President of the Center of Bhutan Studies and one of the key architects behind Gross National Happiness, Dasho Karma Ura answers some critical questions on GNH in a series of in-depth interviews with The Bhutanese.
9. With GNH is Bhutan unwittingly adding to the ‘Shangri-La’ myth that surrounds Bhutan?
We are not in 1933 James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon which was turned into Frank Capra’s 1937 film. His novel fired the popular imagination in the West. In Hilton’s fictional land Shangri-La, people live immortally long, youthfully, and find deepest peace and love. Shangri-La existed in his novel because it remained secluded and disconnected from a world stricken and exhausted by World War I. As he foreshadowed, World War II broke out bringing incalculable suffering throughout most of the world.
In a different context, Shantideva’s said, lower consciousness sees everything as separated whereas higher consciousness sees everything as connected. But his insight can be extrapolated to institutional systems. Systems can skew the conditions towards separation, inequality and divisions or towards inter-connectedness, social justice, stability and happiness. The mechanism of five year planning is one system that moves our society in one direction or the other. 11th five year plan making is yet another chance to be moved by the stirring vision of a Shangri-La or consider it a Lost Horizon.
We are not exactly in Hilton’s Shangri-La, but we are inheritors of Guru Rinpoche’s real Bayul. Ney-yigs of Khenpajong, Aja, and Singye dzong and biography of Sinduraja and Kuenkhen poem about Bumthang describe these places as refuges from cataclysmic wider wars waged by, say, Durukha or Mongol tribes, and catastrophic famines. So if we take a longer retrospective view, Bhutan was a Bayul free from large scale, war-torn bloodbaths and deaths. Bhutan was seen popularly as Bayul where people were capable of leading an enlightened, modest but secure life. People in Bhutan can enjoy long life, peace and compassion, the greatest blessings of life. We can be in Guru Rinpoche’s Bayul if we focus on essence of Buddhist teachings. It is a basic assumption, or axiomatic, in Buddhism that every sentient being has desire for happiness and wellbeing. We wish for happiness almost as a reflex action although we always do not cultivate the right causes of happiness. Buddhism then goes into diagnosis of the causes and conditions of happiness as well as causes and conditions of anxiety and sufferings.
In western literature, how happy people feel now is considered as positive affects or emotions. Feeling happy now, positive emotions, positive affects, pleasures are interchangeable words. Our emotions and affects can change in the course of a day or week, and are therefore subject to cycles of fluctuations.
However, these emotional fluctuations depend also on the kind of self we harbor. Fluctuation between satisfaction and dissatisfaction within a short term is more likely among self-centered people rather than selfless persons. So the basic Buddhist point about being happy is to shift our values from being self-centered to self-less persons as much as possible in order to be happy, in the way the omniscient Shantideva outlined.
One difference between Buddhism and Western psychology is that in Buddhism destructive emotional states can be changed through various practices so that all individuals can develop favorable and durable traits or dispositions towards happiness, not only those with psychological disorders. We also must not confuse pleasures with happiness. Happiness in a Buddhist sense is somewhat independent of pleasures. Pleasures are circumstantial but happiness is an inner strength and “an inner resource to deal better with those circumstances”. Even unhappiness is not suffering; unhappiness is “the way in which we experience suffering” (Ricard M. 2012). So the basic Buddhist message is that unhappiness can be overcome because its cause can be diagnosed out and dealt. That is the fundamental purpose of life in Buddhism – to free ourselves and others from suffering. GNH too emphasizes decreasing the number and extent of unhappy people.
10. If we really are such a ‘happy’ and ‘GNH’ society then what explains the high cases of suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse and youth problems?
Firstly we should clarify what we mean by such a ‘happy’ and ‘GNH’ society. In the western literature, happiness as subjective wellbeing is based on self reports of happiness measured on a scale of 0-10. In Bhutan, for comparative purpose CBS also posed this question in our GNH survey, last held in 2010, to 8000 people. The results to this question show subjective happiness or subjective wellbeing in Bhutan. Bhutan’s national average was 6.06 for 2010, which suggests a level of happiness in Bhutan above SAARC countries such as India. Not only is the national average, the distribution of the people over the scale of 0 to 10 important. Grouping the people into three classes according to the level of their scores, 3.87% of the population scored between 0 and 4. We might consider this group to be clearly not-yet-happy people. The bulk of the population – 78.79% – score between 5 and 7, and 17.3% score between 8 and 10.
However, in the GNH Index, happiness is itself multidimensional. In the GNH index, happiness is not measured only by subjective well-being. Happiness, as measured in GNH, is not focused narrowly on happiness that ends and begins with oneself and is concerned for and with one-self. The pursuit of happiness is collective though it can be experienced deeply personally. Happiness is experienced by individuals subjectively but it is produced collectively. Different people can be happy in spite of their disparate circumstances but the options for trade off must be wide.
In the GNH index, both objective and subjective factors are taken into account concerning performances across 9 domains of GNH. Some 124 factors grouped into 33 indicators are used to calculate the GNH index. According to the GNH index for 2010, 10.4% of people were ‘unhappy’; 47.8% are ‘narrowly happy’, 32.6% are ‘extensively happy’; and 8.3% are ‘deeply happy’.
The realistic score of GNH index is a result of its requirement that a diverse set of conditions and states, represented by 124 variables, must be simultaneously prevalent for a person to be robustly happy. It is a tougher measure because it is not focused on survival like poverty measure, but rather of flourishing over a wide array of conditions.
On suicide, over the last four years, the number of people who committed suicide ranged from 34 to 53. The average number of people who commit suicide per year is 44. Those who have ideation of suicides are mostly associated with female, suffering from severe mental stress, separated or widowed by marital status, and rural, 2010 GNH survey showed. Although the suicide rate per thousand is below 1, we need to find out more about the causes and give hope to those who may be contemplating suicide due to unbearable pain and suffering.
On alcohol, 41% of the adult Bhutanese drink varying amounts but 77% of man drink while only 54% of women do. Percentage of drinkers is much higher in Eastern districts although distilleries are mostly in other parts of Bhutan. Eastern Bhutanese take more ara than distillery products. Drinkers’ profile show age of initiation into alcohol is 21.5. But the Eastern Bhutanese start much earlier at 17 while drinking seriously begins at 24 in Western Bhutan. In total, distilleries in Bhutan produced 6.9 m liters last year which amounts to 11 liters for each Bhutanese (population is 599,000, see NSB statistics) including babies. National hard drinks production, which is mostly drunk within Bhutan, is overwhelming. In addition, Bhutan imports 16.9 million liters of alcohol every year. That provides an additional 28 liters per person. Liberal consumption must be seen in structural terms. An addictive environment of commercial sale and distribution adds to behavioral orientation.
Lastly, the number of cases of possession of drugs, like spasmo proxyvon, is around 300 per year according to RBP. Users are mostly youth and juvenile, though traffickers are adults. The most popular drug used by youth is spasmo-proxyvon which contains painkiller paracetemol that poisons liver in large dozes, and propoxyphene, a weak opiate which causes dependency.
My reading is different from David’s assertion that the reason for alcoholism and drugs is because people are unhappy. Rather, unhappiness and depression can be usually a consequence of drug use and alcoholism. Drugs and alcohol disorient users. They can become hedonists, focused blindly on the immediate present, for enjoyment such as brief euphoria produced by drugs and alcohol. They lose orientation to the future and thus lose motivation and energy. But everyone can turn around. Every moment can a moment of positive change.