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GP20Oct04: The Kingdom of Happiness

Ode to the West Wind.  The ultra clear blue sky and the strong but kindly sun of Fall are upon us,  that  time when dying leaves bear vivid color, a spotted dog darts about to catch the scents that sift through Autumn decay, and fresh-pressed cider packs a bite for those who sit a while in front of the fireplace.  Shelley says the wind is about, “Wild Spirit, which art moving everywhere:  Destroyer and Preserver; hear, O hear!”  In this, the most exhilarating season, we know we are on earth to walk about in the clean, chill air and celebrate the whole cycle of life. 

The Duel of the Dull.  If you want to follow this turning of the leaves, take a look at www.foliagenetwork.com, which really keeps up on which regions harbor trees offering the best reds and yellows of the moment.  What a contrast to affairs in the political thickets!  You would never know we were ablaze with such color if you just focused on the 3 presidential hopefuls and their acolytes as we wind through the dying days of their campaigns.  Each tries to smile but wears many scowls and radiates rancor.  This is not a contest of giants.  Not one is a happy warrior, the singular distinction borne by FDR even amidst the Great Depression, paralyzed as he was by polio.  Fall may quicken our spirits, but not a single candidate gives us hope. 

The Pursuit of Happiness?  In their Declaration, the framers of this Republic thought our divine quest was for happiness.  But “happiness” has rarely animated great nations, including our own.  Our colleague Steve Martin reminds us that Plato made justice supreme in his Republic.  Or that the Puritans were trying to establish the dominion of God on earth in their America.  Is it any wonder that our leaders are a surly bunch since their goals really don’t have much to do with happiness? 

On January 17, 1959, Saul Steinberg, by far the greatest cartoonist ever to brighten the pages of The New Yorker, did a cover that featured a (satirical) civic monument to American values.  At the very top came “prosperity.”  Near the base were two alligators—“Happiness” and the “Pursuit of Happiness.”  They were chewing off each other’s tails.  For better and worse, growth of our Gross National Product has probably been our overwhelming goal for the last 50 years.  It and the Cold War have topped our agenda.  Happiness has not had us in its grip. 

Both the GNP and the Cold War have pretty much run their course, and we have to work up some new, authentic passions.  In our Global Province Letter of 27 August 2003, “Happy in Oaxaca,” in “Getting Happier,” and in “Anatomy of Melancholy” we learn that such fixations may threaten our political, economic, and mental wellbeing.  Lord Richard Layard, an economist at the London School of Economics, implicitly argues that we have diminished our stock of happiness by forgetting what the existential game of life is all about.  He will put forward his thoughts on happiness—and unhappiness—in a book (Happiness: Lessons from the New Science of Emotional Well-being) that will be on the shelves for Valentine’s Day 2005.   

Bhutan, the Kingdom of Happiness.  We must look elsewhere for a model cherishing  happiness that we can import into our lives.  All the best ideas, we have said to the point of boredom, now come from nations that are “Falling off the Map,”  many times removed from the superpowers that dominate CNN news.  Bhutan’s King Druk Gyalpol Jigme Singye Wangchuck has been on a happiness kick since his accession to the throne in 1972.  In 1998 his government formally articulated its Four Pillars of Happiness (See, “A Wealth of Happiness,” by Karen Mazurkwich, Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2004, p. A14).  Bhutan has substituted its GHH (Gross National Happiness) for the GNP we hold dear in most of the developed nations. 

In fact, it held an international conference on Gross National Happiness, February 18-20, 2004.  The Centre for Bhutan Studies (www.bhutanstudies.org.bt), sponsor of the conference, has since published “Gross National Happiness and Development,” a compiliation of papers from 45 of the participants.  (See Kencho Wangdi’s article on this at www.kuenselonline.com/article.php?sid=4603.)   

Onto Halifax.  The Second International Happiness Seminar (it has a more cumbersome title which we will spare you) will be held sometime between May and August 2005, a joint effort between the Bhutan Centre and the GPI (Genuine Progress Index) Atlantic (www.gpiatlantic.org) in Halifax, Nova Scotia. 

The Canadians are sort of half in the happiness business.  That is, they are developing whole new metrics by which we are to judge the health and wealth of a community, taking into account social, environmental, and a host of other measures that speak to the wellness of society.  They credit a group in the San Francisco Bay Area—Redefining Progress (see “Expanding GDP: Shrinking Standard of Living” and www.rprogress.org)—for their intellectual capital.  Note, however, that the goal here is defined as “progress,” not happiness, showing how easily the quest for wellbeing gets submerged into tangible, technocratic objectives.  Means overcome ends; progress somehow becomes more important than happiness. 

That said, we can still see that here and there across the globe little movements are rearing their heads which point to a redefinition of what society is all about.  Since  Russia, the nations on the Pacific Rim, and the countries of the West are exhausted intellectually and seemingly incapable of adjusting their vision of the future, we require new actors to weave a more inspired tapestry about our destiny. 

Health and Happiness.  This week we have added a new Dictum, “Dying with Your Boots on.”  We’ve been working on it for a while, and we’re a while from finishing it.  But we’re clear that health without happiness is only for the living dead.  Similarly, a community without good spirits cannot make the heart race.

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