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