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Jay Evensen: Hey Bhutan, don't tell us how to be happy

Published: Thursday, April 5 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

King Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuck, right, holds a young child as he greets locals with Queen Jetsun Pema during a celebration after they were married at the Punakha Dzong in Punakha, Bhutan, Thursday, Oct. 13, 2011.

Kevin Frayer, file, Associated Press\r\n

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Bhutan has been described as the world's last Shangri-La; a place little touched by the outside. So, on the one hand, it's easy to sympathize with the king's concerns in 1999 when he decided to allow television and the Internet.

The "misuse" of this new privilege, he said, could destroy the nation's traditional values.

A video available on YouTube shows one of the queens (there were four of them at the time) telling an audience the new technologies open up an array of endless choices. "What is downloaded is up to the prudence of users," she said.

You can almost picture the royal family trying to hold onto ancient traditions and values as the ocean waves of consumerism beat down the doors.

Except that things are rarely as simple as all that.

Bhutan was in the news in recent days, as was the concept of happiness and how to measure it. The two go hand in hand. For five years now, Bhutan has measured its progress through an index it calls Gross National Happiness. This is as opposed to Gross National Product, which measures only economic activity and traditional ideas of prosperity.

Bhutan has gotten the attention of the United Nations, which held a conference this week titled, "Happiness and Well-being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm," and released its own report on how happy everyone is.

Bhutan finished higher than any other Asian country on that list. Even though it wasn't as high as the United States' 10th place finish, its history with the happiness game earned Bhutan's prime minister, Jigmi Thinley, the opportunity to address the conference, where he promptly took the rest of the world to task.

"The (world's) economic system is in rapid meltdown," he said. "It is based on the premise of limitless growth on a finite planet." It is wrong, he said, that the poorest 20 percent of the world's people consume 1 percent or less of the world's goods and emit 2 percent of the world greenhouse gasses, while the richest 20 percent consumes 86 percent.

Well ... happiness is a lot like love and relationships. It's complicated. Bhutan's poverty is not necessarily a virtue. But one thing can be said with a high level of certainty. When governments get into the business of happiness, misery can't be too far behind.

The trouble is, a lot of the happy talk speaks to basic tenets deep within our own culture. Money can't buy happiness. When people "overwork and go into debt to buy ever more goods and pay the bills, they get more stressed," as the prime minister said. And TV's impact on values? Don't get me started.

But people here should be careful about dismissing too much of this talk as mumbo-jumbo. A lot of studies try to measure happiness. One released last week by Gallup and Healthways found that Provo-Orem is the most optimistic metro area in the nation. Apparently, it's called "happy valley" for a reason.

Still, the world shouldn't let Bhutan get away with its lecture without a few piercing questions. The first among these is, if it's such a great place, why has it instituted so many reforms in recent years that will open it up to more old-fashioned prosperity and consumerism?

TV and the Internet is just one example. The king shocked the world a few years ago by reforming Bhutan's government, allowing open elections and even allowing the parliament to impeach the monarch by a two-thirds vote. These are good changes, but they were also made necessary by a dismal economy.

Also, and most importantly, why did Bhutan feel it necessary in the late 20th century to forcibly expel the Lhotshampas, one-fifth of the nation's population, in order to preserve a national cultural identity? More than 30,000 of them came to the United States.

The problem with governments imposing a new economic paradigm on the world is that someone has to decide what will make everyone else happy. Capitalism and liberty may not always lead to the best choices, but at least they let people pursue their own versions of Shangri-La, something I assume the Lhotshampas can appreciate.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his website, www.jayevensen.com.

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