Do young people today have a reason to be happy ?
Our world from an extraterrestrial perspective
Let us imagine an intelligent life form, from another galaxy, sending an investigative journalist to planet Earth. This poor creature would most probably be very confused. It would find the human race in possession of an enormous and fantastically increasing amount of knowledge and technological knowhow. With the aid of these, the visiting journalist would find out, humanity has been able to eradicate many a problem, connect distant parts of the planet, and find its way to outer space, as well as the heart of an atom. Indeed, for the very first time during its history, mankind is able to provide both materially and socially good life to all its inhabitants. But the extraterrestrial investigator would most likely be puzzled to note that many age-old challenges, such as poverty and war, still continue to prevail. In addition, the very advancement of science and technology has partially turned against humanity, like an autoimmune disease, creating new havocs, such as environmental degradation and weapons of mass destruction.
It would become quite clear to our visitor that, things being the way they are, the human race has arrived at a historical turning point, a so-called bifurcation point. In other words, proceeding as before is no longer possible. The choice being faced is between two clear alternatives: a fundamental personal and societal transformation or a series of ever more severe catastrophes, leading to annihilation. Unimaginable potential for human flourishing and wellbeing, side by side with unprecedented dangers of suffering and destruction. This would be the core analysis of an intelligent being studying current life on earth. In other words, cause for both joyous hope and paralyzing dismay.
What is happiness anyway?
Most of us are not really journalistically analytical. According to researchers, we even shun rationality in most of our important decisions. Quite oblivious to the appellation Homo sapiens, we often seek happiness with amoeba-like simplicity: Does it feel good here and now to me? Our pursuit of happiness is beset by constant surprises: We end up hating a person we once were madly in love with. We gain the riches and the fame we desperately longed for, and still feel unsatisfied. Everything seems really rosy and then, unexpectedly, something physically or mentally challenging happens and our Shangri La falls instantly apart, like a house of cards. What we could learn from reading the extraterrestrial journalist’s article is that happiness cannot be found or created within the currently prevailing views and discourses of the good life, as they are based on insufficient conceptualizations or totally erroneous views of what a human being, individually and collectively, is all about. Let us take just two concrete examples. One of the indicators of happiness in a society is supposed to be good governance. What does that mean in our current terms? In many parts of the world it would be synonymous with a freely functioning multi-party democracy. But is a system of governance, based on conflict theory and dating back at the very best to the 18th century, in keeping with highest human potential and responsive to the needs of today’s global society? Similarly, individualism has become a fetish, especially in Western societies. How does that correlate with our distinct humanity or the Ubuntu principle known to our African brethren already since long ago?
Viktor Frankl, having survived and maintained his human dignity and warmth after having suffered a number of concentration camps, helps us get rid of our wrong axioms pertaining to happiness. Quite counter-intuitively, he guides us to abandon personal happiness as a goal in life. He advises us, instead, to choose a cause or a person, beyond ourselves, and dedicate our lives to serving them with love. Then, happiness will ensue naturally as a by-product or consequence of such a meaningful life. This realization is the gateway to the vital recognition that human nature is not limited to physical drives and psychological needs. There is a deeper existential dimension to us which, if left unattended, will leave us unhappy, no matter what we do to satisfy our various desires and how much therapeutic attention we receive. Essential to our humanity, and hence to our happiness as human beings, is recognizing our place in the universe, the meaning of our life in relation to all humankind, and our identity as a human closely connected with other humans.
Youth as harbingers of hope
If we could enable young people understand the unique historical features of the times we live in, especially the transformative opportunities and imperatives at hand, they could be inspired by the very special role they can play in the total evolution of the human race. As they are bound to and have invested less in the dominant ways of thinking and living, they are ideally suited to lead humanity beyond the status quo to a new level of realizing our unique human potential. The once dream world of peace, justice, and unity – sung about by the great poets and promised by the prophets of old – can and must become a reality. The possibility is confirmed by the transforming attitudes of the young generations: the way they view global environmental issues, the way they feel connected with their contemporaries around the world, and the way they can access knowledge. Today’s young people, as no generations before them, dare and are willing to question and find alternatives to the principles, solutions, and worldviews of their elders.
Potential and possibilities do not of themselves turn into a transformed reality. What the young generations lack is a leadership worthy of their historical mission. Those identified with the currently prevailing world order view humans as cogs in a societal machinery whose success is measured in terms of economic benefits it produces for a given nation. The fundamental rationale of our educational systems, the world over, is adaptation to and reproduction of the prevalent system. To the extent that innovation, creativity, and the like are promoted, it is done in an instrumental mode, i.e. to promote existing ends more effectively – not to question and reconstruct the ends and purposes themselves. Every day, millions of energetic and often idealistic young people gather for most of their waking hours in schools around the world. What tremendous transformative potential! Yet this opportunity is most often missed when the main purpose of schooling is adaptation, instead of reconstruction, when the curriculum, not the learners, are at the center, and when showing success in league tables, rather than providing meaningful experiences, is the main concern of teachers. By making our schools into spaces for developing social imagination about a transformed world and the flourishing of our innermost humanity, by elevating service to humanity above learning various knowledge and skills that are means to that noble end, and by exploring the universe within humans to the same extent we teach the universe outside them, we can equip young people to lead humanity to the realization of a potential thus far just dreamt of. And if that is not happiness what is?
– Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index
Available on: https://ophi.org.uk/policy/gross-national-happiness-index/
– Man’s Search for Meaning: an Introduction to Logotherapy, Frankl Viktor E., Boston, Beacon Press, 1962.
– Global Wellness Institute
Available on: www.globalwellnessinstitute.org
– The definition of spiritual intelligence, Richard Griffiths, 2011-2022.
Available on: https://sqi.co/definition-of-spiritual-intelligence/
– Reimagining our futures together: a new social contract for education, UNESCO, Commission Internationale sur Les futures de l’éducation, 2021.
Available on: https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000379707
– What Is an Existential Crisis, and How Do I Break Through It?, Valencia Higuera, November 27, 2018.
Available on: https://www.healthline.com/health/existential-crisis