-OpEd-

BOGOTÁ — It's been remarked that when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed, they forgot to include people's rights to beauty and happiness. Both were considered superfluous, no doubt. Too distant from humanity's basic needs.

The rights to life, property, freedom, free speech, shelter, food and work were more urgent matters. Also, neither beauty nor happiness is easily defined. They depend, it seems, on personal inclinations and tastes. Indeed, Socrates concluded in one of his Platonic dialogues that, "what is beautiful is difficult." And with regards to happiness, arguably the most sensible observation came from the French lady who said, "I am not happy. I am content."

But as modern society sinks further into the abysses of ugliness, urban chaos, pollution and trash, the question of beauty returns, if only as a reminder of civilization's loftiest promises. As for happiness, let us remember the words of Jorge Luis Borges: "I have committed the worst sin of all. That a man can commit. I have not been. Happy."

Early in the 19th century, the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer suggested that we not see happiness as a permanent state or destination, where all was plenitude and satisfaction, but as a continuous possibility that depends on our ability to enjoy it. That may be why he said, "happiness is health."

I believe that is true: that the good health of the body and mind — and the health of society and nature — are the best possible conditions for happiness. But we have strayed so far that in our time, health systems only focus on medical attention, pharmaceutical dispensation and surgery. Preventive health, the most important kind, tends to be forgotten.

If governments were really interested in the well-being of communities, their main priorities would be to provide drinking water and assure hygiene; ensure production of safe, nutritious foods; educate people to live together; defend nature; generate social revenues, recreation and work opportunities; protect the family and encourage solidarity, trust and cheerfulness.

I am certain a good many visits to emergency wards are due to anxiety, economic uncertainty, tensions in human relations, bad nutrition, stress, helplessness and loneliness. If society dealt with such urgent needs, sickness levels would descend to their real proportion and we would not be dumping onto doctors and hospitals the entire burden of our social disorder.

It cannot reside today in a future that you seek.

We could reduce violence too by addressing its multiple causes: desperation, uncertainty, tensions in cities, lack of opportunities, and a society that does not encourage in its members serenity or pride in having a function, recognition and a destiny. It is easier to prevent an illness that cure it. And in our country, it seems to me that preventing violence would be much more effective than fighting it with a nightmarish combination of military operations and hellish jails.

Only sick societies equate health with medicines and surgeries, and justice with police and prisons.

I think today that human happiness depends above all on art, thought and politics. By art I mean the possibility that every human being can pursue his or her real vocation, and realize as fully as possible his or her creative adventure and personal destiny. By thought I mean science, technical reflections, philosophy, social dialogue and debate, and common sense — as a bulwark against the manipulations of power and the confusions and vagaries of mass opinion. And by politics I mean humanity's ability to recover its active role in ordering the world, and to stop the devolution of all historical responsibilities to experts, bureaucrats and corruption.

We have never been as far as we are from a state of equilibrium, nor needed it as much as we do now. Happiness cannot reside today in a future that you seek, but in the present moment of its quest. And it is something humanity will seek out with its own, inner strength. That's because while states, academies and churches would have us forget, institutions didn't invent languages, perfect professions and discover the arts. People did. And was in doing so that they found their gods.


See more from Opinion / Analysis here