Tag Archives: happiness

Hidden Perspectives: A Photo Essay

The developing world is often seen through a monochrome lens: a grey picture, yearning for the brush of western modernity. Yet, sandwiched between the emergent Elephant and Dragon economies of the new world, Bhutan challenges our vision of development, illustrating that under a new light the ‘developing’ world can also lend us its own color.


The land time forgot: Prayer flags traverse Bhutan’s Himalayan terrain like arteries. Each color represents its own sādhanā, or spiritual purpose, pertaining to the five elements; Earth, Water, Fire, Wind and Sky. With every mountainous breeze the verses they contain flutter off into the ether, spreading faith and blessing the Kingdom.

Untitled1The lonely hope: En-route to Punakha a woman roasts maize as a roadside refreshment to entice the intermittent traffic. Poverty prevalence in some rural areas is as high as 52.9%, compared to about 1.7% in urban regions[1]. Remoteness and mountainous terrain can isolate rural dwellers from significant markets.

[1] United Nations Development Programme, Bhutan: Rural Economy Advancement


Holding onto the past: At the Zorig Chusum School of Traditional Arts in Thimphu, youth undergo 4 to 6 years of training in Bhutanese traditional art forms. Global development policies for education often target more modern technical and industrial skillsets, to prepare students for the international job market and to stimulate innovation.


A refuge to religion: Almost 10% of the Bhutanese population is part of the monastic system[1]. Children as young as five are sent to monasteries by their parents who cannot afford to feed their families or pay for government schooling.

[1] Bhutan Youth Development Fund, December 2014

Untitled4Aged techniques: An elderly woman begins an arduous day’s labor, crushing chili after sun drying them upon her tin rooftop. Modern technology such as solar dryers would not only ease her strain, but it would allow her to sustain her livelihood throughout the year, including during the wet monsoon season[1].

[1] Fuller et al, Technical and financial evaluation of a solar dryer in Bhutan, 2005


Out of school: Young children wander through the Punakha valley. Owing to Bhutan’s undulating terrain, school coverage is often thin in rural areas. As a result, these children would have to walk miles across rugged terrain to their closest school.


Hard labor: Near Sopsokha in the Punakha valley, a subsistence rice farmer begins a day’s work under the heat of the Himalayan sun. The lack of modern farming equipment means rice harvesting is not as efficient as it could potentially be.


Community ties: The lone farmer is soon joined by fellow villagers. By mid-morning the Punakha valley ebbs and flows with the rhythms, laughter and spirit of its rice farmers.


A lesson in morality: A Zorig Chusum School student carefully cleans his paintbrush aside his ‘four harmonious friends’ portrait.  It is a universal Bhutanese image of a bird, rabbit, and monkey standing on each other’s shoulders upon the back of a patient elephant, symbolizing social and environmental harmony.


Entrenching traditions: Velvet robed monks wander into the colossal Punakha Dzong courtyard. Traditional arts not only teach morals, they become part of the fabric of the country, painted and etched into the walls of its regal religious architecture.


The poster-boys of Gross National Happiness: several monks beam with excitement as they initiate a fire purification ceremony. By their late teens, children who have been through the monastic system are well versed in Mahayana Buddhist teachings and spirituality.


Keeping faith: A husband and wife enter the Memorial Chorten in Thimphu. Buddhism transcends secular life. It creates an affinity between people, environment and traditions, which in turn brings meaning and happiness to everyday endeavors.


Two sides of the coin: A trio of monks softly hum verses outside the Gangteng monastery in the Phobjikha valley. When viewed from a different lens, the developing world can be as humbling to us, as it is to the countries we put under the microscope.


The Hedonic Treadmill

You have two options A or B? A) You get $50k others get $25k B) You get $100k others get $250k.

How happy are you right now? Can one country be said to be happier than another? How do you measure happiness? These are the questions it seems of a new era in developed economies such as the UK. David Cameron recently commissioned a £2 million yearly survey to try to get to the crux of what makes Britons happy. It turned out, unsurprisingly, to be ‘health, family and relationships’. Yet given recent social unrest, protests and the August riots in the UK, it would seem there are a lot more variables to consider. Could one argue that people in the developing world such as India are happier than UK residents?

It is easy to run into various measurement issues when considering this question. I feel that some statistics fail to capture the broader picture. GDP ultimately measures the total value of output that a country generates, other measure such as the Human Development Index encompasses a wider range of components, including education and health. However does this or can this really measure what actually matters; the happiness of citizens.
It would seem that some UK residents have fallen victim to the country’s own success story. As we grow richer as a society the tendency to compare ourselves to other people acts as a plateau or even a depression, to our happiness. This is backed up by studies including Clark and Oswald’s finding in 1996 of UK finding that a rise in the wage of a co-worker reduces one’s job satisfaction by as much as a rise in one’s own wage raises it. Such a discovery suggests the bulk of people would choose option A, where they are relatively better off, despite perhaps being wealthier in option B and with a wealthier society overall.
Not only does this ‘relativism’ prevent us from being happier, it also works with the effect of habituation. The habituation effect occurs where we become used to a certain level of living; a world in which we move from a Nokia 1100 to Blackberrys (or in my case a Sony Ericsson W595) and Ponchos to Ugg boots. This certainly raises the question of whether a self-sufficient farmer in rural India, oblivious to these mod cons would necessarily be unhappier than a UK resident, despite having little or no income and certainly no Ugg boots.

That said, this farmer may fall victim to Clark and Oswald’s finding also. Essentially he may be unhappy that the farmer next to him has slightly more land than him or has a greater variety of crops. It would seem that at any level of development ‘relativism’ would always be a barrier to how happy we perceive ourselves to be. Could it be that development and progress merely pushes us up to a new boundary of happiness?

From recent interviews of the youth rioters, it seems that anger has built from this disparity of riches. So what can we do to avoid unrest? It would be impossible to forcibly equalise everyone’s incomes, and besides, people will still become unhappy comparing their income, which is now the same, to people who they consider to be lazy. It is an innate characteristic to be envious as human beings and this how we evolved as species to try and survive and be better or, in this case, better off than those around us. Thus it would be impossible to alter how everyone perceives their own level of happiness. All this seems to suggest we’d be happier if we lived in an ignorant bliss, away from knowing what others have and thereby eliminating the problem of ‘relativism’. In such a world everyone would pick option B, but in an interconnected and interdependent world, without these motivations to compare ourselves against each other, innovation and technological progress would suffer.

So which option would you choose A or B?