By Tom Robotham
In the final episode of Parts Unknown—shot in Bhutan—Anthony Bourdain asked a group of locals to comment on the country’s commitment to steadily improving its “Gross National Happiness.”
It was a poignant moment, given that the episode aired two weeks after Bourdain committed suicide. But it would have captured my imagination even if it had aired while he was still alive.
The phrase was coined in 1972 when the king of Bhutan told a journalist that “gross national happiness is more important than gross national product.” Eventually, this assertion led to the idea that happiness can and should be measured, just as nations measure their GNP. Inspired by Bhutan’s example, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network now issues an annual “World Happiness Report,” based on a variety of data. The top 5 nations in the 2018 report are Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland. The Netherlands also ranks high, at number six, which doesn’t surprise me. During a recent visit to Amsterdam, as I noted in last month’s column, I was struck by one thing above all: the residents seemed to radiate happiness at every turn.
The United States, meanwhile, ranks 18—not an awful spot, given that the report covers 156 nations, but hardly stellar, especially for a country that has long proclaimed to be the “greatest” in the world.
As you might expect, the report has its critics. Some statisticians argue that it relies on a flawed methodology. For all I know, they may have a point. I’ll freely admit that I don’t have the expertise to evaluate the methodology for myself.
Still, the gross-national-happiness concept is worth thinking about, and there is much evidence to suggest that we, as a nation, are performing poorly in that regard.
Especially alarming is a Centers for Disease Control report revealing that the suicide rate in this country has climbed by more than 25 percent since 1999.
The reasons for the increase are difficult to pin down. The common response is that people who take their own lives were suffering from a mental illness. But according to the CDC report, this isn’t necessarily the case.
“Researchers found that more than half of people who died by suicide did not have a known diagnosed mental health condition at the time of death,” the report states. “Relationship problems or loss, substance misuse; physical health problems; and job, money, legal or housing stress often contributed to risk for suicide.”
What this suggests to me is that the rising suicide rate is a societal problem—one that we must address together, regardless of whether we think of ourselves at risk. And suicide awareness and prevention programs are just the beginning. We need to address the underlying causes of our societal dis-ease.
Some of them can be addressed politically. Our president certainly didn’t create the underlying problems, but he is exploiting them and making them worse, both with his vicious rhetoric, which stirs rage in the hearts of his supporters and opponents alike, and with his policies.
Implementation of the platform on which Bernie Sanders ran, by contrast, would go a long way toward increasing our Gross National Happiness. Consider, again, the CDC’s list of factors that lead to suicide: money problems, job stress, and physical health problems among them. Then take another look at the countries in the top tier of the World Happiness Report. All of them have free or nearly free national healthcare, generous family-leave and vacation policies, and other social welfare programs that contribute to the well being of their citizens.
That said, it would be foolish to think that the government can fix everything. The fact that so many people are living lives of quiet desperation, to borrow Thoreau’s memorable phrase, is due not just to our appalling lack of social-welfare programs but to a whole range of cultural phenomena that heighten our anxieties and sense of alienation.
The dominance of “social” media is perhaps the most obvious problem. Yes, it has had some positive effects on our culture, notably as a tool for organizing protests. On a more personal level, sites like Facebook and Instagram can help us stay in touch with friends in other states or countries. But let’s face it—these sites can also be toxic. They are designed, after all, to become addictive. Social-media addiction, in turn, can lead to a host of problems. We all know, for example, that bullying among children and adolescents has grown worse with the rise of social media. But for adults, too, sites like Facebook can have ill effects.
For one thing, ironically, it seems to encourage anti-social behavior, especially in the realm of political discourse. It can also send us on emotional rollercoaster rides, depending on the number of “likes” and the kinds of comments that our posts elicit. Moreover, it encourages us to compare our lives, often unfavorably, to those of our “friends.” Finally, as Nicholas Carr argued convincingly in his book The Shallows, social media—and the Internet generally—is giving us all a kind of attention-deficit disorder.
It would be shortsighted, however, to pin all the blame for our cultural dis-ease on social media. Certainly, mainstream television often wreaks havoc on our psyches, whether through “news” programs that spread alarm at every turn, or commercials, all of which are based on the premise that our lives are inadequate.
If we want to understand the nature of our spreading discontent, we must also look at our schools, which are designed to turn out standardized minds; our urban planning policies, which are designed to keep us isolated in our cars or our suburban backyards with their “privacy” fences that hide us from our neighbors; our food culture, which has created an epidemic of obesity and an erosion of mindfulness—and finally, our mainstream entertainments, which are increasingly reliant on a kind of pornography of violence.
If, in turn, we want to commit ourselves to the project of increasing our Gross National Happiness, we must seek a cultural paradigm shift in each of these aforementioned spheres of our society—a radical reimagining of schools, for example, as palaces of learning: places where children are empowered to foster their own innate genius, to think critically and imaginatively, and to question authority, albeit with respect.
Empowerment, I think, is the key word here, not just with regard to our schools and our children but for all of us. It was a sense of powerlessness, after all, that made Trump supporters want to believe his snake-oil sales pitches; and it is a sense of powerlessness that has caused so much recent anxiety for the rest of us, as we look on in horror and question whether there’s anything we can do.
I believe that there is, and again, I’m not just talking about the political realm. In so many ways, our culture fosters within each of us a sense of alienation from one another—or, at the very least, a tendency to associate only with like-minded individuals. We can’t bring about the aforementioned paradigm shifts over night. But we can begin by taking to heart the primary message of Parts Unknown: When we sit down and break bread together with people whose perspectives are very different from our own, beautiful things can happen.
This may seem like an ironic statement, given that Bourdain’s cross-cultural adventures did not, ultimately, ease the misery in his own heart. But that in no way undermines the value of his message. After all, he brought joy into countless lives. So can the rest of us, each in our own way.