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Happiness and Leadership: Blending External Conditions with Inner Fulfillment

By Michael Leunig. From
By Michael Leunig. From

This month I was following two important events. The first was the 16th United Nations Vesak Celebrations, which was held from 12–14 May in Hanoi. The theme, which centered on the role of mindful, thoughtful leadership in realizing peaceful and sustainable societies, coincided with the Global Happiness Conference at Harvard Divinity School, held on 13 May. That they were held around the same time is a meaningful coincidence, because happiness is a central human question. It is also a confused mass of jumbled contradictions: at once personal and social, subjective but also researchable, and both in and often out of the control of each individual.

One cannot ignore social, cultural, and economic factors in models of happiness. The consistent top rankings of Northern European countries  in UN happiness surveys demonstrate that one cannot simply discount environmental factors. As many know, in these nations the governments play a positive role by providing subsidized childcare, healthcare, and tertiary education. This indirectly promotes a spirit of public cooperation and concern for the communal good, which is fostered by the country’s leaders. Obviously, every country or region is different, but we cannot overlook how conditions beyond the individual play a part, such as cultural values, economic policy and competitiveness, and social and historical forces.

When people are confident in the ability of their country’s leaders to provide an environment that generates a high quality of life, regardless of economic or social background, leadership at all levels—governmental, business, and civic—becomes a facilitator of happiness, not a hindrance to it. As this year’s UN World Happiness Report (which was released on 20 March and was the subject of the Global Happiness Conference) notes: “At the most basic level, good government establishes and maintains an institutional framework that enables people to live better lives. Similarly, good public services are those that improve lives while using fewer scarce resources.” (World Happiness Report)

This definition has strong affinities with the Bhutanese and Thai schools (and increasingly, the emergent Euro-American study) of Buddhist economics. Harvard scholar Randy Rosenthal’s essay on Buddhist conceptions of happiness argues rightly that government policy and economic factors cannot be ignored. Yet he also insightfully notes that Scandinavian countries have a relatively high rate of suicide. There are further nuances. Different surveys (and differently framed questions) can produce strange results for anyone hoping to collate data. One survey found Indonesia to be the most relaxed country in the world, even though it is ranked 57th in happiness by the UN study. Presently, Hong Kong is ranked first in life expectancy despite ranking consistently high when it comes to long work hours and high stress levels.

In Bhutan especially, leadership in elevating Gross National Happiness (GNH) has manifested in the real world as a complex hybrid of government policy and religious leadership. It does not fit comfortably into left or right delineations in the secular political spectrum. The theory of GNH accepts that, as Rosenthal writes, “Yes, it is good for governments to take responsibility by enacting policies that provide their citizens with the foundations for creating happiness, and yes, we should do things for people and with people. But ultimately, happiness is dependent on oneself, through purifying the defilements that cause unhappiness—greed, anger, delusion, craving.” (Buddhist Global Relief)

Increasingly, researchers and journalists are discovering that happiness is a far more difficult term than once thought. Leaders at all levels of society perhaps need to explore more what the Greeks defined as eudemonia: flourishing or wellbeing, which definitely incorporates happiness but goes beyond it. The Buddha himself asked what happiness meant. After all, there are different kinds of sukha: for example, bhoga sukha denotes happiness that comes from enjoyment of possessions. There are plenty of countries that have high levels bhoga sukha, yet this alone is not enough to measure the wellbeing of a community.

I agree with what Rosenthal alludes to in his essay: “After all, as Bob Dylan once said, ‘anybody can be happy,’ implying that happiness is a misconceived goal. Fulfillment and purpose are more important—for Dylan, fulfillment through artistic creation, a grueling act that many artists will admit makes them anything but happy.” (Buddhist Global Relief) Happiness has always felt inseparable from a sense of vocation to me. One uncomfortable question I used to ask myself is whether fulfillment in a calling equals happiness, or leisure, “ease.” I have come to the conclusion that the human being thirsts for purpose even more than happiness.

Perhaps the ideal leaders are not so concerned about their own happiness as they are with the notion of vocation or calling. This attitude to helping others and a cause beyond oneself is the primary “right intention” that sets serious leaders on a path to benefiting their communities and the wider world. They are mindful that the right balance will inevitably be a hybrid model that harmonizes what works in their particular context. They will also be mindful that the ethical life is lived through example and deeds, not through mere words.

In a world that is staring down ecological catastrophe, political uncertainty and instability around the globe, and volatile social trends, the interconnectedness between good leadership and the realization of fulfillment (for the majority) has perhaps not been articulated enough.

See more

The Politics of Happiness: An Essay on the Global Happiness Conference (Buddhist Global Relief)
World Happiness Report 2019: Changing World Happiness (World Happiness Report)
Most chilled out countries in the world! (Last Minute)
This urban population is leading the world in life expectancy (CNN)

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