Saturday Sep 08, 2018
Is there an obligation on the state to make laws that increase happiness? Can an idea of happiness be contemplated in the first place? At the very outset, such an aim seems almost fanciful. Governments pass laws, punitively sanction dissent and maintain order. Happiness may be a desirable result as a consequence of a state policy initiative, but hardly ever the cause. Developed democracies stress on fundamental rights but rarely delve directly into issues such as well-being, comfort and mental health.
Some states do contemplate such aims. The US Declaration of Independence identifies the “Pursuit of Happiness” along with Life and Liberty as an inalienable right. The Kingdom of Bhutan uses a Happiness Index measuring Gross National Happiness (GNH), as a public good, based on painstakingly long surveys and data on health, living standards, education, culture and the environment. Acting on the GNH, Bhutan has taken radical steps, such as becoming the first country in the world to ban tobacco in all spaces. It has also made health care completely free and invested heavily in primary, secondary and tertiary care. The largely impoverished population has taken on the mantle, in the face of heavy cynicism, to increase its citizen’s happiness.
On a more global level, the United Nations published a World Happiness Report (the WHR) involving 156 countries, published on the basis of extensive data collected from citizens ranging from diverse issues such as business and economics, law and order, emotions and well-being. (Pakistan ranked 80 out of 156 on the WHR in case you were wondering). The report is an attempt to collate data that identifies experiences or policies that may collectively increase well-being. This may be used as a useful barometer by states to champion policies with the underlying aim of increasing happiness.
The constitution of Pakistan doesn’t really contain any meaningful provisions on happiness. It stresses on fundamental rights, which it deems inalienable, such as life and security of a person, but rarely delves into happiness as a public aim. The closest the constitutions speaks on uplifting citizens’ well-being are in the “Principles of Policy” enshrined under Article 29 of the constitution. In reality, the principles pay homage to morality and the safeguarding of Islamic principles, which is standard fare for a theocracy, but nowhere near a prescription for a happy life.
Indeed, for policy makers, happiness as an aim may not sit well in the scheme of things. After all, narratives, particularly on social media involving right vs left, liberal vs conservative, theocratic vs secular are fed on fanning as much outrage as possible. The electronic media dishes out “talk shows” on prime-time slots, where shouting matches are repackaged as political debates, with a neutral host playing the role of agent provocateur. Rather than gaining something insightful at the end of these shows, we feel angry, confused, disillusioned and paranoid.
So much of our economic markets also thrive on our insecurities and paranoia. Votes for a political party A, are procured less on the party’s own achievements and more on how it expertly portrays political party B as a mess. We are constantly told that inimical forces, domestic and foreign are out to harm our state despite terrorism being the lowest in a decade. Insurance companies sell us policies predicated on the fear that we may die suddenly and prematurely. Fairness creams for men and women, consistently one of our top domestic products play on the crippling insecurity of not being white enough.
Gloom and doom aside, can the state still attempt to try to increase happiness? Let’s examine.
John Finnis, an Australian jurist and philosopher provides an interesting alternative to pursuing goals on moralistic lines. In his seminal work “Natural Laws and Natural Rights” he makes the claim that certain goals of human striving are intuitive and objectively worth pursuing because they feel right. Therefore, it makes sense that such objects or goods should be included in policy making because they are self-evidently good. For example, Finnis identifies life, knowledge, play, friendship, aesthetic experience, practical reasonableness and even religion as objects of human striving.
Sounds incredibly poetic and basic but is Finnis’s idea of certain practices being self-evidently good grounded in factual basis? Let’s take the idea of life for example. Every constitution safeguards the idea and the right of life. But what is enjoyment of life? One definition of enjoyment is a life devoid of physical and emotional fetters, where all amenities of life provided by the state are enjoyed to the full. This may include, without limiting anything, good infrastructure, recreational facilities, clean air, free health and education, inexpensive justice and a life unfettered with existential threats such as crime, terrorism or environmental issues.
In the seminal judgment of the Supreme Court titled, Shehla Zia vs Wapda (PLD 1994 SC 693), which paved the way for public interest litigation concerning the environment, the petitioner, challenged the construction of a nearby electricity grid station due to potential health risks and hazards. The Supreme Court held, that the right of a healthy environment was a part of the right of life and right of dignity under the constitution. This is just one example where the apex court recognised that life is not just simply protection against harm, (which was a dimension of the judgment, as electricity grid stations could potentially cause harm), but a right to enjoy life, free of mental fetters.
Finnis further argues that the pursuit of knowledge and practical reasonableness are goods that is also self-evidently noble. Consider this. Even for us, the privileged minority, how many actually received an education which made us critically re-evaluate our lives? Sure, we understood the decimal system, rote learn newtons laws of motion and were subjected to more than our share of the two-nation theory, but did we ever meaningfully apply it? A kid from an elite situation would be most likely unable to fix a tyre, change a lightbulb or appreciate even rudimentary concepts of commerce, procurement services and basic civic sense. Most children in middle and upper middle-class institutions are hardly ever encouraged to visit orphanages, a government hospital, a court of law or even an Edhi shelter. They may make excellent academics, sportspersons or debaters but are never made aware of their privilege or taught empathy or charity beyond banal textbook knowledge. As a consequence, many freeze up when faced with real life situations and not unreasonably so. This is a problem because the cornerstone of most elite education and content is based on deference to authority rather than learning.
There is a critical responsibility on federal and provincial governments to prescribe a syllabus that will teach real skills outside of the normal coursework and sports. In this respect, teacher training is absolutely vital and crying out for some meaningful fund allocation. It is not enough to allocate a certain budget to learning. Teachers have to make their courses practical, imaginative and relatable, which can only be achieved if they are first taught how to teach their courses the right way. Excellent teachers inspire, make well rounded individuals and invariably make society more productive, and as a result, happier.
The lodestar of Finnis’s philosophy is pursuing practical reasonableness as an object of human striving. Practical reasonableness, as the phrase suggests is to simply pursue aims that make sense, and benefit all. For example, supporting PTI’s “Plant for Pakistan” or Billion Tree Tsunami Project is a no brainer, regardless of your political affiliations. The PPP’s practice of generously including women and minority groups in legislative assemblies is practically reasonable because it will make the corridors of power more inclusive, empathetic and pluralistic. The PML-N’s efforts in passing acts protecting transgenders and women against violence need to be backed and lauded. This is regardless of whether you feel legitimate anger or disgust against other self-defeating policies that each of these political parties adopt. These actions, taken in isolation intuitively make sense and will self-evidently increase happiness.
How can you, as an individual lead a happier and healthier life? Like most things, science has an answer. A Harvard Study of Adult Development, which spanned a jaw dropping 80 years, sought to answer that question. Here, scientists tracked the health of 268 Harvard sophomores in 1938, which included President John F. Kennedy. The research chartered the participants’ lives well into their 60s and 70s some of who went onto become successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers but others ended up in destitute poverty, or became alcoholics and suffered schizophrenia.
The researchers studied all aspects of the participants’ heath and broader lives including careers, marriage their failures and triumphs. Their findings were unequivocal. The participants who were most successful health wise and who had meaningful careers were those who had the strongest personal relationships. Close relationships, which obviously includes family and friends were more significant than money and fame and kept these people happy throughout their lives, delayed their mental and physical decline and propelled them into leading successful lives.
All of us can learn from this study, whose findings are hardly ground breaking, but so criminally underrated. We have to learn to invest more time with our significant other, our families and friends. Science confirms we would be doing our physical bodies and our mental health a huge favour. So let me make a personal appeal to myself and to you; for a change; put that meeting off for another day and spend quality time with your parents/siblings. Stop typing that tweet or Facebook post and listen to that story your child has been desperate to tell you for days. Turn that talk show/breaking news segment off and tell your significant other how deeply you care about them. Make that trip with your closest friends, the one that you’ve been putting off for half a decade, simply because in your head, you’ve created a fallacious but self-fulfilling prophecy of lack of time.
Attempt this and science tells you that you are making an iron-clad case for happiness in your life.
Ali is a barrister in Lahore. He tweets at @RezaAli1980