Julie Burchill on the topic of happiness:
When we are stroppy teens, we often declare mulishly that we’d rather have an interesting life than a happy one, seeing cheeriness as something suspiciously shallow. Each time we hear the vulgar street exhortation “Cheer up, it might never happen!” we dig our dismayed heels in further. But before we know it, we’ve gone from exquisitely doomed youth to grumbling old git. Look at poor Morrissey! Like Maoism and love bites, miserabilism only looks good on the young.
The country with the best “happiness equality” in the world is Bhutan, the United Nations tells us. I’m not sure how happy I’d be in a country where homosexuality is illegal, where abortions are so hard to get that many women have to cross into India to find even a backstreet termination and where citizens married to foreigners are not permitted to hold civil service positions. Is it just because Bhutan is so cut off that no one knows any better?
The position of those on the left when it comes to immigration is strangely inconsistent. On the one hand, they like to present England as a joyless hellhole (which I always think says far more about them and their joyless mates than the country I’ve had such a smashing time in during my long, lush life): on the other hand, they want everyone to come here. Is this what the young people call “humblebrag”, perchance?
Remember the brief flicker of media interest in replacing the Gross National Product measurement with something called Gross National Happiness? It didn’t seem to catch on, which is fortunate, because the poster child for GNH is Bhutan:
Mainstream economists and almost all national bureaucracies around the world use measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Product (GNP) to measure and track economic activity. These measurements are evidence-based. Hard data is aggregated and analyzed to come up with a picture of a national economy that is accurate and reliable. Based on such data, sound economic and development policies can be formulated. Not so for the Kingdom of Bhutan — a country ruled with an iron fist by its northern-based Buddhist Drukpa monarchy and elite with a transparent façade of democracy designed to obscure the true state of affairs in that country.
Having engaged in a massive ethnic cleansing campaign against its Lhotsampa minority of Nepalese origin from the mid 1980’s to the early 1990’s, Bhutan’s leadership prefers to use the amorphous and malleable measure of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to claim that their citizens — at least the ones that were not forcibly evicted from the country — are among the “happiest” in the world. Being a wholly subjective measure that utilizes no quantifiable data, GNH has been creatively utilized as a propaganda tool by the Drukpa leadership to project an image of Bhutan as a country of smiling Buddha’s. Little do most outside observers know the dark underbelly of this seemingly innocuous portrayal. It willfully ignores the history of ethnic cleansing and institutionalized racial intolerance against Lhotsampas inside Bhutan that continue unabated to this day.
[. . .]
With its record of ethnic cleansing and intolerance, it is morbidly amusing to hear propaganda that Bhutan is some sort of mythic “last Shangri-La,” a land of harmony and peace. Nothing could be more removed from the truth. The charade of ushering in a constitutional monarchy in the last few years and the ascension of the charismatic 31-year-old Oxford-educated King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk has led to a fresh burst of official Bhutanese propaganda expounding the unique nature of their happy people and of Gross National Happiness in general.
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If you read newspapers or magazines, you’ll have noticed a spike in the economics of happiness over the last few years. Everyone seems to be reporting results of happiness surveys from all over … few of whom seem to agree on how to measure it or in some cases even what it is that they’re trying to measure. Claude Fischer talks about this recent boom market:
Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Commission uses citizens’ reports of their happiness to assess national progress, and former French President Nicholas Sarkozy appointed a Nobel-encrusted commission to study a similar idea; the United Nations places “happiness indicators” on its war-burdened agenda; American science institutions pour money into fine-tuning measurements of “subjective well-being”; and Amazon’s list of happiness books by moonlighting professors runs from The Happiness Hypothesis to Stumbling on Happiness, Authentic Happiness, Engineering Happiness, and beyond.
Since at least the 1950s, academics have analyzed surveys asking people how happy or satisfied they feel. We’ve used fuzzy questions such as, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days — would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” to assess respondents’ morale. We’ve compared, say, women to men and the poor to the rich. Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven started compiling the findings into his World Database of Happiness back in the 1980s.
So what set off the current frenzy? Economists found happiness.
In the decade after 2000, the number of articles on happiness in major economics journals roughly tripled. One economist told me a couple of years ago that his colleagues’ pursuit of happiness was depressing him. Nonetheless, established leaders and bright new scholars turned to the topic and brought with them the funding, media prestige, and political clout of the profession. That a guild which prides itself on scientific rigor and hardheadedness would embrace such a sappy concept measured in such mushy ways is, well, bemusing. Even Federal Reserve Chief Ben Bernanke drew on the new economics of happiness to find the moral for his 2010 commencement address to University of South Carolina graduates: “I urge you to take this research to heart by making time for friends and family and by being part of and contributing to a larger community.”
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