Here in Thailand, we have been living under martial law for the last month. Our new ruler, General Prayuth Chen-ocha, has insisted that the Thai people will be happy under his rule. He has even go so far as to compose lyrics to a new song, "Return Happiness to Thailand."
Reaction in the West has been predictable--scorn. Time Magazine has labelled the new government's actions part of a "tawdry PR campaign." The Economist suggested in a rather schizoid commentary, that "'happiness' provides a conveniently fuzzy sort of camouflage for Thailand's new government and its repressive policies," while that magazine continued to extol Thailand as "a great place to do business."
This past week the US State Department made Thailand a slightly less inviting place to do business, placing Thailand on its list of the world's worst countries when it comes to acknowledging and addressing human trafficking. That action could result in economic sanctions and loss of development aid for Thailand, which may also find itself blacklisted by companies no longer wishing to do business with the government.
But the more interesting issues for those of us living here are whether General Prayuth's government can raise people's happiness levels, whether that is the government's job, how to measure happiness anyway and, just maybe, how to get democracy back.
Looking at the third issue first--measuring happiness--presents an immediate problem. Normally, we can measure changes in people with before and after readings. For example, if someone goes on a diet we can definitively conclude whether the person lost weight. With a subjective concept like happiness, the measurement is clouded, particularly in the instant case, since there are no "before" surveys.
The term "gross national happiness" (GNH) was coined by Bhutan's fourth "Dragon King" over 40 years ago. GNH measures the quality of life or social progress in a more holistic and psychological way than the economic indicator, GDP.
The difficulty with producing a happiness ranking for a country is that, unlike GDP, which can be objectively measured, GNH is largely subjective, dependent on the vagaries of individuals at given moments in time.
Let's say, however, the government is less interested in a scientific measure of happiness and wants to more generally establish that its policies are promoting people's happiness.
While it's not clear that governments can peddle happiness, it's pretty obvious they try. The new government has: offered free medical checkups; introduced free concerts featuring sexy girls in fatigues; capped fuel costs; and restarted payments to farmers under a disputed rice-purchase program.
The original 'be happy' campaign comes from the United States, a country founded on a revolution against its former government in which the "pursuit of happiness" was enshrined in the Declaration of Independence as an "unalienable right." (Most people refer to it as an inalienable right, the language from the original document notwithstanding).
While America's founders largely understood the pursuit of happiness to be a freedom from government control, those men shortly realized--after setting up an unsuccessful hands-off-style government--that any government to be effective would have to take a more active role in people's affairs. Hence, the early American leaders proposed a Constitution that never mentions happiness and according to researchers Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld imposed "impulse control" upon Americans in order to bring structure and restraint. Americans, apparently, are permitted measured doses of happiness.
Human behaviorists also have something to say about happiness.
In his book "The Pursuit of Happiness," psychologist David Myers writes: "We humans are social animals. We have a deep 'need to belong'. We, therefore, benefit from having loving companions through the journey of life, from having people with whom we can share our suffering and sorrow and our good fortune and celebration."
These findings are linked with others that indicate that happy people tend to have energy is bred by regular aerobic exercise, sufficient renewing sleep, and positive attitudes such as a sense of gratitude for one's health, friends and family.
From psychology's findings it's not at all clear what role, if any, the government should have in helping people achieve happiness.
If there is a role for government to play in helping citizens to achieve happy lives, it might entail instilling in citizens a sense of purpose. In attending to the needs of others or a greater good, the Austrian psychologist (and Holocaust survivor) Victor Frankl wrote that happiness "cannot be pursued; it must ensue" as "the unintended side-effect of one's personal dedication to a course greater than oneself." In Thailand, that dedicated course may well be citizens pushing the government to reestablish democracy.