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by | Mar 31, 2014 | 0 comments

Gross National Happiness

Column Editor:  Donna Jacobs  (Retired, Medical University of South Carolina, Charleston, SC  29425)

Is there such a thing as too much happiness?  This question can open a never-ending philosophical discussion.  When the Canadian author Alice Munro won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature in the fall, the question was brought to mind again.  The numerous press releases announcing her award mentioned the 2009 collection of short stories entitled “Too Much Happiness.”  It was time again to check out a book.  I read the book on my Kindle, checked out from the Charleston County Library, processed through my account at Amazon — this makes me happy.

If you are a follower of this column you are aware that I don’t review books — I connect them to life.  This new book and author were presenting a challenge until I expressed my dilemma early one morning to my running buddy.  She responded with “Have you ever heard of the concept of “Gross National Happiness?” to which I responded “No.”  A quick education, and I had the connection I needed to write.

In the over 100 page document “A Short Guide to Gross National Happiness Index” written by Karma Ura, Sabina Alkire, Tshoki Zangmo, and Karma Wandi of The Center for Bhutan Studies, I learn:  “In the GNH Index, unlike certain concepts of happiness in current western literature, happiness is itself multidimensional — not measured only by subjective well-being, and not focused narrowly on happiness that begins and ends with oneself and is concerned for and with oneself.  The pursuit of happiness is collective, though it can be experienced deeply personally.  Different people can be happy in spite of their disparate circumstances and the options for diversity must be wide.” ….. “The GNH Index provides an overview of performance across 9 domains of GNH (psychological wellbeing, time use, community vitality, cultural diversity, ecological resilience, living standard, health, education, good governance).”  A statistical analysis of indicators, variables, cut off points, and degrees illustrate how the index is in use in the country of Bhutan.  The legal code of 1729 developed during the unification of Bhutan states:  “if the Government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.”  In 1972, the 4th King of Bhutan declared:  “Gross National Happiness to be more important than the GNP,” and the GNH Index was developed as a standard for the country.  Although there is no one official definition for GNH, the document shares the following statement that is widely in use:  “Gross National Happiness (GNH) measures the quality of a country in a more holistic way [than GNP] and believes that the beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occurs side by side to complement and reinforce each other.”  The particular reference to happiness despite disparity was the element to connect life to literature for me.

Alice Munro was born in Wingham, Ontario.  She began writing in her teens and continued this interest in her studies at the University of Western Ontario.  English and journalism were her academic pursuits prior to marriage.  She and her husband settled in British Columbia and opened a bookstore, “Munro’s Books.”  (This fact makes me happy.).  Her first story collection, “Dance of the Happy Shades,” was published in 1968, and Canada began to take notice of this crafter of words in the form of short stories.  The Nobel Committee praised her as the “master of the contemporary short story” when honoring her with the prize.  “We’re not saying just that she can say a lot in just 20 pages — more than an average novel writer can — but also that she can cover ground.  She can have a single short story that covers decades, and it works,” said Peter Englund, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy.

“Too Much Happiness” is Alice Munro’s collection of 10 short stories entitled:



Wenlock Edge

Deep Holes

Free Radicals


Some Women

Child’s Play


Too Much Happiness

Murder, suicide, adultery, humiliation, despair, loneliness, violence, oppression, and sexual manipulation are a few of the “happy” threads that weave through this collection.  The philosophical pondering continues.  What constitutes happy when your life has been impacted and altered by inhumanity?  Thanks to Nobel authors and governmental think tanks we are still in the discussion.

The last story of the collection is a result of Munro’s random discovery of Sophia Kovalesvsky, a 19th-century Russian mathematician and novelist.  She discovered Sophia while researching another subject in the “Britannica.”  The combination of mathematician and novelist piqued Munro’s interest, and after seeking out everything about her she wrote a fictionalized story of her last days filled with flashbacks to her earlier life.

As I exit my writing cubby, I leave you with two quotes from this final short story of “Too Much Happiness”:

“She has already written to Julia, saying it is to be happiness after all.  Happiness after all.  Happiness.”

“‘Always remember that when a man goes out of the room, he leaves everything in it behind,’ her friend Marie Mendelson has told her.  ‘When a woman goes out she carries everything that happened in the room along with her.’”

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