The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 2 June 2016

A Splendid Isolation

Lessons on Happiness from the Kingdom of Bhutan

by Madeline Drexler

This book has a hefty title and subtitle for such a small volume, at just sixty pages. What it contains is an essay rich in perception and insight into the Bhutanese kingtom as it faces the stresses of entering a global economy and today's grasping high-tech global environment. A few decades ago, as Bhutan began to modernize and open up to the outside world, knowing that the country needed to do so or risk being dominated by one of its giant neighbors, China or India, the nation codified the notion of Gross National Happiness. As opposed to Gross National Product (or GDP), GNH appeared quixotic and even quaint to the other competitive nations of the world. To Western liberals, who already have an affinity for Buddhist culture, it seemed like a glimmer of hope in a world rife with greed and materialism. But GNH is neither naive, nor is it the great shining solution for humanity. It is, in its essentials, the recognition by a struggling rural society, that there are basic material needs than need to be met such that the immaterial elements of happiness can be achieved. These include such services as health care and education, and not so much emphasis on economic development and the unsustainable notion of unending growth. So, there is an essential recognition here, that immaterial and unquantifiable goals are just as important to national happiness as the material and economic ones, if not more so. Western nations demanded some quantification from the Bhutanese who could only respond that that isn't the point. What dollar amount do we apply to the well-being derived from quality time off? How much value do you place on the comfort in knowing that life expectancy is growing? Western economists spend a lot of time and effort trying to come to terms with these ideas.

Meanwhile, down on the ground, where it matters, how does Bhutan deal with Gross National Happiness? The policy colors all political and economic arguments inside this nation of fewer than a million people. Young Bhutanese suffer the same yearnings and many of the same social problems as the young in any developing country. There are stresses on the system, demands for change. The country is still behind the times on some basic human rights. Nothing is perfect. But the notion has also helped people to understand and to expect a certain kind of non-material happiness. It has opened up the conversation to the notion that things are not the path to bliss, and that impermanence helps us to appreciate the vital things in life that make us happy. Sure, Western nations can learn from this, but they (we) are unlikely to pay much attention to the discoveries and challenges from this tiny Asian nation. We are immersed in an unending faith in unending growth, despite the readily apparent and disastrous unsustainability of that path.

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