Time to rethink our idea of happiness

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 January, 2009, 12:00am

Having rung in the Year of the Ox, we are all hoping for a bullish year, at least when it comes to the stock market. But, with the drawing of the unlucky number 27 fortune stick, 'the worst is yet to come'.

With so much doom and gloom, where can we find the silver lining? Not in the Hang Seng Index, for sure. Turbulent stock markets do little to calm our nerves. Surely, we should look for happiness elsewhere.

How about Bhutan, where 'gross national happiness' (GNH) is more important than gross national product? Bhutan, one of the world's poorest countries, is rated the happiest Asian nation and the eighth happiest in the world, according to a famous 2006 University of Leicester global survey.

The small Himalayan kingdom has only recently opened its doors. Though remote and poor, it has made tremendous progress without sacrificing its culture and traditions for modernisation, and the environment for development. Its king and government have taken great care to preserve the predominantly Buddhist nation's 'soul' - its traditional culture, identity and the environment. They understand that money alone does not buy happiness and that what we do in one area of our lives affects many others.

I am not suggesting we sell our ill-performing stocks, put our negative-equity homes on the market, pack our bags, and live as mountain people. Nor am I suggesting that our government replace gross domestic product and other economic quantitative indicators with GNH.

The Bhutanese are not without problems, but they don't put all their 'happiness eggs' in one basket. While economists have long seen consumer confidence as an indicator of progress and public welfare, and GDP as a measure of an economy's well-being, GNH also includes factors other than material riches in the number-crunching and policy-making process.

As unconventional as GNH may be, Bhutan has become a catalyst for some major rethinking; economists, social psychologists, social scientists and governments are now taking into account factors like access to health care, family pastimes, crime rates, environmental protection and conservation of natural resources, and fitting them into their consumption-production numbers. As a result, new indexes of well-being are being used to shape public policy aimed at making more contented societies, and not just money-rich ones.

Today, GNH measures seven 'happiness' areas: economic wellness; environmental wellness; physical wellness; mental wellness; workplace wellness; social wellness; and political wellness.

To weather global economic storms, our happiness must not be solely dependent on the whims of the stock market. To this end, the government must work to resolve public discontent, not with knee-jerk, temporary measures, but with public policies that attach importance to the well-being of the community. Only by understanding what fosters well-being can policymakers know how to shape legislation.

In his 2008 policy address, Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen vowed to lead a family-friendly government. But we have yet to see anything done that would foster better family ties. We as a society should look at the hours we spend at work, and our diminishing family life, and how that has affected our quality of life.

And when it comes to conservation and tackling pollution, the government must look at the air we breathe, its health implications, burden to the public health system and other socio-economic costs.

If Aristotle was right - that 'happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence' - then, creating a vibrant, healthy, supportive and strong community is crucial because it will determine how well we fare in the face of challenges.

Alice Wu is a political consultant and a former associate director of the Asia Pacific Media Network at UCLA