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The human pursuit

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - March 30, 2021 - 12:00am

Last March 20 was International Day of Happiness… not that many would have realized this. In the face of the continued blight of COVID-19 and a new surge of cases at home, happiness may be distant for many of us. But when the UN adopted the resolution creating International Day of Happiness in 2011, it wasn’t made to celebrate a sudden spike in the amount of joy in the world. It was passed to remind us of the importance of happiness in human lives, and to exhort governments to recognize this, and the need to forge public policy that has happiness as a goal, and not merely economic growth or unfettered progress. This reminder to nations continues to be necessary, as so many still seem to believe that happiness is a mere sentiment, not a proper goal for State action. But such a position misunderstands what happiness is, and why it is not only a matter for the personal sphere but also one of public good.

As Sigmund Freud wrote, if you ask what the purpose of life is and base your answer solely on how they act, the only conclusion you can arrive at is that they strive for happiness. Or as the philosopher Blaise Pascal put it: “All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.” This action includes the creation of nations and governments – these were formed because communities of people believed they would improve their chances at happiness.

Some of the devaluation of happiness as a public good is because it is seen as personal sentiment, as a private emotion. To be sure, that is part of what happiness is and it’s what comes to mind most easily when we think about our own happiness. It’s the feeling we remember when our love was requited, when we finally overcome a difficult task, when we receive an unexpected gift. And while these highs of positive emotion are indeed transient things, that does not mean they do not have lasting effects. There are studies that indicate positive emotions such as joy create a broadening effect in our minds that enhances our flexibility, creativity and motivation.

Happiness also facilitates actions that allow us to accumulate social resources (think of how much easier it is to make friends when you’re in a good mood). Positive emotions can also enhance our ability to recover mentally from negative emotions, make us hardier in the face of tragedies and replenish the mental resources that we expend when we exert self-control. So even at this level, the experience of happiness has clear and tangible benefits to our mental health, and it’s important to find and cultivate these instances of joy even during – especially during – difficult times.

Yet happiness, human happiness, is also more than just a feeling. When we see other animals with their basic needs all attended to, taking pleasure in days filled only with eating and sleeping, we do not envy their state. It’s possible for other animals to live purely in the moment, but humans are an exception to that rule: we are unique in that we cannot help but project into the future. This is true even for our idea of what happiness is, and why we are not concerned only with the pleasure of the moment, but with the satisfaction of a life well lived. In fact, it’s fair to say that this is an aspect of happiness that we pursue even at the cost of positive emotion – we slave away learning our crafts in order to create beauty, we put our bodies through rigorous training in order to become champions, we stay in jobs that are less than ideal in order to provide stable income for our children. We do these things because we find meaning in creating a future, for ourselves and for others, and meaningful action makes us happy, even if our current circumstances give us no joy.

The fact that much of our happiness hinges on meaningful action aimed at creating a future is what takes happiness out of the realm of the self and into society. We cannot live anywhere else but in a shared world, in a society with others seeking their own meaning and happiness. The opportunities we have available to us, the types of actions we can take, these are constrained by the kind of society we live in. A patriarchal society will limit the futures of women and girls, a racist society will stymie the choices of the marginalized. Changing a society requires communal action, and the futures we can build for ourselves and our loved ones depend on our ability to work together to create a better world.

Therefore, for instance, joint action against climate change is so important, because the survival of the human race is necessary for us to have any future at all. It is in coordinating such public efforts that governments become indispensable, and it is essential that those in public service act with the goal of broadening our possible futures.

At the same time, survival alone should never be the ultimate end of public policy. As I’ve laid out in this column, nations and governments were created to bring happiness to the people, as a common good. While States cannot guarantee happiness itself, they can do much to guarantee the pursuit of happiness in all its myriad forms. They can do this by creating structures that allow their citizens to have more control over their lives, by seeking out and eliminating structural inequalities that limit the opportunities of our youth and by adapting policies that look towards securing our future rather than exploiting our present. Putting resources into the arts and not just industry, into environmental and educational targets and not just economic ones, are examples of initiatives that broaden available futures and bear long-term fruit.

It’s difficult to see a goal beyond surviving the pandemic. But as human beings, it’s important that we reach out beyond and towards a future that motivates us to create it. A future of meaningful joy for ourselves and those we love.

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