07/23/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness: Are We There Yet?

The search for happiness is back.

Increasingly chronicled in newspapers, blogs, books and TV, finding your bliss is finding its way once again into our conversations and our consciousness.

Mountains have been trekked, wisdom imparted, the source of distress identified.

"Greed. Insatiable human greed." That anti-Gordon Gekko echo comes from the Himalayas, where the Prime Minister of the tiny Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan has declared greed to be the cause of the current global economic meltdown, and by extension, our great global unhappiness. "We need to think Gross National Happiness," insists the Prime Minister.

Gross National Happiness is the Bhutanese government's official alternative to what it considers the "broken promise" of Gross National Product, the traditional measure of a country's economic output and worth. GNH has been getting a lot of attention lately, including separate enlightenment-seeking visits from the actor Michael J. Fox and the New York Times.

Last year, Bhutan adopted a new Constitution centered on Gross National Happiness as the true measure of value. According to the Times, government programs from agriculture to transportation to foreign trade must now be judged not by the economic benefits they may bring, but by the happiness they produce.

In other words, it's not the economy, stupid. The government of Bhutan is determined to create the conditions necessary for its citizens to actually achieve happiness. Are they onto something, or just on something?

I sought out my favorite happiness guru and the grumpiest person I know, Eric Weiner, author of the book, The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World. Weiner, a former foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, traveled the world trying to better understand happiness and why we keep searching for it.

"Essentially, I agree with the Bhutanese Prime Minister," says Weiner, who visited Bhutan to learn about GNH first-hand. "But I think that the source of our unhappiness is expectations. Greed fulfilled makes us 'happy' for awhile, but when our expectations are no longer met, we're miserable."

The Danes are one of the happiest people in the world, Weiner points out, and in surveys they report having modest expectations. Unlike Americans.

"I think we make ourselves unhappy by thinking about happiness in the wrong way," says Weiner. "Happiness is not personal. It's relational, and the sooner we realize that, the sooner we might actually achieve happiness. Study after study shows that the biggest factor in our happiness is our relationships--with friends, family, strangers, and if you want to get metaphysical, with the universe."

When Michael J. Fox traveled the world for his recent TV special, "Adventures of an Incurable Optimist," his favorite stop was Bhutan, where he too was intrigued by Gross National Happiness. Diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease 18 years ago, Fox knows a thing or two about happiness. "Your happiness grows in direct proportion to your acceptance and in inverse proportion to your expectations," he said.

His trip to Bhutan produced an unexpected side effect. "Since I've been in Bhutan," he told Larry King, "my symptoms have been really diminished. It's been the strangest thing. I've had less tremor." Fox said he didn't know if the change was from the altitude or the medication he took for altitude sickness, "or whether it's just Bhutan."

Now that the Bhutanese government has set its clear path to Gross National Happiness, the Prime Minister reminds us that GNH ultimately places "responsibility on the individual," something 'Bliss' author Weiner thinks may not translate easily to America's search for happiness.

"Many of us think we have a responsibility to be happy," he says. "That's insane. It's why we Americans suffer from what's called 'the unhappiness of not being happy.' Instead, we'd be much better off viewing our various responsibilities to others as little opportunities for happiness. It's not easy to do, but it's important if we want to stop being so darn miserable."