Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 25 September 2016





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

Pursuit of happiness

‘Happiness’ is often considered a term bearing a relative value: one person’s happiness could easily be another’s suffering. At the same time, being an emotion, a ‘state of mind’, ‘happiness’ rarely gets the usage it once had in less utilitarian eras where the economy and market expansion were not considered the sole or primary drivers of social progress.

Even in Sri Lanka, now recovering after a devastating war, the more used language these days has to do with economic growth and productivity, and less with human well-being and social-communitarian integrity. ‘Bottom-lines’, profit margins and value chains dominate national discourses while culture, social standards and morality are sidelined, often seen as the idealistic dimension that is no longer a ‘real’ aspect of human fundamentals.

Indeed, a large coalition of social action groups and civil society lobbies last week led a march on ‘Temple Trees’ to hand over to the Prime Minister a memorandum demanding that the Government ensures that socio-economic rights are adequately included in the forthcoming new Constitution. Such is the concern that this aspect of social life is being de-emphasized by the dominant discourses of development and modernisation which tend to focus solely on the economy and economic productivity.

Perhaps sensitive to the aesthetics of a holistic approach to governing development and recovery, President Maithripala Sirisena last Wednesday told the United Nations’ General Assembly that “My government’s intention is to make the people of Sri Lanka one of the happiest among the world communities”.

The President, coming as he does from lowly rural farmer origins, surely knows the existential interaction between comfortable states of physical living and psychological states of mind. When the head of State goes to the biggest gathering of the world’s nations and officially declares ‘happiness’ a national goal, he is attempting to encapsulate, in a single word, the hopes and expectations of his people as a developing nation.

The President added that “For that purpose, the government is committed to strengthening freedom and democracy, while achieving economic prosperity”. In this, Mr. Sirisena is pointing out the practical steps towards such ‘happiness’, namely the combination of high standards of governance and social integrity on the one hand and, economic growth and higher income levels on the other. In doing so, the President articulates a vision that is pragmatic twice over – an integration of hard economics with an ideological and spiritual equanimity. In a country that has suffered from multiple insurgencies and even more brutal counter-insurgencies, the importance of the spiritual dimension is espoused in the ‘hearts and minds’ strategies somewhat belatedly implemented by our tireless armed forces that have long borne the weight of the task of defending the State.

President Sirisena is echoing other national societies that have previously also emphasised this dimension of human contentment in their national journeys. The founding fathers of the United States of America, for example, pointedly included the ‘pursuit of happiness’ as an ‘inalienable right’ in their Declaration of Independence in 1776. Ironically, the newly liberated Republic of Vietnam also included this phrase in its own Declaration of Independence from French colonial rule in 1945, a commitment of national leader Ho Chi Minh that only reached fulfilment in 1975 when South Vietnam was also liberated from foreign occupation with the defeat of US forces.

Most recently, in our own region of South Asia, the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan has announced its new development goal of ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH), no doubt inspired by the Buddha’s own teaching ‘May all beings be happy…’. Psychological well-being is the first of nine criteria that make up the Bhutanese index of GNH.

After decades of physical suffering and psychological trauma due to the internal war, parallel with the birth pangs of marked-led economic development, the people of Sri Lanka have begun to enjoy two positive outcomes of this experience: political and social stability and middle income country status. Sri Lankans today can go beyond basic survival exercises - whether the bomb shelter or food stamps - and take up a broader range of pursuits in their lives.

What President Sirisena is pointing out to the world is the importance of these larger dimensions of social life that must be held together firmly with other practicalities such as economic growth. With the country led by a national coalition that combines the two traditional parties of government, there is no better moment than today for the orienting of the nation on the path to holistic fulfilment.


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