Happiness and truth

June 02, 2019


The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

RAMAZAN is with us for only a few more days. It is hard to suggest that the environment of restraint apparent in the fasting season can be sustained in the months to come and bring about a positive change in our behaviour in terms of social responsibility and ethics. But certainly, Pakistanis are more generous during Ramazan, in a way contributing to improving their country’s ranking on the World Happiness Index.

Generosity is a key value linked to happiness in the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s World Happiness Report. Pakistan is among the top 20 gainers on the World Happiness Index this year, ranked at 67th place which is a jump of eight spots from last year’s ranking at 75. This is quite a success in itself. But this index doesn’t help to gauge a nation’s growth and performance in the fields of economy, science and technology, or social and human development.

Some may even argue that in Pakistan’s context, generosity is a better measure of pity or sympathy in society than of empathy. Sympathy is often seen as a way to escape from personal guilt — but empathy is a social value, which helps societies practise compassion and share the grief and pain of others.

The state of minorities is often seen as a measure to gauge the level of empathy in a society. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s ranking on the available global indices that assess the state of minorities is not satisfactory as compared to its neighbours China and India.

Could our ranking on the Happiness Index be interpreted as an increase in the number of less happy people?

The Happiness Index is used to study certain aspects of the behaviour of individuals, including their political aptitude. One assessment that is available on the Happiness Index website explains a possible correlation between the levels of happiness and voting behaviour. It finds that those who are less happy are more likely to profess support for populist and authoritarian parties. Can this assessment help us contextualise the result of the 2018 general elections in Pakistan? Could it be interpreted as an increase in the number of less happy people in the country?

The Happiness Index has many methodology issues, which will hopefully be addressed with the passage of time. One major flaw is that it interprets human behaviour without entering into the realm of psychology and evades correlating happiness with certain critical factors such as truth. However, explaining the correlation between happiness and truth is more difficult than describing what is happiness.

Debates on falsehood and populism are not rare. But the way the manoeuvring of truth creates confusion, falsehood, or unhappiness, attracts greater attention from scholars. For one, they are more concerned about the growing incidence of post-truth and populism across the world. A historiographer of philosophy Julian Baggini, in his book A Short History of Truth, has identified 10 types of truths based on a philosophical debate on reason. These types include eternal, authoritative, esoteric, reasoned, evidence-based, creative, relative, powerful, moral and holistic truths. Populists manoeuvre abstract forms of all these types to exploit the emotions and personal beliefs of their audiences.

Baggini explains that distinguishing the truth from falsehood is not an easy task and emotions also have a part to play. Truths can be, and often are, difficult to understand, discover, explain and verify. Emotions not only hurt truths, they also create a situation in which one develops one’s own way of understanding the truth. He found that power doesn’t speak the truth and suggests that truth must speak to power. However, the majority of people prefer to stay in their mental comfort zone and believe that they can seek happiness in such a state.

The correlation between lethargy and happiness can be found in our classical literature, which has been extracted from certain Sufi orders. A passive citizen is an ideal point of focus in this tradition, and has no inclination to challenge power. A verse from a ghazal by Nomaan Shauque depicts this state:“Faqir log rahe apne apne haal mein mast/ Nahi to shehr ka naqsha badal chuka hota”(The saints remained within themselves, otherwise the city would have witnessed a revolution).

However, the modern literature of political science focuses more on transformations and sociopolitical engineering, which manifests itself in the crafting of narratives by both state and society. The only difference is that the state’s crafted narratives are based on slogans, while society or sections of society extract narratives from their anger, bitterness or even their state of ‘happiness’.

For example the ‘Shukriya Raheel Sharif’(Thank you Raheel Sharif) campaign back in 2015-16 was meant only to acknowledge the services of the former army chief in the war against terrorism. But many depicted it as an attempt by him to get an extension in his service as a reward; the campaign later turned into ‘Janay ki batein janay do’ (Please do not talk about leaving). Nowadays, Islamabad’s Constitution Avenue is again covered with new sloganeering banners “Yeh jo sohni dharti hai ... is kay peechay wardy hai” (The homeland is beautiful because of the people in uniform). The mover of this campaign is the same one who was behind the campaign for Raheel Sharif. While one can understand the background of the new campaign, it reflects a competition of narratives at a certain level.

Baggini explained that truth is not about getting the facts straight; history demands factual accuracy but that is not enough. The power elites believe they have a method to establish order, and in this process, the truth has lesser importance. Popular and positive slogans boost their confidence. However, does that change the scenario or the circumstances?

It is difficult to establish a direct link between truth and happiness. But people feel happier when they can see how their contribution is making a difference.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2019