Sundance: Agent of Happiness – A scale of 1 to 10

On a scale of one to ten, how happy are you? That is essentially what is asked of the people of Bhutan in Agent of Happiness, a documentary directed by Arun Bhattarai and Dorottya Zurbó. You may want to think about your answer, it may be harder than you think. You may also want to think about why you aren’t asked that question more frequently.

In the 1970, the king of Bhutan declared that gross national happiness is more important than gross domestic product. In recent years, the government has begun to survey the population in an attempt to quantify happiness. In Agent of Happiness, we follow Amber Kumar Gurung as he works as one the bureaucrats that travel around asking people about their happiness. He strikes me as something like a census taker in the US. In theory, the data they collect will help determine national policies.

Amber Kumar Gurung, Gunaraj Kuikel, and Kinley Tshering appear in Agent of Happiness by Arun Bhattarai, an official selection of the World Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. Photo by Arun Bhattarai.

It should be noted that it’s not just a simple how happy are you question. The four hour interview involves well over 100 questions that includes asking how many cows, chickens, TV, tractors people have. There are also questions about spiritual well being, physical issues, the environment. When all the questions are done Gurung and his coworker go through various calculations to determine the person’s overall happiness.

As he travels the countryside, we meet some of the people he interviews. They range in happiness from a 4 (a teenager with an alcoholic mother), to a 10 (a man with three wives who seems to think he’s the gods’ gift to Bhutan).

Although Gurung spends his days asking about people’s happiness, his own happiness is somewhat complicated. He has a car and a job, but he’s nearing 40 and unmarried. He dates, but few women are interested in him because he is not a citizen. Because of his Nepali ethnicity, his citizenship was revoked when he was two years old. He has been trying ever since to restore that citizenship.

The film gives us an interesting look at people who are very different from us culturally, but the idea of happiness is something that transcends those differences. It is rare to find anyone (either in Bhutan or our own neighborhoods) who would likely be a 10 on the happiness scale. The people Gurung speaks with have some areas of their lives that are happy, but others that are unfulfilled.  Just like Gurung himself. And I suspect, just like you.

So now that you’ve had a few minutes to think, how happy are you?

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