, or Eric Weiner of The Geography of Bliss — searching somewhere out there to find happiness. I am living as if the life and the things I go through are contributing to my happiness. The plain old subtle day-to-day stuff that is actually, quite special depending upon one’s view of things. My life is about Adam these days, navigating a difficult time, and realizing what makes me happy, or at least content, right here at home. The geographies I navigate are living inside not just me, but in all of us. We don’t need to really travel that far.


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About Me


I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (, and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.