Learning the Scripts: An exploration of the shared ways in which young Lao volunteers in Vientiane understand happiness.

C. McMellon


The idea that development policies need to take account of factors broader than economic growth is increasingly commonplace. A focus upon happiness provides an alternative way of looking at development, but the concept of happiness is far from straightforward. This paper argues that any consideration of happiness in policy must be grounded in nuanced qualitative research that provides a rich understanding of the realities of people's lives and their multiple and often conflicting understandings of what happiness means.

This paper draws on ethnographic research with young Lao volunteers with community-based organisations in Vientiane, Laos, that took place between 2010 and 2012. Drawing on Wierzbicka's (2004) concept of cultural scripts, it identifies, describes and explores three collective scripts that this specific group of young people believe about the things that make them happy:

•         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 have an easy life

•         I am happy when I follow my heart

Despite illustrating very different understandings of happiness, these stories are woven from a common set of themes about the things that young people think make them happy. Consideration is given to the possible origins of these shared scripts. The discussion section of the paper looks at the implications of these shared scripts for understanding happiness and for the inclusion of a consideration of the concept of happiness in public policy.

The paper ends with three conclusions. Firstly it suggests the importance of rich qualitative research in order to make choices about the meaningful use of well-being indicators. Secondly, in making explicit the socially constructed ways that people understand happiness, such research can also remind us of the need to interrogate the ways that happiness is considered in public policy. Thirdly, the paper suggests that such a critical approach to happiness could also be beneficial at the personal level in order for individuals to challenge and make choices about their own beliefs about happiness.



happiness; subjective well-being; Laos

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.5195/hcs.2013.135


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