Wednesday, November 28, 2007

How Do You Measure Happiness?

Not with economic indexes, like the Gross National Product (GNP), was the conclusion of speakers and participants at an international meeting being held in Thailand this month. "Happiness is a state of mind," said Ringu Tulka Rinpoche, keynote speaker yesterday at the 3rd international conference on Gross National Happiness (GNH) which began a week ago on the Mekong River at Nong Khai and moved Monday to Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. Happiness doesn't depend on the environment, or how much stuff we have accumulated, the Tibetan teacher said, "but on how I experience it. We need a wider understanding of happiness, that what I do is not only for me but for people around me. This understanding is called compassion."

The session Tuesday began with chanting by a phalanx of monks and a children's choir and the tooting of Tibetan horns. Over 500 people from governmental departments, NGOs and universities around the world gathered in Chula's main auditorium to ponder the possibilities of global transformation. The GNH index was proposed in 1972 by Bhutan's king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who had recently ascended to the throne at the age of 16 (he abdicated last spring in favor of his 28-year-old son; youth is clearly valued in the mountain kingdom). As monarch of a poor country that did not fully open to western influence until the end of the last century, he believed that his people's happiness was more significant than their economic success. A nice idea, but how do you measure it? Conferences in 2005 and 2006 came up with "four pillars" of GNH: economic prosperity (you have to have SOME stuff), environmental preservation, cultural promotion and good governance.

The most captvating speaker of the day was environmental activist Helena Norberg-Hodge who spoke more about the primary cause of unhappiness in the developing world: "well-intentioned people who support a system destroying people and the land, through the blind ideology of free trade and blind investment in commodities. Blindness is more at the root of the problem than greed," she said. Because of the widening distance between resources and production, and production and consumption, consumers are ignorant of the havoc their choices create. Local people can no longer afford to buy their own production. While acknowledging that "GNH is an important contribution to a shifting world view," Norberg-Hodge advocated a "localization of globalization" which she argued would be neither isolationism nor protectionism.

For 500 years the dominant world view has been that humans are separate from the natural world, Norberg-Hodge said, and the global trading system contributes to this division. She believes that increased emmisions of CO2 are linked to epidemics of depression, personal debt and obesity in the developed world. The internet, while useful for dialogue, is dangerous, she said, because it enables the destruction of small businesses. Microfinance has helped to fuel a disastrous rural-urban migration, and trade in carbon enables China to hide "the dirty laundry of America." Even democracy has been "a major contribution to the population explosion" because under-represented minorities are struggling to catch up.

Compared to Norberg-Hodge's radical diagnosis of global ills, the other speakers were hard-pressed to trumpet the virtues of happiness. Sheldon Shaeffer from UNESCO urged the preservation of both biological and cultural diversity: "We must allow people the right to remain others." Sulak Sivaraksa, controversial Thai author (his last book was banned) and inspiration for engaged Buddhist activism, agreed with Norberg-Hodge that globalization needs to be localized, and he ticked off the enumerable sins against the world committed by the American Empire (A friend told me he later modified his harsh criticism in a workshop, which is too bad. I thought his remarks were right on target.). Darwis Khudori spoke of his experience growing up in an Indonesia transformed by the successive waves of Indianization, Islamacization and Westernization in order to explain why he thinks of himself as "a little bit Muslim."

In one of the many afternoon workshops, Dhammananda Bhikkuni , former professor and a lone nun in the all-male Buddhist establishment in Thailand, called for "Gross Universal Happiness." Borders, she said, such as between Thailand and Cambodia, are not real; "people are the same on both sides. The world is inter-dependent and inter-related." Fr. Vichai Phokthawee, a Catholic priest who joined Dhammananda in the "Spiritual Dimension of Happiness" discussion, quoted Buddhadasa, the late influential Thai monk, who said "to eat only what is delicious is the root of all evil." But ultimate happiness for a Christian comes only after death, he admitted, while his fellow panelist reiterated that for a Buddhist happiness is the experience of enlightenment (which I think is even more rare). There was some discussion of happiness of the mind compared to happiness of the body, but this seems to me to perpetuate the dualism and the worldly separation that Norberg-Hodge described.

It was wonderful to run into Amanda Kiessel by the registration table. The last time I saw her was in Santa Cruz at Everyday Dharma, my sangha led by Carolyn Atkinson. Amanda was a graduate student of Carolyn's husband, Alan Richards, in the environmental studies program at UC Santa Cruz and she was doing her field work in Sri Lanka. Now she is a program director of Sewalanka Foundation and was attending the conference with a group of people including a group of musicians and the NGO's chairman, Harsha Kumara Navaratne, who chaired a workshop on organic agriculture. Sewalanka works with community-based organizations in almost 1000 villages in Sri Lanka on a range of issues. Amanda has apparently decided to remain in that troubled country, where Hindu rebels continue to battle the Buddhist government for autonomy in the island's north.

While it was exciting to be in the company of an international polyglot group, including monks and nuns in their orange and red robes, and Bhutan gentlemen in their distinctive short dress with long socks (apparently traditional fashion is a state requirement in their country), I could not shake the impression that GNH was a feel-good expression, coined to justify the failure of real structural change, economic and political, throughout the world. While a recent poll found that 68% of Bhutan's 700,000 people were "happy," this did not include 100,000 people of Nepalese origin who were deported because they had settled in the country illegally. Another story I came across details the troubles that have come in the wake of cable television which was introduced to Bhutan in 1999.

Again, how do you measure happiness? It certainly is a state of mind, and we know that people who have undergone great suffering can sometimes experience a more intense happiness than another who possesses all the requisite modern toys but lacks real satisfaction and wellbeing. GNH reminds me of the est Hunger Project some years ago in which people were encouraged to think positively about ending hunger in the world without any particular programs developed to achieve that goal. I think the hedonistic goal of happiness is misunderstood as the carrot for the donkey of progress. We must figure out a better way to condemn the evils of globalization and free trade which damage both people and the environment. It is not enough to say that such pawns in the global game are "unhappy" and that the motive for change and transformation is the uniform happiness of all peoples (as opposed to corporations and governments). What happened to that good old-fashioned word "justice"?

No comments: