Critical happiness: examining the beliefs that young Lao volunteers in Vientiane hold about the things that make life good.
McMellon, Christina Agnes
Happiness is consistently cited as one of the things that people consider most important in their lives and yet is a slippery concept about which it is difficult to establish a shared understanding. There is increasing agreement that Gross National Product (GDP) is not a sufficient indicator of progress and that alternative measures may need to include the subjective aspects of wellbeing, or happiness. However, if policy makers and development workers are to seriously consider happiness, clarity is required about what it means to different people and such clarity must be grounded in the everyday experiences of the people whose lives social and development polices aim to improve. Despite increasing interest in the concept of happiness within Laos, academic research focusing upon positive subjective experience is limited. Young Lao people who volunteer with Non-Profit Associations (NPAs) in Vientiane occupy a unique position at the crossroads of a country that continues to be affected by a complex political legacy, a rapidly modernising capital city and a newly visible civil society. The findings from the current research provide rich data from 18 months of ethnographic and participative fieldwork with this specific group of young people in Vientiane. The research addresses the following questions: What do the ways that young Lao volunteers in Vientiane express happiness tell us about the ways that they conceptualise happiness? What do young volunteers in Vientiane say makes them happy? What beliefs do young volunteers in Vientiane have about happiness? How do these beliefs about happiness fit with young volunteers’ expressed experiences of happiness? This thesis identifies three key conceptual models that research participants used to express happiness including ‘Being Happy’ (happiness is a present moment choice), ‘Becoming Happy’ (happiness is something to be achieved) and ‘Happy Being With Others’ (happiness is located in relationships between people). Further, three culturally constructed ‘happiness scripts’ that research participants share are outlined and discussed. The three scripts are: “The way to be happy is to be a good Lao person”, “I will be happy if I have the things that I need to be comfortable and to have an easy life” and “I am happy when I follow my heart”. These scripts each combine a conceptual mode of happiness with a focus on specific aspects of their lives that research participants say make them happy and a set of shared beliefs about happiness. These three scripts offer normative accounts of different pathways that research participants believe will lead to happiness. The research demonstrates, however, how research participants hold multiple scripts simultaneously and looks at the interactions and tensions between the scripts and between the scripts and participants’ lived experiences. The research concludes that the socially constructed nature of the happiness scripts and the multiple conceptual models of happiness used by the research participants emphasise the need for self-awareness and transparency in conversations about happiness. Any consideration of happiness at policy level must include open and critical discussion about the happiness script that is being promoted. At the individual level participants valued positive opportunities to become aware of and challenge their own assumptions about the things that are most important in their lives were beneficial to their happiness. The thesis, therefore, recommends a shift in policy focus from solely measuring happiness to promoting positive conversations about happiness at policy, community and individual levels. Happiness is both an important experience and a slippery concept. It is both critical that we consider it and vital that we remain critical of it.