“Oh Happy Day:” The UN Serves Up a Smile, Dr. Robert Zuber

22 Mar

This week, the UN served up a menu that reminded us why we still care so deeply about the work of the organization as well as why happiness within this system is often so elusive.

From human rights abuses in Crimea and ‘spoilers’ in the Eastern DRC to photo exhibits of Syria torture and the CSW’s relentless narrative of gender-based violence and discrimination, there was much taking place to furrow brows and sour dispositions.   The world we have and the world we want are not often in synchrony, and the weight of this disparity can make even the sunniest personality feel like it is being held captive by some longstanding solar eclipse.

And yet amidst the gloomy policy discussions and lingering winter chill, there were happy places around the UN – fond CSW farewells, singing in the GA lobby, renewals of pledges to end racial discrimination and preserve our forests, even the snow sticking to bushes and trees in a short-lived burst of beauty.

And then there was an event, originally suggested by an Iraq resolution and now sponsored by São Tomé and Príncipe, to commemorate the International Day of Happiness.  For those who missed the event (or who have simply given up on being happy), the day is designed to “promote happiness as a universal goal and aspiration in the lives of human beings around the world.”

Though the UN is currently (and mostly correctly) obsessed with goals and measurements, it is likely more fruitful for the UN to honor and promote happiness as a universal aspiration than rather attempting to over-determine its pursuit or even to try and track its attainment.   Happiness probably has more in common with fingerprints than with standard deviations.  It is directly affected by individual context and expectation, tethered both to circumstance and fortune.   How we assess our lives has much to do with what we expect from life, and happiness often requires that we adjust our expectations (and presumed entitlements) to our circumstances rather than endlessly scheming in the hope of getting the world to cooperate more with our personal ambitions.

As happiness now seems just beyond reach for so many people, there is a flood of literature trying to ‘mine’ its secrets.   Here are a few of my favorites, tied as much as possible to UN contexts:

  1. Happiness has an uneven relationship to material prosperity. Given our expanding roster of “more is better” cultures, it is a short leap to conclude that “more of what we have” is inevitably best for others.   Indeed, there are baselines of material security we can and should do more to promote, keeping in mind historic levels of horror endured by equally historic numbers of refugees, internally displaced and victims of armed violence worldwide.   Despite expressions of concern for addressing inequalities by citizens within the wealthier countries, in the aggregate we still prefer to spend our money on items such as new and improved weapons systems– and on the fulfillment of largely short-term consumer ‘needs’ and interests – rather than on helping to ensure baselines for others where conversations about the ‘pursuit of happiness’ start to have real meaning.
  2. Happiness has an even more uneven relationship to personal ambition. Ambition is largely a ‘conversation’ that people have with themselves.   It is mostly about contexts for personal competitions, about the achievement of social status, sometimes to the grave detriment of social utility. It is also too often about a facile conflating of personal (or organizational) interest with the general interest.   And it opens doors to a world of social and career predation that generally creates many more victims than victors.  (Among those victims, we should recall, will almost inevitably be each of us.)  Happiness, of course, does not at all preclude the pursuit of excellence, nor a purposeful and reliable engagement with social problems.   Indeed, it probably doesn’t flourish as well in communities prone to fickle compromises and flimsy commitments.
  3. Given this, happiness seems to be largely about investing reliably in the quality of the lives of the people around us. Despite all the time and energy some of us spend keeping track of emotional and career ‘exit signs,’ dodging intimacy that could make our lives richer, and avoiding conflict it is our place to resolve, philosophers, psychologists and even neuro-biologists are mostly united in the assertion that our species is “hot-wired for connection.”   If this assertion has merit, then there would be limited value to happiness in the things that too often occupy our energies, including creating personal ‘brands’ that attempt to convince people of things that are only partially true, or keeping tight control of emotional and material assets that we would do better to invest, even in the turnover-plagued policy environment of the UN.  On the other hand, happiness might be enhanced by taking a few more personal risks, being kinder at the UN to the people with whom we work daily,  expressing more gratitude, making appropriate apologies, paying closer attention, sharing more of our aspirations and fewer of our desires.
  4. Happiness requires a healthy balancing of short and long-term vantage points. Some of the most important things in life, after all, require time and perspective to come to fruition fully and assess properly.   The point of raising children is to produce caring, competent adults, not to ‘freeze’ children in pre-adolescent psychic configurations.  The point of producing sound policy is to provide spaces and resources for people and societies to pursue sustainable social and economic outcomes, not to encourage short-term, politically motivated, unrepresentative predations of limited human and natural resources.   This essential “longer” view is compromised by narrow political considerations and the many distractions of modern life, but sometimes also by our urge to ‘do something’ to alleviate our own anxiety about global conditions, an urge that sometimes motivates us to authorize the release of ‘genies’ into the world without a clue as to how to get them back in the bottle.  As my doctoral advisor used to say, “happiness is the result of a life lived well.”  By this he meant being able to look back on life and know that we tried our best, avoiding the ‘genies’ of policy shortcuts and personal deceptions, taking responsibility for negative policy consequences that could have been foreseen (and even those more hidden), and displaying the courage (to paraphrase the singer Lee Ann Womack) to dance when others would choose to sit it out.

Given the threats São Tomé and Príncipe faces from climate change, and given all the misery Iraq has endured in its recent history, mostly not of its own making, if these states can see fit to promote happiness in the international community, then the rest of us can find some way to sweeten our sometimes ‘sour’ dispositions, and more gleefully join this pursuit.   The quality of our lives (and of our policy) would surely benefit from more pleasant, hopeful, grateful dispositions.

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