In these turbulent times, with rampant inequality, dislocation and alienation; when, for thinking people, moral and emotional outrage is unavoidable – Can one be happy?
In fact, should one be happy?
In the journey ALI-SA Fellows embark on we clearly encounter two arcs: the personal (Fellows emerge with a better understanding of themselves); and the social, which deals with governance of humanity and its institutions over time. We say that where these intersect the magic begins. Our Fellows go into their futures more able in many ways.
Built into this journey is a process which I’m not sure was consciously designed as it is never spoken about. It is the search to answer, in practice, “How do I live a happy and significant life?” In our reading together, our discussions, we consciously and unconsciously touch on the question of happiness.
The SA Constitution, 30 years ago, set out to heal divisions, to lay foundations for improving our world and to “Free the potential of each person to be the best that they can be.”
The US Declaration of Independence, 300 years ago, holds that people have inalienable rights, including the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. (It also says we all have the civic duty to defend those rights for ourselves and others.)
Whether successfully or not, both were set up in response to a proposition by Aristotle, nearly 3 000 years ago, defining what has been translated as a happy life. Of course our understanding has changed over the years as our value systems evolve. The answer might be different, but the question remains fundamentally the same.
We encounter many such propositions on our journey.
Happiness could today be defined as a desirable state of being. It is unfortunately transient – one moves from being happy to sad to angry and back again. Aristotle argued that a good, happy life must involve conscious engagement over time. This process, he said, needed certain characteristics: pleasure, some wealth, honour, ethics, virtue, good friends, and the actions driven by these. Continuously contemplation of this builds a deep understanding of oneself, internally and in the world. He called this, we remember, eudaimonia: the conscious pursuit of “a life well lived” rather than transient joys.
So, back to happiness. It is not to be undervalued but should not be what one strives for. A life that is only happy is not good enough.
We joined this “intergalactic army of the just” because we were at inflection points in our lives or because something about us carries the promise of great, but not fully known, things to come. We all have access to levers of power – soft and hard – to make significant shifts in the spaces we occupy. Also, this grouping of Fellows has significant diversity of world view, experience and history, allowing us to continually learn from each other.
From the personal to the social
Can we build a eudaimonic society? What would it entail? Beyond Gross National Happiness and various other happiness indices, what do we have to do to shift to the positive?
GDP and national happiness don’t correlate directly. Unhappiness seems to track inequality better than it does shifts in GDP. This is the Easterlin paradox. Credited with putting humans back at the centre of economic research, Easterlin came back into vogue in the early 90s and influenced thinking about the alternatives to GDP as measures of a society’s health.
As an example, the measured happiness in India has actually been declining at the same time that GDP has been going up significantly. This trend is essentially the opposite of Finland’s, which has seen little economic growth but rising life satisfaction for the past decade.
Maslow’s Hierarchy is probably too materialistic and was set out when our understanding of social psychology was somewhat less developed than it is now. But I don’t think we can abandon Maslow completely. The absence of life-sustaining goods and services will leave any society in tatters. Poverty – of food, housing, health and security services – must be dealt with if any society is to thrive. In SA we have a long way to go in this regard. An effective welfare state really does play an important role in people’s life satisfaction. In SA what would the welfare portion of the State’s role be? What the most effective interventions? B.I.G. – or are there better ways to spend the money?
Self-actualisation of communities requires near full employment of their citizens. The Indian case speaks to inequality, perceived and actual, as the growth accrued to the wealthiest 10 percent and the poor became relatively even poorer. South Africa being in the lowest rungs of the inequality ladder leaves many of our communities with low self-esteem which, when read through the lens of our racist history, adds much complexity as we seek solutions. Poverty is enervating and poor communities need energetic leaders to get them acting to their own benefit. What in our history should we hang on to for positive guidance, and what anchors us in destructive cycles?
We have just endured the two-fisted punches of Sona and the Budget. Do the values they represent reflect the aspirations of our Constitution?
I believe they do not. GDP and a weak developmental state is what our leadership lives by. Redistribution as the means to retain power guides their strategic thinking, rather than building the capital base – human, psychosocial and economic – of the country with focus on our poor.
The journey of the Fellowship
The ALI Fellow journey requires us to “give back” via a project, venture or shift in the spaces we occupy. Possibly a shift to bigger spaces as we realise our potential. Many have. We all know the big stories. Some of the hidden ones are heart-warming and have significant impact. This year we will tell some of these as a measure of our personal journeys to a eudemonic life and, potentially more impactful, the stories of our Fellows’ contribution to a eudemonic existence for our fellow residents in this country and on this continent.
It is my hope and plan that we will continue to engage with open hearts and intelligent skepticism. Approach the opportunity for eudaimonia for ourselves and all the people of this country with discipline and integrity.
There will be tears, but we must enjoy the journey.
An invitation: please think about your trajectory and our Fellowship’s role in it, then share in pithy detail (500 words…?) for publication in our newsletter. Talk about your venture, your choices and changes. Self-actualisation.
More than happiness, Eudaimonia awaits!
FOUR ALTERNATIVES TO GDP
There are many measures countries can use to shift their focus from economic growth to broader goals that encompass things like quality of life.Gross National Happiness IndexBhutan has been at the forefront of alternative economics, and the country has inspired many international initiatives. In 2008, the Bhutanese government began to measure its progress with the Gross National Happiness Index, which assesses nine domains: psychological well-being, health, education, time use, cultural diversity and resilience, good governance, community vitality, ecological diversity and resilience, and living standards.
Human Development Index
Invented by the United Nations, the Human Development Index doesn’t examine emotional well-being directly, but it does incorporate indicators of life expectancy and education, in addition to financial income, to rate a country’s progress.
Better Life Index
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development considers 11 dimensions of well-being for its Better Life Index: housing quality and cost, household income, job security and unemployment, levels of social support, education, quality of the environment, involvement in democracy, health, life satisfaction, safety/crime and work-life balance.
Happy Planet Index
Although many of the alternatives to GDP consider a country’s environmental impact, the Happy Planet Index places a greater emphasis on green credentials. It was established by the New Economics Foundation, a UK think tank, and incorporates the following elements: life expectancy, well-being, and ecological footprint.