Evaluating a country’s success seems to depend on one’s point of view. Do we prefer GDP (Gross Domestic Product) or GNH (Gross National Happiness)? Well-being or prosperity, or perhaps, as it so often seems the case in Thailand, well-being through prosperity. But can we truly quantify happiness in terms of material development? While, measure for measure, economic performance often outguns spiritual values, even in this era of the sufficiency economy, the meaning we place on wealth here is not always so clear-cut.
Like a coin, wealth itself has two sides. On the face of it, wealth represents what many people desire and hold dear. Steady economic growth, infrastructural development and expansion, more foreign investment, high-performing exports, and favourable exchange rates—the lingua franca of CNBC—always bring good news. In spiritual matters, when one has more to spare, one can be a better Buddhist, as in the example of Vessantara, the last Chataka in the previous ten lives of the Lord Buddha. The moral of this story is the virtue of charity, philanthropy, and giving: share your fortune in this life to move on to Nirvana.
On the other side of the coin, money can be the root of evil. In mild cases, it leads to conspicuous public consumption, and in more severe circumstances, it brings out the worst of our vices—stealing, gambling, corruption, tax evasion, money laundering. In contrast to the sufficiency economy, wealth is widely worshipped. Fame and fortune don’t just favour the rich, but also amplify their true characters, drawing out greed, vanity, and arrogance. But the ability to buy designer clothes on a whim doesn’t mean one can buy taste.
In the past, visitors might have criticised the distribution of wealth in Thailand. Nowadays, abject poverty can only be seen in some areas. A middle class has risen, and it has begun to prosper in all kinds of industries. Yet despite this change, the income gap is widening. Now we boast more oligarchs than ever on the Forbes List. Through economic booms and recessions, Thailand has continually bounced back and thrived, with or without bursting the bubble. However, sadly, better sense of mind doesn’t come with making more money.
Like things that really matter in life, happiness is priceless. In Buddhism, it is found from within and is fleeting. In terms of GNH, it is measured via sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, and establishment of good governance. Thailand has never lost her world-famous smiles, but are we truly happy? While our standard of living has improved, our quality of life has decreased. When wretched excess is just barely enough, more only generates more. We get stuck in traffic because we have more cars to use, more units in condominiums to own, and more shopping malls to frequent. When will enough of these things be enough? Where are the parks, hospitals, schools, libraries, museums, and cultural, recreational, and learning centres? We are forgetting what truly matter in life—our health and wisdom.
Along those lines, Thailand has an abundance of resources, but we often mismanage them. We have depleted our natural capital in the name of prosperity, progress, and physical fortune. Our pristine tropical land has surrendered its space to concrete, our summerlike sky to the mist of pollution. Instead of filling our minds with knowledge, media in its various forms have bombarded us with mindless messages and communiqués. The country’s human capital—and more importantly its development—lags behind its neighbours’. A teacher friend once told me that rich parents of his students didn’t care about their child’s grades, because, they said, they have tonnes of money to spend, enough for generations. Well, there goes hope for the future of our nation!
What is worse, we are losing sight of our most important asset: time. We seem to spend more of it on material wealth than welfare, and we certainly do not spend enough time with one another. Sure, possessions may shower us with comfort and luxury, but superfluous items will not make us better-off. Ownership does not equate happiness, although still, I admit, sometimes when I think of the consumerist state in Thailand I flippantly think of that old adage: “People who say money can’t buy happiness just don’t know where to shop.”