I happen to agree with the adage that money alone can't buy happiness. So why do development policies seem to focus on economic growth with little consideration given to quality of life, social stability or public happiness?
Phra Ajarn Mitsuo Gavesako says economic growth does not necessarily coincide with moral development or social happiness.
A Gallup poll taken worldwide last month showed that Thailand ranked among the top in terms of citizens with positive attitudes, based on questions such as whether they were well-rested, smiled or laughed frequently or felt feelings of enjoyment. The Land of Smiles ranked sixth overall out of 148 countries, after Panama, Paraguay, El Salvador, Venezuela and Trinidad and Tobago.
Perhaps it is, considering the last several years has seen the country hit by massive floods, street riots, political upheaval and colour-coded social conflicts over the direction of Thai democracy.
A number of surveys suggest corruption has become more endemic than ever, to the point perhaps that many may have given up hope altogether of eradicating bribery and tea money. Drugs and teen violence are also on the rise, leading many to bemoan what they see as a decline in social values and mores.
Certainly it seems difficult to reconcile how Thais, after considering all our problems, can rank so high on the Gallup well-being poll. Indeed, the other countries ranked high in the survey would place much lower on more traditional measures of development, whether economic size, political stability or peace.
And consider that the Gallup poll lists Singaporeans as the least likely to report positive emotions, despite living in a city-state that ranks among the most wealthy and developed in the world.
Over the New Year holidays, I had the opportunity to visit Wat Sunandavanaram in Kanchanaburi and hear the teachings of the temple's abbot, Phra Ajarn Mitsuo Gavesako. Japanese by birth, Ajarn Mitsuo entered the monkhood in Thailand over 40 years ago, following the teachings of the revered Phra Ajarn Chah.
Ajarn Mitsuo said the Gallup poll adds weight to the thought that economic growth does not necessarily coincide with moral development or social happiness. Indeed, people in many developed economies give similar answers. saying that greater wealth and prosperity comes at a cost in terms of happiness and contentment.
As we sat in the forest temple, Ajarn Mitsuo noted that government officials estimate that some 3 million Thais suffer from depression today. Problems of mental and emotional health appear to be on the rise each year, despite _ or perhaps, the result of _ the considerable gains made in the country's economic and industrial development.
He speculates that the widespread proliferation of computers, the internet and social media may indeed be contributing to social stress.
Ajarn Mitsuo is spearheading a programme aimed at addressing this problem. If Thailand's 10-million-plus students each spent say five or 10 minutes per day learning about Buddhism and dhamma, the potential gains could be enormous in helping people cope with the stresses of modern life.
Already 500,000 copies of an easily-understood book has been printed under the programme, and given out to some 150,000 students at 50 schools nationwide. Within three years, the temple hopes to reach a total of 1 million students across the country.
At the centre of the sukhaparb jai dee programme, roughly translated as good mental health, is the Buddhist concept of self-awareness and consciousness, using deep breathing exercises as a teaching tool. Breath naturally, without thinking or speaking, for one or two minutes per cycle. Do this 30 times each day, and good mental health will follow.
Ajarn Mitsuo understands that educating people about Buddhism and dhamma must begin with the fundamentals, taught in an accessible, practical manner. He said two of his future projects include developing a cartoon animation series as well as translating the project's works into 20 other languages.
I left the forest temple and returned to Bangkok after the holidays convinced there must be balance between material prosperity and spiritual development, between economic growth and social growth, between wealth and happiness. After all, what use is all our wealth without health and happiness?
Wichit Chantanusornsiri is a senior business reporter for the Bangkok Post.
About the author
- Writer: Wichit Chantanusornsiri
Position: Business Reporter