A Narrative of Youth Volunteers Perspectives on Happiness and Well-being for Ecological Sustainable Development

Scheme of sustainable development: at the confluence
of three constituent parts Image source – Wikipedia

Mumtaz Ahmad Numani and Sayantani Roy

The way to healthy living is to shift from quantitative economic growth to quality of life, food, water and air – to shift from craving to contentment and from greed to gratitude – Satish Kumar, Ecological Campaigner (2008).

The ecologist, Satish Kumar’s pertinent observations on the essence of healthy living is echoed by several youth volunteers who find that it is important to find space and the will to reduce incentives towards excessive material consumption. For students like Mrinalini Subba and Anisha Pradhan who are trying to bring together youth and children in Mirik, in the Darjeeling District of West Bengal to harness elements of indigenous knowledge systems for water conservation in the area, there is definitive need to nurture values, wisdom, and traditions for the overall well-being of the society. These students of Mass Communication observe that in this world where everyone is racing to be ahead of the other, it is significant that young people are sensitized on the need to balance between work and life. This, they opine, will contribute to improving health, facilitate a lively and enjoyable life, strengthen relationships and contribute to ecological sustainability.

Briefly, but purposefully, the thrust of this article is to examine young students’ perspectives on ‘happiness and well-being for ecologically sustainable development.’ Besides interviews with young volunteers, the paper captures the young people’s perspectives drawn from The Peace Gong issue (global children’s newsletter connecting children for a non-violent planet) on the post- 2015 development agenda. But, much that we have been able to present in this paper will remain fragmentary. We hope and believe; it will work as a ‘key-concept’ to many of the researchers for further study.

While pointing out on the anomalies in the present development paradigm, which is predominantly guided by neo-liberal policies and underscores the ‘supremacy’ of monetary growth, Upasana Gurung, another student volunteer in Siliguri, West Bengal emphasizes: “We have to work to ensure that there is sustainable well-being of humans, wildlife, and nature. Everything is intricately connected. We humans for the past century or so have been only thinking about own individual growth. That our well-being is significantly connected with other living beings and the nature as a whole is mostly forgotten. This has resulted in a stressful relationship between human and nature. Besides it is the cause of conflicts between different communities and individuals.”

Anisha Pradhan in the context of Mirik expressed on a similar note that: “We are volunteering to make people learn new skills to protect the environment from various natural calamities and also to make them aware of their rights. Mirik is well-known tourist place in the foothills of Himalaya. People know Mirik for its scenic beauty only. But the recent earthquake and severe landslide have changed the lifestyle of the citizen of Mirik. Along with the school children, different NGOs are campaigning for a deeper understanding of man-environment conflict with a hope that Mirik could again stand on its leg.”

An important dimension to the issue of happiness and well-being has been articulated by Medha Bhattacharya, a medical student in Tripura. In an interview to Debarprita Deb for The Peace Gong (May 2013), she questions: “How can a person remain happy when he/she cannot have a proper meal in a day? When he/she sees children of wealthy families having all facilities while he/she cannot even send his/her kids to school, he/she can never be happy.”

Mrinalini on the similar note aptly pointed out that: “Well-being and happiness are the critical indicators of a nation’s economic and social development. But it comes when people have a mental peace. If we could secure our basic needs like food, water, and health, peace comes automatically, so happiness is obvious. Our aim is peoples’ participation from all walks of life and to create a participatory forum where people could understand their anomalies and work together for their better future”.

Laxmi Debnath, the Coordinator of the Rabi Thakur Shishu Panchayat, Agartala, Tripura, lends her arguments further to the discourse by observing the related issues of unemployment and increasing inflationary tendencies. “With sky-rocketing prices and a lot of unemployment especially amongst the youth, a large number of us are bound to remain depressed and lose our self-esteem.” Thus Medha and Laxmi’s articulation on the fundamental characteristics of happiness which encompasses equality and issues of livelihood is an explanation of its importance in the post-2015 development agenda.

Medha further reflects that the current economic paradigm calls for infinite growth and the pursuit of wealth at breakneck speed. This is apparently damaging the environment and diminishing the well-being of people. She strongly advocates moving away from the current neo-liberal paradigm to a different model, which aligns with values, ethics, and needs of a sustainable society.

Another critical dimension of happiness is its inherent link to the spirit of volunteering. Therefore, Medha in her interview reflects: “We should learn the habit of sharing with others and not just run after money. Serving others will give us satisfaction.” Echoing a similar feeling, another youth, Mrinalini Subba says: “Volunteering for others could make us more sensitive to needs and concerns of others. This, in turn, could sensitize us on our linkage with nature. Also, it would give us the inner strength to contribute to the well-being of not only of our ‘self’ but all others”.

Iflah Javed Qureshi, a Class XII student of Srinagar and the Editor of The Peace Gong in her editorial in the issue on post-2015 development agenda, also captures the inherent link of volunteerism to happiness. She says, one of the remedies to counter the ever-increasing tension and contradiction in our society is to imbibe the spirit of selfless service for the welfare of others. “The joy of giving needs to be encouraged and promote amongst all. Right from a young age, we need to develop a feeling of empathy and compassion for all living beings; a spirit of humanism should encompass all our actions,” she opines.

Some young people interviewed in the process tried to link the issue of happiness and well-being to the need to safeguard human rights. Alpana Deb Chakraborty, a young musician in Agartala, stressed that: “Development should be inclusive of social, financial and environmental conditions. Only economic development won’t bring happiness. Fundamental rights of the people must be ensured. Also, their essential needs must be secured”.

According to many of the youth (whom the writers of this article interviewed), efforts should be made to ensure that any economic activity undertaken strictly follows the sustainability criteria and replenishes assets in the society and nature. The present paradigm is aimed at depleting these assets. Moreover, students like Subhasree Ghatak in Siliguri points the need to promote sustainable businesses and integrate the notions of love and compassion in every sphere of life.

Further, an important component of happiness and well-being is the age-old mantra of living in harmony and thereby contributing to a culture of peace. Students of Class X in Anandalaya School in Madhupur, Jharkhand who are young reporters of The Peace Gong in their combined report “Living in Harmony” with the Purasha and Prakriti highlights: “Sustainable development is not a destination but a state where processes of transformation are primarily entropic. It is when there is enough energy in the form of resources and capabilities for any unit of self-governance— be it an individual, family, household, community or village to generate and sustain its development to higher and higher goals set by it. This is what Mahatma Gandhi meant when he dreamt of ‘Gram Swaraj.’ Sustainability, therefore, is not a static conflict-free state, but a condition of constant, non-violent exchange by the members of the unit, for example, village.” The students also share information on how their school, Anandalaya, has been energetically trying to develop their skills and capacities so that they can become self-reliant and develop sustainable actions. They say: “We learn kitchen gardening, handloom making, planning voluntary work so that even after spending so many hours at school, we do not disassociate ourselves from our life-skills and can become part of the Gram Swaraj.” Their main point which they focus is, “a gendered approach to sustainable development that would understand how men and women in the community and village, divide their roles and responsibilities so that they are non-exploitative, complementary and durable with least amount of effort.”

Another critical dimension of happiness and well-being is the centrality of the harmonious relationship of a human with nature. Bhiyanka Devi, a student of Class XII and President of the Surovi Shishu Panchayat, Guwahati, Assam, interviewed many youths to gauge their understanding of the subject. Responsibility towards flora and fauna was an important dimension of youth participation which emerged out of the series of interviews she took. The youth felt that by contributing to the biodiversity conservation they can, not only promote happiness within themselves but also in their families and communities. They observed such notions of happiness and well-being were of long term in nature and carried the essence of sustainable societies.

Similarly, since 2014, the peace gong reporters in India and abroad had taken some initiatives sensitizing and creating awareness among children and the adult about human—nature—relationship that which brings happiness and well-being for maintaining peaceful co-existence on the planet earth. This position of the youth linking ecological conservation to the notion of happiness is also articulated by Brown and Kasser (2005). They note that recent studies on sustainability and happiness show that intrinsically motivated individuals who choose to be environmentally responsible are happier than those who neglect the environment.

For many of the youth the writers interviewed, good, quality education was critical in enhancing the scope of happiness and well-being. They felt education based on values was one of the primary foundations for sustainable peace in the society. For instance, Asiya Naqvi, a class XII student in her story in The Peace Gong (May 2013), writes about children shackled by the responsibility of earning a livelihood and never getting any chance to go to school. The report reads: “Strolling through the streets of Aligarh, we meet a number of such children. Many of them are involved in manual scavenging, begging and rag picking. Most of them and their families’ have their heart-wrenching tales,” she adds. The notion of happiness and well-being do not have any meaning for these children, retorts Upasana Gurung, at similar situations in Siliguri and other parts of the country.

The centrality of gender equality in the happiness and well-being of a community was adequately reflected in the perspectives captured by The Peace Gong young reporters. For instance Bisma Zaffar, a young student from Kashmir, who after interviewing many youths in her community wrote: “If a nation is to develop, empowerment of women is essential. Women must be respected and ensured of their safety in every society. They must be allowed to script their destiny. Let’s free their wings so that they fly high. It is not only the duty of the law to protect and promote women, but we as citizens should come forward and join hands to root out social evils against women and the girl child. Women must also speak out, mobilize, organize and act to promote peace in the society. To conclude, there shall not be peace in any society and country if there are gender inequality and violence against women”.

In the backdrop, the above perspectives are in line with the global discourses, and it can be noted that “happiness” and “well-being” are two key attributes of ecologically sustainable development. In our day-to-day progress, the result does seem to appear opposite. Technology and material seem all encompassing and in many cases the bottom line benchmarks for physical and policy planning focus on the economy and tend to overlook the subject of society and communities. Traditionally, in evaluating the quality of life, little has been discussed on the aspects of happiness and subjective well- being whereby perspectives on social capital has often been insufficiently addressed. However, with the current focus on sustainable development and the need to put people in the equation in the science of happiness, many initiatives have come to the forefront to address the situation.

The intricate link between happiness and well-being and sustainable development as articulated by the youth from different states of India can also be articulated in the context of the UN General Assembly Resolution 65/309 entitled: “Happiness: Towards a Holistic Approach to Development.” The Resolution said that the pursuit of happiness was a fundamental human goal and recognized that the indicators of gross domestic product (GDP) was not designed to and did not adequately reflect people’s happiness and well-being. Consequently, the Assembly invited the Member States to draft additional measures that could better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and prosperity in the development process, with a view to guiding their public policies. (Happiness: towards a holistic approach to development, 6 November 2012).


In our Indian context the most significant challenge for the youth volunteers’ is to fight against corruption and malpractices that which often negates felicitating ‘ecological sustainable development.’ And to create awareness, we need to have some favorable environment, that which allows more community engagement for sustainable development. Also, large scale mobilization is essential to the success of many bottom-up volunteers’ initiatives.The road to happiness is also a search within towards development of the individual for the betterment of others. Happiness cannot and should not be seen in isolation. In the end, it would be useful to quote environmental activist Wangari Maathai: “You can make a lot of speeches, but the real thing is when you dig a hole, plant a tree, give it water, and make it survive. That’s what makes the difference”. (First African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004).

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