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Posted : 2011-05-26 17:28
Updated : 2011-05-26 17:28

Measuring happiness

By Shin Hyun-gook

Throughout history, all around the globe, humankind has been on a quest. A quest whose completion is as elusive as the Loch Ness monster, yet as easy to attain as looking in the mirror, that quest being the pursuit of happiness. American novelist, Nathaniel Hawthorne, said, ``Happiness is a butterfly, which, when pursued, is always just beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you."

What is happiness? The term happiness is abstract and means many different things to many different people. According to Miriam-Webster, happiness is ``a state of well-being and contentment." That emotional state the dictionary refers to is arguably different for everyone. Quotes from many saints, religious leaders and philosophers lead us to deal with the idea of happiness in more emotional terms.

But, there are organizations trying to measure happiness by indexing the quality of life. The United Nations annually releases what is called the Human Development Index. This statistic ranks countries by their level of development, calculated from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income. For instance, The 2010 Human Development Report by UNDP lists the Republic of Korea 12th in the category of very highly developed countries.

The same report however, ranks Korea 27th by applying, for the first time, an inequality-adjusted Human Development Index, which factors in inequalities in the three basic categories of human development: income, life expectancy and education. Former U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy said ``GDP measured everything except that which makes life worthwhile." Discrepancies such as this lead to the study and development of other indexes and methods of “measuring happiness.”

For the last two years I have been hosting a weekly television program, ``Diplomacy Lounge” on Arirang Television. On this program I have been meeting with foreign ambassadors and international dignitaries to discuss their country's history, culture, society, economy, scientific development as well as other subject matters in order to provide an arena for exchange and communication.

In two recent interviews, one with the visiting Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Bhutan, His Excellency Lyonchhehn Jigmi Y Thinley on October 26, 2010 and the other with Ambassador Fernando Borbón Arias of Costa Rica to Korea on April 13, 2011, the topic of ``happiness” was discussed.

The prime minister of the Kingdom of Bhutan claimed that Bhutan is one of the happiest nations on Earth and is one of the original promoters of ``Gross National Happiness.” The term was coined in 1972 by Bhutan's former King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. This index measures the usefulness and the rightfulness of a nation's production. Sub-categories are under consideration for this index such as: psychological health, physical health, time management, education, culture, good governance, ecology etc.

And in my interview with the Ambassador of Costa Rica to Korea, Mr. Fernando Borbón Arias, I learned that Costa Rica ranked number one on the 2009 Happy Planet Index. After my discussion with Bhutan’s Prime Minister, this was yet another surprise. I found that the Happy Planet Index was introduced by the New Economics Foundation in 2006, indexing average subjective life satisfaction, life expectancy at birth, and the ecological footprint per capita of each nation. Scholars calculated happiness by determining ``happy life years.” This figure results from merging average self-reported happiness with life expectancy. The Republic of Korea was listed 68th.

Therefore, it is apparent that things like money and education do not affect happiness the way one might expect. There are various factors that have been correlated with happiness. Gross domestic product and the Human Development Index are not taken into account. Being happy and healthy is regarded as the ultimate goal of most people. But without proper income and social infrastructure how can you reach that ultimate goal? Moreover, concepts related to happiness, quality of life and well-being are somewhat subjective. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said, ``You cannot capture happiness on a spreadsheet any more than you can bottle it,” which leads some to think there is potential for governments to define GNH in a way that suits their own interests. Therefore, cross-cultural comparisons of happiness are sometimes controversial.

These controversies and discrepancies guide me to the teachings of saints and philosophers. ``The Art of Happiness” a book by the Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler, a psychiatrist who posed questions to the Dalai Lama, stated that “Happiness is determined more by the state of one’s mind than by one’s external conditions, circumstances, or events ― at least once one’s basic survival needs are met.” Prior to this statement, Bengali Ramakrishna Paramhansa had asked, ``What do a house, money and honor mean to you if you are not happy? If you think you are already happy what do those things mean to you?”

So, what really is happiness and are you happy? Only you know the answers.

The writer is a chair professor of the Catholic University of Daegu and a show host of Arirang TV. He headed the Foreign News Division of the Korea Overseas Information Service. He can be reached at shinhyungook@hotmail.com.
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