‘People can only be happy if they feel they are treated fairly.’ Do you agree? (2019 O-level English Paper 1, Syllabus 1128)

Happiness is an elusive thing. Some people find happiness in their daily cup of coffee, and others in a good meal, and some even claim to have never been happy before. What makes many of us unhappy, of course, is unfair treatment. Still, I feel that people are capable of being happy even if they feel they have been unfairly treated, because we know that if we cultivate certain skills and mindsets, happiness almost inevitably follows.

We cannot discount the kinds of anger, bitterness and resentment that can arise if we have been the victims of unfair treatment. Even the meekest student will raise some kind of unhappy protest, for example, if he gets an examination response marked wrong when he has gotten it correct. On a deeper level, many of us feel on the receiving end of unfair treatment because we see other students from richer families being able to afford expensive private tutors while our own families can only afford cheap private tuition, or even no tuition at all. It is easy to give in to a slow-burning resentment, in this context, and lose the ability to be happy. Why does the government not tax rich people more, or make sure our perpetually overworked parents get paid more even if they work as hawkers or cleaners? Why not, even, make sure that our teachers are not so frequently overworked so that they can spend more time teaching each of us when we need it?

Despite these difficulties, however, I truly believe that happiness is within reach for most people today. Even if we find ourselves in poverty in the richest country in the world, and even if we feel hard done by, we still can make it a point to try to spread happiness into the world. We can make it a point to look into the eyes of each security guard or bus driver we meet, and smile or nod to acknowledge their presence, their work, and their innate value as a human being. We can share our notes with our friends when they ask for them, and even teach them what we know, especially since our teachers tell us that teaching others is one of the most effective ways to learn. People seem to instinctively know that this path of humble selflessness is a path to happiness, which might be why most people do not hesitate to help if a stranger drops something in public.

Beyond altruism, cultivating positive mindsets can also help in the bleakest of times. I do not speak of the kind of blind positive thinking that results in people denying the realities of their situation. The kind of positive mindset that I see adding towards our own happiness is the kind that might see a bad grade on an important examination as the temporary setback it actually is, and a chance to try again by learning from our mistakes; it is a positivity that comes from always seeing hope in the darkness. While we may be on the receiving end of unfair treatment, and we should feel the full brunt of the injustice that this unfairly structured world forces upon us, we must also see that every injustice in the world is a chance for us to work towards justice. In becoming workers for justice, we may find, too, that happiness becomes a treasured byproduct of our work. This may be a humbler kind of happiness in the face of feeling unfairly treated, but it is happiness, nevertheless.

Happiness is attainable even when we feel unfairly treated, but I still wish that people everywhere would be more indignant about the kinds of unfair treatment that so many of us are subject to. Could we not work together to build a better world? Call me idealistic, but I really do think that the answer to that question is a resounding ‘yes’.

(648 words)

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To what extent is human life in general about the survival of the fittest? (A-level GP 2020 Paper 1, Q2)

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To what extent is human life in general about the survival of the fittest?

When we ask what human life is about we are asking two things, in the main: firstly, what the structure of the world is as it stands especially in terms of the realities we have to deal with; secondly, what the first question says about how we construct our meanings in life. In the 21st century, we have realised that climate change and resource drawdowns could see widespread death from a cascade of ecological catastrophes, and that would mean that human life becomes a game of survival. However, I feel that human life in general remains about loving, being loved and building communities sustained by love because this remains a good response to both questions. Therefore, human life in general is about the survival of the fittest — about the survival of our genes — only to the extent that it describes an evolutionary reality; everything else is about love.

There are those who are called ‘eco-fascists’ or ‘social Darwinists’ these days, who see the potential ecological catastrophes in our future as structuring human life into a competition for survival, and who then respond to that competition by building a meaning-world that is centered around the self and the community around the self in a limited way. To put it simply, they would prefer to ensure the death of all those they do not care about — particularly those they consider inferior, like the poor, the uneducated, and those not of their own race — so as to ensure the survival of those they think are fitter for that challenge, usually their own kin and kind. Their argument sometimes starts from the racially charged position that there are people in the world who are richer and more successful in this world, and that these are the people who should be prioritised in terms of their survival and the perpetuation of their genes, because they have already proven their fitness in the competitive world we have now. Additionally, they see the mass of poorer consumers as the cause of our ecological challenges, through the problems of overpopulation and overconsumption. This is a position that is based on myths that must be fought. Beyond being an inaccurate view of the world, seeing human life in this way requires that people dehumanise a whole swathe of humanity. This is a view of life that, to me, barely rises above the bacterium’s perspective.

Human life in general should be seen through the lenses of love, because it is that which makes us human in the first place. If we still see life as a survival of the fittest, it is perhaps because without a global level of love for each other, the human species faces a risk of extinction, failing the test of evolution in a strict Darwinian sense. Academics have told us that human beings are unlikely to go extinct because of a combination of how numerous and scattered over the globe we are, though it remains a possibility. Perhaps humanity might cause its own extinction by a perfect storm of climate change, resource depletion, and a hot war involving nuclear and biochemical weapons, but this would require such a failure of humanity’s love for itself that it would force us to judge that version of humanity as somewhat inhuman. As it stands, a majority of people want action to be taken on climate change, and though individual consumers have almost no power over the larger issue many of us still choose to live low-carbon and low-consumption lives as an expression of our care for the people we live with on this planet.

Human life is not just about staying alive, but about the fact of our being human, and this is captured most powerfully in the symbols and images that are held most closely to human hearts. We value the image of parents lovingly holding an infant; we value the image of the self-sacrificial hero or heroine; we value the image of young and passionate lovers ageing together into the peace and comfort of old age. These images celebrate roles that involve the most human of experiences, love, for even the hero(ine) who charges into battle does so for a community that s/he loves. When we consider the heroism of the young people who are pushing those in power to take significant action on climate change, for example, we can read their actions as an expression of love for their communities and humanity at large, especially for those activists who are not as ‘clickworthy’ as Greta Thunberg who could face consequences even to the point of their deaths, just like the environmental activists — over 200 of them, according to the BBC — who were killed in 2020 alone. This is the kind of love superyacht owners, some of whom are reputed to have secondary superyachts for prostitutes, probably need. How large must their craving for love be? When we ask what human life in general is about, we are not just asking about the shape that human life takes in this world, we are also asking about the meanings we see in life, and the meanings that we manage to create for ourselves that are the most fulfilling and satisfying. Looking at young climate activists and the love that we all strive for in our own families and relationships, it is almost unavoidable to come to the following conclusion: that human life in general is about loving and being loved, and not about our fitness in surviving and passing on our genes, beyond that being the mechanism of the evolution of species.

Jack Kornfield once said that the deep happiness of well-being comes from caring for yourself and loving the world. It is this kind of philosophy that underpins my argument that human life in general is about love, and only about the survival of the fittest in the strictest evolutionary sense. We can only hope that more of humanity comes to acknowledge this consciously, instead of repressing this truth into self-destruction on a civilisational scale.

1001 words

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