Thursday, February 11, 2010

On Happiness (Or, Why Wasn't I Born in Bhutan?)

A few mornings ago on PBS, I saw a program about the small Asian nation of Bhutan, and I was jealous of these people. Admittedly, before watching this show, I could not have told you where on the map this tiny country rested, thinking it lay somewhere in Southeast Asia. In fact, Bhutan is a kingdom nestled in the mountains, bordering southwest China to the north and India to the south. (Nepal is just a hop, a skip, and a jump to the west.)

In this program, I learned about the concept of Gross National Happiness and how this concept relates to Bhutan’s Buddhist philosophy of following the Middle Path. The idea is that too much gluttony does not bring internal happiness. (And obviously, neither does the suffering of poverty.) It is through taking the Middle Path that happiness is achieved. The Bhutanese appear to be in inherently contented people, which is not to imply that they run around smiling and giggling all the time on their happiness high. No, their happiness is just a part of who they are. They are simply happy people.

One Bhutanese man was quoted as saying, “If money is important to you, you have to worry about it being stolen or getting lost. But with happiness you do not have to worry. No one can take it away from you.”

I asked myself how many Americans honestly believe that nobody can take away their happiness. Probably not many. We are quick to blame others for ruining our happiness because our happiness is inextricably tied in with our self-worth, which we naively attach to our monetary or material achievements. If someone steals these from us, we can no longer be happy.

And as I watched the Bhutanese people plowing the earth, dancing their cultural dances, and discussing their views on the state of our planet (not at all coveting thy neighbor, I must say), I envied their successful Gross National Happiness. They live their lives in harmony with their environment instead of plundering it for its material worth, not unlike another native people who once inhabited this beautiful land of ours but were forced to follow the White ways instead of those of Mother Earth.

So I ask, Where did we go wrong? If our way is so wonderful – this freedom and prosperity in which we live – why aren’t I as inherently happy as these literally down-to-earth Bhutanese? Why do I see them with their often crooked teeth (no expensive orthodonture there, I imagine) and their unfashionable clothing and wish that I could feel, for at least one minute, the pure happiness they feel inside?

Perhaps the answer is to follow the Buddhist way as my husband kind of does. (And please don’t ask how one “kind of” follows the Buddhist way. Too many arguments will ensue.) But in this American world in which I live, I don’t feel it would work. I think a life philosophy perhaps only works in an environment that fosters it. And our way of life certainly does not.

As my daughter played next to me with her friend while I watched the television program on Bhutan, I felt sad for her. I wished she could grow up in a world where her heart wouldn’t break if she didn’t get the items on her birthday wish list. I’m sure it’s my fault that she reacts the way she does. But I’m going to pass the buck to my culture for a moment because when all is said and done, it’s painfully difficult to teach a lack of materialism in a culture that so ostentatiously flaunts it in my children’s faces.

Maybe some day I’ll be wealthy enough (there, I said it) to take my children to Bhutan so they can see what other options exist about how to live life. I only pray that, if that day comes, Bhutan will still be immune to the rest of the world’s desire for more. That will make me happy.

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