What’s Wrong With Happiness
Bhutan is the happiest country in the world.
In fact, Bhutan has oriented its entire culture around pursuit of happiness. Its government is chiefly concerned not with economic prosperity, but with Gross National Happiness, and governments (including those of the United Kingdom, Canada, and other western powers) are now looking to the Bhutanese model to guide them in framing their own domestic policies.
And that’s a good thing, right?
Well. Let’s talk about Bhutan.
- Ranks 170th out of 192 UN members in literacy.
- Has a suicide problem so crippling as to attract international attention.
- Forbids any criticism of the monarchy or the government. (And not just in the media: in private life as well.)
- Has one literate woman for every two literate men.
- Forbids NGOs from engaging in any sort of human rights advocacy.
- Recently expelled over 100,000 Bhutanese citizens for being of the wrong ethnicity.
- Requires that all protests, marches and rallies be explicitly approved in advance by the government.
- Forbids all forms of organized labour.
- Has jailed substantial numbers of political prisoners, according to Freedom House.
- When elections are held, only government-sanctioned parties may participate, and international monitors consistently report violations of freedom of expression and association during the campaign.
Now, a lot of this stuff is problematic at best. But what makes it well and truly twisted is that the Bhutanese government pursues these policies and practices explicitly in order to promote the appearance of happiness. According to the government, happiness is a characteristic of the Bhutanese. Any form of dissent or apparent unhappiness is unpatriotic and intolerable. (Why do you think they’re deporting their own citizens by the thousands? They were endangering the national happiness, so they had to go.)
It’s fashionable in the west for us to talk about Bhutan as if it’s this nation of jolly savages: sure, they might not have an economy, but they’re happier than we are! And isn’t that swell? Isn’t it great how they’ve subverted western notions of commercial happiness? Hooray!
The actual picture is much, much bleaker. Bhutan is a nation without human rights, with a government who actively works to subvert human dignity. The Bhutanese people might be smiling, but it’s largely because their government has installed fish hooks in their cheeks.
This entire happiness obsession amounts to an especially successful gambit. By emphasizing happiness (defined on the government’s terms), the Bhutanese government distracts us from everything that’s wrong with their country: the non-existent economy, the absence of human rights, the flagrant violations of UN resolutions about the rights of citizens and refugees, and the despotic government in charge of it all.
When we propagate this happiness lark, any criticism of these very real failings can be waved away as mere imperialism, as if basic literacy and the right of citizenship were absurd things invented in Washington for the purpose of marginalizing people in far-flung places.
We should stop doing that. But more importantly, we should demand that our own governments knock it off as well.
It’s no coincidence that western governments “discovered” Bhutan immediately after a major economic downturn. And just like Bhutan, this refocusing on happiness indices—always defined by the government—is nothing more than a way to distract us from the very real failings of the people in charge.
They can’t fix the economy, so they talk about how They’re More To Life Than Economics.
They can’t settle questions of human rights, so they talk about We’re All In It Together.
They can’t resolve problems of income inequality, so they talk about Other Ways Of Measuring Success.
It’s all smoke and mirrors, and we need to be far, far more critical than we are about letting our elected officials get away with it.