Are we happy yet?
October 16, 2005
What is happiness? According to New York Times writer Andrew Revkin, “In the United States and in many other industrialized countries, happiness is often equated with money.”Of course it’s more than money; it is what money can buy. Happiness lies in the material goods we have been cultivated to desire through a relentless barrage of advertising and celebrity role modeling.Revkin’s query about happiness begs a deeper question about the money lust that has enslaved and debased much of the industrialized world. He suggests a better way by focusing on the idealistic national policies of Bhutan. Bhutan, which Revkin calls “a happy little kingdom,” lies in the Himalayas. Prominent Aspen travelers know it as a trekking destination of Shangri-La qualities. Not only is the scenery rapturously beautiful, the kingdom’s philosophy is perhaps what James Hilton had in mind when he wrote “Lost Horizon” in 1937.Rather than blindly pursuing the lockstep pursuit of lucre, Bhutan is exploring deeper, more lasting values. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, writes Revkin, is striving to ensure that “prosperity is shared across society and that it is balanced against preserving cultural traditions, protecting the environment, and maintaining a responsive government.”The king’s national policy is nothing less than a revolution in visionary governance that is diametrically opposed to the American brand of capitalism. This novel idea may have come from the imagination of James Hilton.In “Lost Horizon,” European outsiders stumble into the hidden kingdom of Shangri-La after surviving a plane crash in the Himalayas. They discover a culture enchanted by happiness and contentment. Most startling of all, the citizens don’t age.The novel weaves the plane crash survivors into the fabric of life in the Utopian kingdom and shows the glaring contrast between the pervasive self-interest of Westerners and the nirvana-like selflessness of the natives. The protagonist eventually leaves Shangri-La, only to spend the rest of his life searching for it.Revkin is searching too, wondering if, in Bhutan, happiness can be legislated. “The goal,” he writes, “is in part to return to a richer definition of the word happiness, more like what the signers of the Declaration of Independence had in mind when they included ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as an inalienable right equal to liberty and life itself.”The biggest challenge for Utopias like Bhutan and Shangri-La is buffering themselves from the taint of outside influences – foremost of which is America, which imperialistically pimps our economic and material values to other cultures in a blatant and sadly effective seduction.In Bhutan, tourism is strictly controlled by visa limits and a daily minimum expenditure. Bhutan wants its happy people to reap the benefits of material wealth without being overwhelmed by the coveting greed and commercial appetites of the West.Aspen could learn something from Bhutan. Instead of pandering to profligate displays of wealth, higher values could be defined. Happiness would not equate with a Starwood mansion, but rather to what Canadian political philosopher John Ralston Saul suggested the founding fathers implied by happiness.”The Enlightenment theory of happiness,” said Saul, “was an expression of public good or the public welfare, of the contentment of the people.” Bhutan translates that to mean “access to health care, free time with family, conservation of natural resources, and other non-economic factors.”Aspen, like Bhutan, attracts wealthy tourists. Unlike Bhutan, Aspen fails to exert an overriding philosophy that defines happiness in terms other than material worth and conspicuous consumption. The idealism of the Paepcke era, which fomented the body/mind/spirit approach to human fulfillment through the “Aspen Idea,” has vanished like Shangri-La. It may be lost, but it’s worth searching for, even if it takes the rest of our lives.Paul Andersen wonders if the “Bhutan Idea” has better staying power. His column appears on Mondays.
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