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Consumed: Part One

Bhutan’s falling happiness index

Lisa Napoli Nov 14, 2007
Consumed: Part One

Bhutan’s falling happiness index

Lisa Napoli Nov 14, 2007


Scott Jagow: Some people claim that shopping is therapeutic. It’s certainly good for an economy, but does buying things actually make people happier?

Marketplace’s Lisa Napoli visited a place where consumerism is brand new.

Lisa Napoli: Once upon a time, the devout Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan was as simple as its ancient music. Few tourists were permitted, television wasn’t allowed, and the king decreed that Gross National Happiness, rather than economic growth, would be the guiding principle of his nation.

Kuenzang Roder: We just came from this very agrarian society, where we valued everything, you know? Fifty years ago, we were not even a monetized economy — everything was barter.

That’s Kuenzang Roder. She’s the best-known writer in Bhutan. She says although people were poor, life’s details had meaning. And then, seven years ago, Bhutan’s king allowed in television and then the Internet, and that introduced a fever among the people for a different way of life, and for new products.

At night now, young people in Bhutan’s capital take off their traditional dress and put on imported blue jeans to go dancing. Writer Kuenzang Roder says modernization comes with a price.

Roder: Recent years, you know we just bombarded with consumer goods. And now, you get all these clothes, these cheap clothes. The culture of fast clothes is coming in, and it’s a very confusing kind of experience.

Now, shades of dissatisfaction with the traditional way of life are creeping in everywhere — from private living rooms to call-in radio talk shows with one of Bhutan’s two psychiatrists, Dr. Damber Nirola .

Damber Nirola: (to radio audience) Today I’ll be talking basically on anxiety disorders…

British economist Sir Richard Layard specializes in the economics of happiness. He was recently in Bhutan advising the country’s cabinet.

Richard Layard: There’s a recorded increase in family breakup, and recorded increase in crime — especially violent crime. And there’s a lot of worry in schools about violence in the playground.

In Layard’s view, Bhutan’s growing commercialization has put a significant dent in the country’s renowned happiness, for good reason.

Layard: There’s a lot of evidence that a rather cohesive societies often experience falls in psychological well-being when they go into economic take-off.

Another happiness economist is professor Richard Easterlin. He says the pattern has repeated itself generation after generation, in country after country, including Bhutan’s enormous neighbor to the north.

Richard Easterlin: In China, income has tripled over the last 15 or 20 years — and life satisfaction seems to have declined.

It happens in developed countries, too. Measures of U.S. happiness stopped increasing back in the 1950s, whereas per-capita income has risen nearly 300 percent since then.

Easterlin says the answer is in human psychology.

Easterlin: Increases in income are matched by increases in aspirations for income. And the net effect is no change in happiness.

So, in this view, Bhutan’s new anxiety disorders may be a byproduct of the country’s growing consumer culture — the desire to achieve more, and to have more.

Where does that leave the Bhutanese? For those who feel as if Gross National Happiness is slipping away, psychiatrist Dr. Nerola offers some distinctly traditional words of wisdom:

Nirola: To be satisfied with what you are is happiness.

From Thimpu, Bhutan, I’m Lisa Napoli for Marketplace.

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