Is happiness a basic need or a Universal Human Right?

What are the ingredients for happiness? It is a question that has been asked over and over again until Mallow’s study based on the first-ever globally representative sample on well-being, proclaimed some answers about whether or not this original theory is actually correct.

As said, the theory in question is the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs,” which first appeared in 1954. The “hierarchy of needs” claims that happiness in an easy-to-digest list: Earthly/Basic needs, such as food and safety, are considered essential, since they act as the groundwork that makes it possible to pursue loftier desires, such as love, respect, and self-actualization (the realization of one’s full potential). However, we also need social recognition, safety and family, and self-fulfillment, among other factors, to pursue complete happiness.

Regarding the study results, the needs that are most linked to everyday satisfaction are interpersonal ones, such as love and respect. However, our troubles, contrariwise, relate most to lack of esteem, lack of freedom, and lack of nourishment. Only when we look back on the quality of our lives, or do basic needs become significant indicators of well-being.
 
However, this is not the only time that the idea of happiness has been reached. The UN resolution adopted in 2012 identifies the pursuit of happiness as “a fundamental human goal”, promoting a more holistic approach to public policy and economic growth — one that recognizes happiness and wellbeing as important pieces of sustainable and equitable development, and therefore, a “universal human right”.
 
But is happiness really a human right? And is happiness a goal we should actively pursue? Or, it is just a basic need as Maslow puts it? I think the answers are “none of them” and “it depends”.
 

First, we need to consider the equivalence between psychological well-being — including happiness — and physical well-being, or health. The World Health Organization approves a “right to health,” but the details make it clear that it is not health, itself, that is a right, but rather the means to achieve the best health possible.

The WHO constitution recognizes that “…the highest attainable standard of health as a fundamental right of every human being”, with the right to health including “access to timely, acceptable, and affordable health care of appropriate quality”. So, it may be that the best way to understand a “right to happiness” is a right to pursue happiness. Happiness just does not seem like the right sort of thing to proclaim as a right in itself.

Whatever emotion you are after, whatever vehicle you pursue —building a business, getting married, raising a family, traveling the world— whatever you think your nirvana is, there are basic, universal needs that make us tick and drive all human behavior. Combined, they are the force behind the crazy things (other) people do and the great things we do.

We all have the same needs, but how we value those needs and in what order, determines the direction of our life.

Later on, post-Maslow’s, researchers assumed that these cross-cultural differences were driven by differing conceptions of happiness itself. They expected — and found support for — the idea that in more collectivist cultures, happiness is more likely to be defined in terms of social engagement, including pro-social behaviors (such as seeing to other people’s well-being) and social relationships (such as being surrounded by caring family and friends). For those with a socially-engaged definition of happiness, pursuing happiness presumably supported the kinds of social connections that are known to foster wellbeing.
 

If these ideas are right, then the effects of pursuing happiness crucially depend on one’s notion of happiness itself. Promoting a right to the pursuit of happiness could yield positive consequences when happiness is understood in social terms.

More likely than not, the UN’s original advocates for the International Day of Happiness had a broad and community-oriented notion of happiness in mind — not the more narrowly individualistic one that many people seem to possess. Consequently, the resolution itself does not simply call for more personal well-being, but for a “more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness, the well-being of all peoples and love towards others”.

Given the importance of the need to be loved, among others, it does not surprises me that most of us believe that a significant determinant of our happiness is whether we feel loved and cared for, as a way to achieve the “leading a happy and fulfilling life” goal.


But, if the universal need of happiness is reached under a mix of factors described at the “hierarchy of needs” or “universal human right”, how come many of us are not aware of it? Why, for example, do not we respond to the question, “What would make you most happy?” with “serving others” of “showering love on someone” than with “money” or “being loved”?
 
The answer, in my opinion, has to do with the messages to which we have routinely exposed from the media and all the rest of the society. These messages suggest to us that our happiness lies in being the recipient of others’ attention, love, and respect, rather than in being the donors of attention, love, and respect. For example, most of us are explicitly or implicitly told that happiness lies in achieving self-enhancing goals such as career success, wealth, fame, or power. The need to love and care for others, in contrast, is rarely emphasized, except perhaps in the arts. By Marina Pauls



Background information:

Abraham Maslow (1908 –1970) was an American psychologist who was best known for creating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a theory of psychological health predicated on fulfilling innate human needs in priority, culminating in self-actualization.
 
Maslow was a psychology professor who stressed the importance of focusing on the positive qualities in people, as opposed to treating them as a “bag of symptoms”. A Review of General Psychology survey, published in 2002, ranked Maslow as the tenth most cited psychologist of the 20th century.
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