Optimism is not happiness

Posted on 15 November 2011

Call the Bhutanese people optimistic, not happy. Here’s why.

By Belmont Lay

The Bhutanese people. Photo by rajkumar1220.

Recently, the Singapore parliament witnessed an orgy of debate.

This happened after the Workers’ Party’s Sylvia Lim mooted the idea that the happiness of Singaporeans should count for something in the bigger scheme of things as the Bhutanese people are happy and there is a bona fide measure of happiness in Bhutan and happiness is an official pastime there…

Or something like that.

And everyone inside and outside the Internet jumped up and down and went back-and-forth for quite a bit, extrapolating on how Singapore can measure happiness and how it should be instituted as part of our public policy-making too.

Curious as a cat, I went to read up about what makes the Bhutanese people supposedly happy-clappy.

I was half-expecting to find snippets of facts telling me things like how Bhutanese men are hung like horses.

Or how girls look like Fiona Fussi during their teenage years and eventually grow up looking like Fiona Xie. Or Angelina Jolie.

And also probably how Bhutanese children, raised on a diet of rainbows and wild fairies, are born into the company of unicorns, where the river they play in flows with chocolate.

And how they have cotton candy for beds, as they wake up and fall asleep, exposed to the bliss and tingling good vibrations of true democracy.

And I was suspensefully waiting for a factoid or two to pop up telling me how the Bhutanese people probably also have their version of HDB flats, where everyone truly has a home, albeit one that isn’t over-subscribed.

Or prone to speculative pressure.

Or ran by Mah Bow Tan.

But alas, no. No such luck. These are not the things that make them happy.

First and foremost, the Bhutanese people look like, well, most other Bhutanese people.

As I was to find out, the main source of income for them is derived from generating hydropower electricity.

Which is primarily sold to India. A surprising fact considering it is a country with an even lower standard of living compared to Bhutan.

Selling electricity, nonetheless, is what allowed the official Bhutanese economy to double the GDP per capita to, wait for it… S$2,200 per year. (Which incidentally is what a 16-year-old can make in a month in Singapore selling blogshop clothes.)

But in reality, the money that is made from hydropower largely goes into the government coffers.

So that counts toward nothing for each Bhutanese person, whose net worth is equivalent to the amount of maize he or she picks for a living.

A traditional agricultural society it is then for them, and just so you should know, therefore, that female infanticide is still carried out there as baby boys are favoured.

Thus, “imbalance” is too mild a word to describe the female-to-male ratio, as they are faring much worse on that count than India. The proper word describing the female population would probably be “decimation”.

On a broader scale of population control, Bhutan spent a good part of their time managing the population in the past by banishing people to Nepal.

You’d think with things looking to be a bit in the doldrums, alcoholism is rife, and you’ll be correct. Three out of 10 patients in hospital wards die of alcoholism in Bhutan. Well, it could also be due to the Bhutanese brewing their own rice-based liquor – for fun.

And terrifyingly, 70 percent of Bhutan is made up of forest cover, with a decree that they are planning to keep it that way. Forevermore. Come hell or high water. Or global warming.

Which means the people there either live in or under a tree.

And do you know what staying in a forest does to you?

Well, I do. During National Service, I was dropped off in a Bruneian jungle to spend two nights to see if I will die of diphtheria or foot rot or make my way out alive.

The feeling after one sleepless night was that of being sucked dry by mosquitoes the size of wasps.

After which, I was left with an overall sensation, or the lack of any to be precise, that my body had been ravaged by a Pontianak and a wild boar. At the same time.

Therefore, given their lot in life – as you can see most of which is unpleasant – it is a miracle the people of Bhutan can still claim to be happy. Not just that, but also claim the title of being the “happiest” people on Earth.

Which brings me to the point of today’s missive: It is pointless arguing about what makes the Bhutanese people happy.

It might be worth more than a second look at the problem of mistaking “optimism” for “happiness” .

Because it is quite apparent that “optimism” is what enables the Bhutanese people to get by, given the circumstances they face.

And if they can derive a huge dose of it in the face of crummy conditions, it vindicates Monty Python.

You can be mistaken and call it “happiness” for all I care, and it doesn’t matter – as long as it gives more power to the people.

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