The Conquest of Happiness

The small, land-locked country of Bhutan has become an unlikely champion for a sustainable new world order. Reminiscent of “The Mouse that Roared,” it prompted and sponsored the high-level meetings at the United Nations from April 2-4, 2012 in New York on a shift toward measuring happiness as an indicator of global sustainability.

These meetings were called for by the UN resolution of July 2011 that was supported positively by Canada, one of the few at the UN to have formal diplomatic relations with Bhutan, and negatively (through its lack of opposition) by the United States. Aimed both at preparing the ground for Rio+20 and for a framework of action to follow on that event, the high-level meetings included more movers and shakers than the moved and shaken.

As I listened to the webcast (live and taped) of the formal proceedings and the procession of luminaries each given their opportunity to offer six minutes of wisdom, I was left with an uncomfortable memory from the movie Casablanca, of the moment when Louis the police inspector instructs his men to “round up the usual suspects.”

Briefly heartened by the fire of Vandana Shiva, I was dismayed by the ice of Jeffrey Sachs (who had been a candidate for President of the World Bank), among the long line of contributors who were overwhelmingly both old and male. Most, like Sachs, were offering a reprise of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in the form of new happy objectives also requiring a thousand-year time-line to accomplish.

If there were moments of optimism, they came from those who – whether religious leaders or not – spoke to the necessity of finding other values besides economic ones to promote sustainability, instead of just agreeing on a new method of financial accounting relating to happiness. These moments were too rare. Unfortunately, there was much more circumlocution and absurdity. One speaker excoriated developing countries for undermining the MDGs by not having enough statistics to support the necessary policies, and said that any future success relating to sustainability requires such countries, first and foremost, to invest “heavily” in statisticians!

Fast-forward to Rio+20 and we moved from the sublime to the ridiculous. It was like going to a circus where, despite the posters and promises of excitement, the audience was given a demonstration of the clown-cannon without anyone actually firing it and the elephants merely lumbered, nose to tail, around the ring. It was prelude without performance, issuing in a document that could not fall short, as other efforts have done, because it tried to achieve nothing more than rhetorical targets, easily met.

It was like seeing an aged Carnival performer, not cavorting in the mystery of a torch-lit parade down the street, but in broad daylight the morning after, trying unsuccessfully to summon enthusiasm and energy long dissipated, heavy make-up failing to hide the ravages of time and dissolution.

It was smog, not fog, and no amount of Brazilian sunshine could burn it away and offer the vista of a brighter future.

If the World Happiness Index declined sharply after Rio+20, the event still served purposes other than those that were intended. The illusion was dispelled that the current world political and economic structure, as it stands, can ever lead to the changes a sustainable future requires. You did not need to be either young or present to realize that the Emperors were naked, along with their advisors. Some other way forward needs to be found or the consequences of our past global mistakes will multiply beyond belief.

Most importantly, however, Rio+20 brought people together from all over the world who would never have met, who never would have shared everything from meals and conversation to debates and alliances, who never would have experienced the moments of shared Presence out of which relationships are created.

The shared experience, even of failure, focused by anxiety for one’s own future and brought home as emotional and intellectual baggage, is galvanic. There is no Justice League, no group of comic book Avengers who will save the planet. Happiness cannot be conquered by anyone, nor are good intentions by themselves able to accomplish anything more than a transitory warm fuzzy.

Close to home, seeing what is there, what could be there, what should be there – and knowing that the struggles are shared, in other places, by people no different than we are – this is what will make the world change, one local place at a time.

Happiness cannot be conquered, but it can be found. It is also not a solitary feeling, because it is always found in community, even with only one other person. Create community, share deeply with other people, and the universe of relations that is all around and within us becomes not only visible but palpable.

Life is not a circus we watch, but a story — a play in which we participate. We are both authors and characters, with a choice every day about what we will write and how we will perform.

Our audience is all the children of Earth.

On with the show!