“Our Futile Pursuit of Happiness”

By Akin Ojumu

Druk Yul is a tiny nation in Southeast Asia. Also going by the name Bhutan, this Buddhist kingdom on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, sandwiched between India and Tibet, is known for its beautiful monasteries, massive fortresses (or dzongs) and dramatic landscapes that range from subtropical plains to steep mountains and valleys. It's said to be the last remaining Buddhist country in the world.

Much has been said about Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI). Economists all over the world go gaga about the nine-domain GNHI. Coined in 1972 by the 4th King of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, when he declared, “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product,” GNHI “is not just a measure of how much people smile and laugh. It’s a holistic approach to sustainable development that gives as much weight to human flourishing as it does wealth” (Sandy LaMotte, CNN). 

In the words of Bhutan’s Prime Minister, “When we say Gross National Happiness, it is not the celebrative ‘Ha ha – Ho ho’ kind of happiness that we look for in life. It only means contentment, control of your mind, control of wants in your life. Don’t be jealous with others, be happy with what you have, be compassionate, be a society where you can be more than happy to share.”

The GNHI is derived through surveys administered every 5 years by the Center for Bhutan and GNH studies. The surveys include questions such as “How happy did you feel yesterday?” and “How often do you practice meditation?” The GNHI measures nine key areas of happiness namely; psychological well-being, health, education, good governance, ecology, time use, community vitality, culture and living standards. 

No law is passed in Bhutan unless it improves the well-being of the citizens. “If the policy does not have a good amount of happiness index, if the policy is not environmentally friendly, if the policy will not be able to ensure that it will result in the well-being of Bhutanese, that policy will never be approved in the country,” says the Bhutanese Prime Minister.

Bhutan has conducted three GNHI surveys till date; in 2010, 2015, and 2020. Despite the best effort of the Bhutanese government to making its people happy, Bhutan is not the happiest place in the world. In fact, the country ranked 95th out of 135 countries in the 2019 version of the World Happiness Report.

Bhutan’s pursuit of happiness is nothing revolutionary. It’s a quest that dates back to the beginning of time. Adam and Eve sought happiness from the forbidden tree they were deceived to think was desirable to make one wise. Nimrod and the people of Babel built a tower that reached up to happiness.

King Solomon’s quest for happiness took him in all directions and endeavors. He sought happiness in pleasure and possession by indulging himself in all kinds of stuff; women, food, alcohol, wealth, colossal buildings, massive stables, fine vineyards and beautiful gardens, and he even tried stupidity. 

When Solomon decided to build a temple for the name of the Lord, and a royal palace for himself, he conscripted seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country, with three thousand six hundred to oversee them” (2 Chronicles 2:1–2). In addition to his harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines, Solomon’s mind-blowing wealth is described in great detail in 1 Kings 10:14-29:

“Solomon received twenty-five tons of gold in tribute annually. This was above and beyond the taxes and profit on trade with merchants and assorted kings and governors. King Solomon crafted two hundred body-length shields of hammered gold – seven and a half pounds of gold to each shield – and three hundred smaller shields about half that size. He stored the shields in the House of the Forest of Lebanon. The king built a massive throne of ivory accented with a veneer of gold. The throne had six steps leading up to it, its back shaped like an arch. The armrests on each side were flanked by lions. Lions, twelve of them, were placed at either end of the six steps. There was no throne like it in any of the surrounding kingdoms. King Solomon’s chalices and tankards were made of gold and all the dinnerware and serving utensils in the House of the Forest of Lebanon were pure gold – nothing was made of silver; silver was considered common and cheap. The king had a fleet of ocean-going ships at sea with Hiram’s ships. Every three years the fleet would bring in a cargo of gold, silver, and ivory, and apes and peacocks. Solomon collected chariots and horses: fourteen hundred chariots and twelve thousand horses! He stabled them in the special chariot cities as well as in Jerusalem. The king made silver as common as rocks and cedar as common as the fig trees in the lowland hills.”

In Ecclesiastes 2 we read about the futility of Solomon in his pursuit of happiness. It dawned on this great and wise king that happiness is unattainable in the things of this world. He realized that it is futile to look for happiness in pleasure. Massive mansions gave him no happiness. There was no happiness to be found in fine vineyards, lush green gardens and beautiful parks. He didn’t find happiness by owning hundreds of thousands of slaves, large herds and flocks, great sums of silver and gold, or more treasures than any other king. His wisdom gave him no happiness and he didn’t suddenly become happy when tried stupidity. He didn’t achieve happiness by working hard, and laziness didn’t give him happiness either. 

And so, Solomon expressed his frustration with the elusiveness of happiness with these profound words:

“Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!”” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).

“So, I came to hate life because everything done here under the sun is so troubling. Everything is meaningless – like chasing the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:17).

King Solomon was on to something groundbreaking and deeply insightful. Seeking happiness in circumstances and happenstance is a futile undertaking. Sadly, the world has failed to learn from the experience of this wise king. 


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