Monday, 7 September 2015

Critical happiness

Christina McMellon, CRFR Research Fellow

Happiness is consistently cited as one of the things that people consider most important in their lives. There is increasing agreement that Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is not a sufficient indicator of a Country’s progress, and that alternative measures need to include the subjective aspects of wellbeing, or happiness. However, we must remember that happiness is not a politically neutral concept. If policy makers are to seriously consider happiness (which I believe they should) it is vital to find ways of opening up conversations about our shared understandings of happiness. Such a shared understanding must be grounded in the everyday experiences of the people whose lives social and development polices aim to improve.

My recently completed doctoral research provides rich data about perceptions of and beliefs about happiness based upon 18 months of ethnographic and participative fieldwork with a specific group of young people in Vientiane, Laos. Laos is a country that continues to be affected by a complex political legacy, has a rapidly modernising capital city and a newly visible and vulnerable civil society. With so many interweaving factors influencing the ways that they think about their lives it is unsurprising that the young people think about happiness in many different ways which are, at times, conflicting. However, without making any claim of generalisability, I would suggest that this finding is unlikely to be only relevant for young volunteers in Vientiane.

One way that happiness reveals itself is in the words that people choose and the metaphors that they employ. In this research I identified three key conceptual models used to express happiness including ‘Being Happy’ (happiness is a present moment choice), ‘Becoming Happy’ (happiness is something to be achieved) and ‘Happy Being With Others’ (happiness is located in relationships between people).

Further, I identified three ‘happiness scripts’ that research participants shared to describe different pathways that they believe lead to happiness:

  • “The way to be happy is to be a good Lao person”
  • “I will be happy if I have the things that I need to be comfortable and to have an easy life”
  • “I am happy when I follow my heart”.

These scripts each combine one of the conceptual models of happiness, specific aspects of life that contribute to individual happiness and a set of shared beliefs about happiness. Such beliefs were developed in response to a wide range of social factors including politics, religion, tradition and media. However, young people often followed more than one script at any one time in different areas of their lives, and the research explored the interactions and tensions between expectations inherent in the scripts meant and participants’ real-life experiences.

The socially constructed nature of the happiness scripts and the three models of happiness used by the research participants emphasised the need for self-awareness and transparency in conversations about happiness. The way we think about happiness is not neutral because it is influenced by the things around us in our lives, our communities and in society. In order to consider happiness at policy level we need to be aware of these influencing factors and encourage a critical discussion about which ‘happiness script’ is being promoted by whom. Happiness is both an important experience and a slippery concept; it is critical that we consider it and vital that we remain critical of it.

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