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Sitting around the kitchen stove with his family, a man from Ladakh, better known as “Little Tibet” describes the tourists that he’d seen in the capital Leh. “They look so busy. They never seem to sit still. Just click, click, click,” says the man, mimicking a snap-happy tourist. He then grabs a ballpoint pen and madly dashes about the kitchen to show the rigid, anxious Westerner on the move. “They’re always rushing. Why are they in such a hurry?”
We forget that this life of ours is new. People haven’t always lived like this, under these conditions. We’re the exception, not the rule. We’re the odd ones out.
For some 50,000 years or more humans lived in traditional societies, relying on agriculture and each other in tight communities. Yet for a mere moment in time, some 200 years, people from the developed world have lived in a mass society that places industry and technology at the forefront – freeways over paths, factories over workshops, large production over small. We “developed people” are mere adjuncts to industry, nothing more. Why employ your legs, hands or mind, when equipment can do it faster?
In 1975, when analyst and linguist Helena Norberg-Hodge first encountered Ladakh on the Tibetan plateau with its pristine, self-reliant economy, she encountered a world where people prospered and shaped their environment with their own hands. “The closeness between the people and the land and the animals they depended on was deeply touching – something that had never been part of my life, yet something that felt familiar,” she writes in Ancient Futures, a book based on her first-hand experience of the effects of Western-style development on a traditional culture.
In Ladakh, each family owned some five acres of land, on which they worked collectively – grandfathers, parents, children – for four months of the year. During the remaining eight months, when temperatures often plunged below minus forty degrees, work was minimal. “Most of the winter,” she says, “is spent at festivals and parties. Even during summer, hardly a week passes without a major festival or celebration of one sort or another, while in the winter the celebration is almost nonstop.”
The traditional economy of Ladakh was one of perfect operating efficiency. The Ladakhis were prosperous, healthy, and joyously happy; there was no waste, no pollution, no poverty – in fact, in 1975, when Norberg-Hodge asked a young boy to point out the poor families in the town, he abruptly replied: “We have no poor in Ladakh.”
“At first I couldn’t believe that the Ladakhis could be as happy as they appeared,” Norberg-Hodge recounts. “It took me a long time to accept that the smiles I saw were real. Then, in my second year there, while at a wedding, I sat back and observed the guests enjoying themselves. Suddenly I heard myself saying, ‘Aha, they really are that happy.’ Only then did I recognise that I had been walking around with cultural blinkers on, convinced that the Ladakhis could not be as happy as they seemed. Hidden behind the jokes and laughter had to be the same frustration, jealousy, and inadequacy as in my own society. In fact, without knowing it, I had been assuming that there were no significant cultural differences in the human potential for happiness.”
She remembers the Ladakhi women as particularly joyous. “One of the first things that struck me on my arrival in Ladakh was the wide, uninhibited smiles of the women, who moved about freely, joking and speaking with men in an open and unselfconscious way. Though young girls may sometimes appear shy, women generally exhibit great self-confidence, strength of character, and dignity. Almost all early travellers to Ladakh commented on the exceptionally strong position of women.”
From her Byron Bay home, Nor- berg-Hodge continues to visit Ladakh today. Having spent a considerable portion of her life in “Little Tibet” she too exudes self-confidence and a mastery over language (she speaks seven). A positive self-image, she believes, comes from forming reliable and lasting relationships with others. When a person is immersed in a vibrant and healthy community, there is no room for self-doubt.
In the West there is an increased scepticism about happiness, she muses. The view that happiness doesn’t really matter, or that it’s not really that important. “Happiness has been associated with the commercial – ads telling us that we will be happier if we have lots of nice things, if we are wealthy and powerful,” she says.
“In our Western industrial society, because of a whole range of things – the lack of deeper connections between generations, for example – we have ended up quite neurotic and unhappy. And now we are enshrining the idea that happiness is not that important.”
By 1980, the Indian government had opened up Ladakh for industry and development. Tourists arrived, followed closely by Western advertising, products and television. Ladakh, like our ancestors some 200 years ago, were being moved aside to let industry in. A road was built to connect Ladakh to the global economy, accompanied by the usual glut of Western landmarks including petrol stations, cinema complexes, banks and a football stadium.
Within 30 years, the capital Leh had been transformed from a pristine township of crystal-clean air, barley fields and large farmhouses into an urban sprawl, with soulless cell-like housing colonies crisscrossed by electricity wires. The air choked with diesel fumes.
In Leh today, food, clothing, building materials, and even water are transported into town by importers. A constant caravan of polluting trucks roar across the Himalayas to service the needs of a people that had survived and prospered perfectly well on their own for thousands of years.
“The most clear-cut effects were on the children,” says Norberg-Hodge. “I noticed, after only a few years, this belief that Westerners were these superhuman beings. And it was clear that they thought that we had the most amazing wealth and power. They’d say that it was better to be tall and have a bigger nose and Western-style eyes and lighter skin. Suddenly it led to a rejection of who they were, particularly among young Ladakhis. They wanted to be “cool” and to speak English.
“Very quickly I saw that these pressures from the outside led to a sense of inferiority and rejection of their own culture, which also meant self-rejection. In women I saw it lead to depression and in the young men anger, and even violence.”
Today there are ugly parallels between Ladakh and the West – rising crime, teenage aggression, anxiety, depression and loneliness. The strong, outgoing women of Ladakh are being replaced by a new generation, laments Norberg-Hodge, who are unsure of themselves and extremely concerned with their appearance.
She vividly describes Deskit, a pretty, sparkling girl in Ladakh who she fondly remembers as a girl. After many years Norberg-Hodge visited her at home. “I found her sitting alone in front of the TV at ten o’clock in the morning…her children were in school, and her husband was at work.”
Deskit’s aunt was worried. Her husband had a good job, her children were in good schools, and her house was clean, modern and comfortable. Yet she was miserable. The process of development, says Norberg-Hodge, had isolated her from the larger community and had separated her from her children. “She was clearly unhappy and had grown quite withdrawn.” The sparkle had gone.
Western development is a standardised process of opening up a country to foreign business while infrastructure like roads, bridges and power stations are necessary accompaniments. Development is sold on the premise that the entire world deserves cinema complexes, football stadiums and shopping malls and that anyone who lives outside this Western paradigm is by definition “primitive”.
“The scale and blindness of this spreading consumer culture with its rage of toxins that we are just beginning to comprehend – it is very depressing for people to hear about. I worry about people feeling so overwhelmed that they say ‘I give up.’
“If we just view one problem after another it is pretty overwhelming, but there is a way of stepping back and seeing the bigger picture. And the bigger picture is about looking beyond the narrow framework that we have been given, to see that there were other worlds before, there were other cultures, there were other ways that were healthier, more sustainable and happier.”
After 40 years of studying happiness and its causes, Norberg-Hodge is convinced that true human happiness comes from being part of a small, tight-knit community. “People that grow up more self-confident and happier are people that have had a larger number of significant others in their lives,” she says. They’ve grown up in a large family, or with an extended family of aunts and uncles, or in a town where people get together often to share meals and celebrate important days. “People who have low self-esteem are generally people who have very few or no significant others in their lives. So part of the key to happiness is to feel connected to other people and to nature.
“The more fragmented we are, the more unhappy we are, the more unhealthy we are – and the more someone else can profit from that”, she says. “I am convinced that people were significantly happier before development than they are today.”
In the face of unprecedented global destruction to our ocean, forests and animal life, Norberg-Hodge’s message is being adopted as one of the few alternatives to the myriad ecological and sociological crises we face. From billionaire conservationists to political leaders across Europe and Japan, her “Economics of Happiness” is touted as a possible way out. The Dalai Lama, writing the forward to her book Ancient Futures noted: “I share the author’s concern for the threatened ecology of our planet and admire the work she has done in promoting alternative solutions to many of the problems of modern development.”
Her proposed theory of human-scale development involves smaller cities and promoting local businesses, local farming and community stores and markets. It involves policies that allow space for community-based economies to flourish and spread. And indeed, it is hard to argue against the merits of eating food grown locally compared to food that is shipped across the planet (along with the artificial chemicals required to prolong its shelf-life). Or the merits of living in a tight-knit community over being adrift in suburban sprawl, hooked up to an interconnecting freeway and fast-food outlets.
One morning in Ladakh, Norberg-Hodge watched an eighty-two-year-old grandfather. He was busy on the roof of his house, and having finished what he was doing, he quickly scampered down a ladder to the ground. The old man noticed her and the two exchanged a few words about the weather.
That afternoon at three o’clock he died. “We found him sitting peacefully as though asleep,” Norberg-Hodge recounts. The old are active and involved in the community until the day they die. Not so in the West.
In Norberg-Hodge’s documentary The Economics of Happiness, two Ladakhi women are chaperoned by Norberg-Hodge on a “reality tour” of the developed world – a first-hand glimpse of life in the West. The Ladakhi women view our landfills of human waste, our spiritless shopping malls, and the factory-made standardised garments that we wear.
At one point the two Ladahki women enter an aged care facility. In a society exalted for technological sophistication and progress, how does one die in the “developed world”? In the stark building, lonely figures are captured on camera in private cells furnished by a hospital bed, an armchair and a TV-stand on wheels. A nurse asks a crumpled man slumped in a hard-backed chair: “Do you have any grandchildren who visit you?” “No, no, not married,” he replies. The camera pans, revealing a horrified look on the Ladakhi women’s faces.
When the television is on, electronic faces and sounds surround the dying with artificial life. When the television is off, many are faced with nothing other than their impending death. With nothing to do, no one to care for, and nothing to hope for (the three rules of happiness put forward by philosopher Immanuel Kant), one can barely imagine the agony of those final hours.
In a 1959 interview with English philosopher Bertrand Russell, the interviewer asked him what he thought of the 19th century, a period that set the stage for our fearless industrial future. Russell replied with some trepidation: “The world was much more beautiful to look at than it is now,” he said. “Every time I go back to a place I knew long ago, I think how sad it is, this place used to be beautiful and now it is hideous. One piece of beauty after another is destroyed.”
Perhaps we should turn to Meditations On Quixote, published in 1914 by Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, who wrote: “I am myself and my circumstances.”
Indeed, happiness is not an isolated state but happens to us within a physical setting, within particular circumstances. Our state of happiness can be limited by our prejudices, thoughts, behaviour and habits, which are as much about us as the world we live in.
Ortega y Gasset’s philosophy challenges us to imagine new possibilities and new futures, and attempt to change our circumstances, regardless of the barriers.
He concludes by saying: “We live at a time when man believes himself fabulously capable of creation, but he does not know what to create.”