The right to be happy

15 10 2008

In conversation recently, a friend was talking about how her two married friends have separated and are now going through a divorce. She said that they are seeing social workers to try to minimize the affect on their two small children. You could see as she talked that she was really struggling to make sense of why these two people, who seem to care about each other and their kids, would choose divorce, particularly when there was no evidence of infidelity. The only comment she could make was, “I guess they have the right to be happy.”

Do we live in a world that is so cautious of judging the actions of others that all we can say is that they have to right to be happy? What is this right and why do we think we have it? Do we have the right to be happy if exercising this right makes others unhappy? And how do we know what will lead to lasting happiness or what is just happiness for the moment?

Researchers are increasingly aware that happiness is seen in contemporary society as the goal of life. Savage et al discovered this in their study of young people in the UK, which they write about in Making Sense of Gen Y. I also discovered this longing and almost idolization of happiness in my research among young people in former Soviet countries, which I wrote about in my book, Visualising Hope.

But there is a difference between happiness as the goal of life and happiness as an inherent right. It has progressed from something to aim for to something that is owed us, here and now.

Most of us would think twice about making a choice to be happy that by direct consequence made someone else unhappy. As Benjamin Franklin said, “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” But I think we live in a naive world of believing that we can all have the right to be happy.

Who bestows this right to happiness on us? Is it a matter of just reaching out and taking it for ourselves? And what about people who are not happy? Is it their fault for not trying hard enough?

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