In Iceland, where I have spent the past week, it is illegal to name your son Dweezil or River or your daughter Moon Unit or Fifi Trixabelle. The Government has long maintained a list of legal first names, all of which come from the Norse (Thorgil, Gunnar, Guðrún) or Biblical (Jón, Margret, Kristjana) traditions. There is also a list of middle names, many of which refer to places. For most of Iceland’s history, people had only one name, sometimes with a nickname (Eirik Raud, or Erik the Red) or a patronymic (Leifur Eiriksson, meaning Leif, son of Eirik). [click to continue…]
America’s Declaration of Independence is an astonishing document, not least for introducing the concept of the pursuit of happiness into the public discourse on how we should organize our political and social affairs. The phrase “pursuit of happiness” sounds as if it were invented in the 1970s – a time of social and personal transformation and self-discovery that Tom Wolfe dubbed “The Me Decade” – not the 1770s.
The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, which has just transformed itself from an absolute into a constitutional monarchy, is famous for the concept of “Gross National Happiness,” invented by the former king – an avid basketball player – who recently abdicated in favor of his son. GNH, if we may call it that, posits an alternative to Gross National Product as an indicator of a country’s well-being, based on measures of psychological health, ecology, education, culture, living standards, community activity, use of time, and good governance. Researchers in the Gross National Happiness Commission have devised a set of statistical formulas that should, eventually, allow all countries to be ranked according to GNH. In spite of the obvious flaws in the methodology – the numbers are based on 72 indicators captured by a detailed nationwide questionnaire administered every two years, and it’s possible that respondents in, say, North Korea would be more circumspect in their answers than the average American – it’s an intriguing idea. [click to continue…]