27 June, 2022


Pursuit Of Happiness: A Wild Goose Chase?

By Charitha Ratwatte –

Charitha Ratwatte

The American Declaration of Independence, in its second paragraph states that “… all Men are created equal, and that they are endowed… with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The Oxford Dictionary tells us that being ‘happy’ is being cheerful with feelings of pleasure or satisfaction. ‘Satisfaction’ is, in turn, when you are pleased because you have achieved something or because something has happened as you wanted it to. A synonym is being ‘content’ being happy and satisfied with what you have.

Rulers have constantly tried to measure happiness as an indicator of the quality of life of the ruled. The idea behind the attempt to measure ‘happiness’ by government is to ensure that governments can make their voters ‘happy’. It would be good for governments to keep in mind Samuel Coleridge’s comment in The Three Graves: ‘We ne’er can be, made happy by compulsion!’

Some define happiness as the satisfaction of the will. If you succeed in obtaining what you have been dreaming of, can you be said to be happy? Pursuing this definition of happiness, a person may do countless things, spending all his time, money, energy and skill, to make his life happy. But would such happiness be sustainable?

If something perishable, changeable and impermanent is procured in the pursuit of happiness, it is bound to slip away from his grasp as definitely as night follows day. Then unhappiness will result. Experience shows that education does not bring happiness, neither does wealth bring happiness.

The Buddha’s view

The Buddha taught that happiness can be eradicated by eliminating the craving for happiness and all worldly things. The Buddha explained that one gains happiness through the association with the wise and the avoidance of fools. “Good is the sight of the Noble Ones; happy always is it to live with them; away from the sight of fools, one would always be happy.”

Generosity or Dana makes the giver happy. But in the last resort the Buddha made it clear that the path to happiness is through the purification of the mind. The Buddha said: “Our actions are all led by the mind, the mind is their master, mind is their maker. If one acts or speaks with a pure state of mind then happiness follows like a shadow that trails constantly behind.”

Happiness is therefore most certainly generated by the by the mind freed from factors which oppose it, that is free from craving. Doing good deeds with a pure mind is a source of happiness. The Buddha explained that there are three stages to happiness: moral behaviour (Sila), concentration (Samadhi) and wisdom (Panna). Living a good moral life is a source of happiness. So also concentration of the mind through the practice of meditation. The realisation of the truth, the wisdom so achieved is the third stage of happiness which frees the mind of craving

Gross Domestic Product

But in the material world we live in, sustainable is defined as something which survives and can be maintained without change. One measure adopted by rulers, encouraged by their economic pundits, is the Gross Domestic Product, better known by its initials, GDP, which also has been the professional economists’ chosen measure of a nation’s wellbeing over the years.

Economic growth is assumed to equate to wellbeing. However it is well recognised to have serious limitations, for example it takes no account of environmental pollution and degradation, which negatively affects sustainability, also it excludes all unpaid services which exist in the economy, such as volunteering and domestic housework – homemaking. Robert Kennedy, Attorney General of the USA and brother of President John. F. Kennedy, put it succinctly, when he said that GDP “measures everything… except that which makes life worthwhile!”

Economic performance measured by Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a measure of the value of goods and services produced in a country. It has been defined as the total of all economic activity in one country, regardless of who owns the productive assets. However, it has many flaws and does not even measure the value of goods and services precisely. Further people’s feelings of happiness or satisfaction or optimism also depend on things GDP does not capture.

Freedom and happiness

The reference to the liberty in the American constitution, has led, together with other constitutional principles developed in other parts of the world, to a theoretical nexus being developed between, the level of freedom in a society and the level of happiness. Is there a connection between the quantum of freedom and the level of happiness? The measurement of the quantum of freedom is connected to the issue of basic rights.

Safeguarding the right o the individual necessarily envisages placing restrictions on the state interfering with his rights. Both international treaties and national laws limit the right of the state to impinge upon individual rights. The fundamental principle is that an individual has been endowed, by custom, tradition, religious beliefs and humanitarian considerations, among others, with certain essential and inherent rights, which must be respected and protected, if society is to be just. If the rulers are to be considered as just rulers.

These rights range from freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom from torture, discrimination, arbitrary arrest and detention, freedom of speech and association and association and freedom. But these freedoms cannot and are not unlimited. Social cohesion and control requires that for a community to be functional and not dysfunctional and anarchy, there must be reasonable limitations of individual freedoms. The state therefore, with consent of the people, imposes restraints on the exercise and enjoyment of individual rights in the interest of good governance and the very existence, survival, safety and security of the state, as a voluntary grouping of citizens and their communities.

A nation’s basic law or constitution reflects this trade off. The emphasis is shifted away from the primacy of individual rights to the recognition of common and community rights to which individual rights are subordinated. However it is a fine line of demarcation. Much disputed.

For example the principle of absolute freedom of contract of the parties to an agreement, is most times subordinated to the higher moral aspiration of equity and social justice and the protection of weaker segments of the community from the economically and socially powerful.

Today environmental and ecological obligations also play a powerful role. For example, the current much debated trade off which is highly controversial, over the ability of the department of Wildlife Conservation and the safari jeep drivers at the Yala National Park to earn a maximum income by taking large numbers of tourists into the park, and the deleterious effect of such over visitation on the fauna and the flora of a very vulnerable eco system.

These sort of issues took primacy at UN gathering in Brazil, the Rio +20 World Sustainability Conference, those that were concerned enough to attend, that is- the major players simply kept away! The 238 point final agreement, entitled ‘The Future We Want,’ was arrived on the day appointed for the conference to end, a sure sign for an ineffective UN conference, there was no real controversy, where there are controversial ‘real’ issues raised, the meetings go on until the early hours of the morning, trying to hammer out a compromise. The EU’s climate change commissioner commented on the final communiqué: “Telling that nobody in that room adopting the text was happy. That’s how weak it is.”

A growing number of ordinary people around the world are recognising the mutual interconnectedness of these issues and the need to think of a way to evolve a measure of development which would capture the real situation of the status of humanity as to their thinking of their present and future. How is ‘sustainable progress’ to be measured in the 21st century? The traditional indicators of economic activity simply don’t tell us enough about ordinary peoples hopes, goals and aspirations.

The Happy Planet Index

It is this realisation that prompted the United Nations to host a High Level meeting on Happiness and Well Being. For the same reason the few world leaders who actually attended Rio +20 were involved in negotiations on development indicators which ‘would go beyond GDP’.

The New Economics Foundation, responding to this need has created a