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Urban Suffering Studies Center



A Return to the Way leading to Happiness

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Benedetto Saraceno



"There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy" wrote Robert Louis Stevenson in 1881 (R.L. Stevenson, 1881) namely the duty of being happy is the most underestimated of all duties. Therefore to be happy is a duty for which we are unaccustomed and unprepared. This duty to further the benefit or rather the maximum advantage and the minimum disadvantage, assumes a social and collective dimension starting from the reflections of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and from the extremely fertile season of the philosophical-political thought of the Westminster Review, that, starting from 1823 to 1914 collected the best of the philosophical, socio-political debate of english philanthropic liberalism, inspired by Cesare Beccaria as well. The common benefit, namely maximum happiness for the largest number of individuals, represents the foundation of happiness for the collective experience.
At present it comes easier and more natural to document, describe and analyze suffering rather than do the same with happiness.
The "state" of the Global Nation, whatever the meaning given to the term "nation", is that of suffering: just think of the disheartening conclusions of the United Nations when, in 2010, they evaluated the evolution of the process in achieving the "objectives of development in the Millennium" (Millennium Development Goals) , established in the year 2000, at mid-year 2015.
The world is spoken of as a place of suffering, large international institutions document suffering, the media indulges in showing suffering. Nations, family and individual communities tell of suffering, show and experiment suffering, they are suffering.

It is not suprising, therefore, that the instruments for analyzing and reporting suffering have become more refined (just think of the continual presentation on behalf of the OMS and other specialized agencies of the UNO of "reports" on the state of the world: health, environment, education, rights etc).
It is as if, in the absence of good news, everyone were specialized in telling bad news: "God is dead. Marx is dead, and I don't feel so well myself" said Woody Allen and it can't be denied that the refinement in methodologies for documenting suffering do not reflect anything more than a necessity generated by reality.
Not being in the habit of documenting happiness implies a progressive loss of sharpness and fineness in the instruments used for documenting it. Not to document it implies declaring it non-existent and impossible. To declare it impossible signifies handing over the notion of happiness to tourist agencies or centres for physical Wellness. I believe that thinking and discussing, while on the one hand indicates a pessimism legitimized by reality, on the other, hides, weakens and annuls the legitimacy of hope or of utopia (secular equivalent of theological virtue).
Pragmatic hyperrealism authorizes only discussion around the visible reality of the present: happiness is relegated to the private-psychological order or in that, always private, of the religious experience of grace.
But a discussion on happiness as a metaindividual dimension allows us to rediscover instruments for exploring possible processes of deconstruction of the present order and of the construction of potential orders. That truth, good and beauty are not within the reach of our vision not only doesn't signify that they do not exist but above all it does not signify that we can not and must not persue them. And the same applies to happiness as a public and shared dimension: "Whatever is publicly useful, is to be done. The common good of all being collected into one total" (G. W. Leibniz,1680). As it can be seen the notion of "public happiness" is old and it can be found not only in Leibniz but later in Ludovico Antonio Muratori who in 1749 published the work entitled Della Pubblica Felicità (L.A. Muratori, 1749).
The pursuit of "public happiness" is based on hope or on the utopia of its accessibility. Biblical and Christian hope does not signify a childish dream of a better world beyond, still to come. Christian hope is not generated by a process of projecting a desire for good but it is well-established today in God present.
The reasoning of Ernst Bloch on the "Principle of Hope", refers not only to a "continual inspection that conciliates the structure of the way with the ultimate aim, but, with greater urgency, to the implications of the distant aim in every forthcoming aim so that even this can be an aim" (E. Bloch E, 1971). The dynamic relation between here and today and there (beyond) tomorrow is essential for gathering the radical implications in the search for public happiness as a fundamental element in the practicing of hope. The Bible defines the characteristics of the God of the covenant in two hebrew words: hesed and emet generally translated as «love» and «fidelity»; therefore, God is love, goodness and kindness without limits, and secondly, God who is "faithful", will never abandon those he has called to enter into communion with him. In the 3rd Letter of the Community of Taizè of 2003, one reads: "If God is good and will never change his attitude nor will he ever abandon us, then, whatever the difficulties - if the world as we see it, is far from justice, peace, solidarity and compassion - for those who believe it is not the definitive is the source of biblical hope" (Letter from Taizè, 2003). The "promise" for Christians is the bridge between here-today and there-tomorrow, it is the reply to the question "Chi ce lo fa fare" ("What makes us do it") by Virginio Colmegna (V. Colmegna, 2011). This pledge looks towards the future, but it has its roots in the relationship with God who communicates here and now, who summons Christians to make concrete choices in life. Once again in the 3rd Letter from Taizè of 2003: "To receive God's promise, Abraham is called to make a pilgrimage out of his life, to live a new beginning: «Go forth from your country and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you» (Genesi 12,1)."
But the dynamics of hope as an instrument for replying to the question of "for what purpose" of Ernst Bloch is central even in Marx who in 1843 writes to Ruge : "It appears then that for a very long time the world has possessed the dream of something, of which it is only necessary to be aware of, so as to really possess it" (K. Marx, 1843).
It is the dream of a place that does not exist but that calls for awareness so as to be able to head towards it. The economic-legal equality of all citizens lives in the non place of Utopia but acts as the driving force of the real story of mankind.
Pragmatic hyperrealism asks us essentially, to be reasonable, to think only of what is possible otherwise we elude the sound limits of reality, it asks us not to accept a utopian thought as the cause of our choices. Jean Jacques Rousseau understood very clearly the threat the utopian thought was to the established order when in the introduction of Emile he wrote: "Proposez ce qui est faisable, ne cesse-t-on de me répéter. C'est comme si l'on me disait : Proposez de faire ce qu'on fait ; ou du moins proposez quelque bien qui s'allie avec le mal existant » (J.J.Rousseau,1762).
To recuperate the notion of public happiness as the aim that founds our road maps, in articulated, social and political forms, appears clearer today than ever before and it is not by chance we increasingly find reference to financial happiness in the writings of economists. The classical vision according to which the "utility" (the advantage, the benefit) is exclusively in function of the "income" (that is of the money that each person manages to earn) has been questioned by several economists that have coined the term "Economics of happiness" to signify an approach that increases the range of variables and assessments that define the well-being of the individuals considering that the sole emphasis on income omits fundamental elements that compose individual well-being and collective welfare. The "Economics of happiness" obviously do not exclude from the model the assessment of "income" but it becomes more complex with assessments that take into consideration variables such as the state of health, family relationships, job satisfaction and stability and, finally, trust in public institutions. The economist Richard Easterlin at the beginning of the 70s noted that in a single nation the richest people declare themselves more happier on average than the poorest, but comparing different nations with each other a significant connection between increase in income pro capita and levels of happiness is not found (R.Easterlin, 1971). Namely, happiness grows with income up to a certain point but beyond that point the factors that influence the happiness of individuals have to do with different variables other than the economic income. Certainly conditions of extreme poverty and deprivation are decisive determinants of the unhappiness of individuals, but as soon as primary needs are satisfied, the predictive value of happiness of the economic income progressively loses weight leaving space for other factors. And this not only refers to factors relative to the biography of individuals such as the state of health or job security and stability but it also concerns the perception that individuals have of the reliability of public institutions, of the freedom they live and the degree of democracy in their country. If for Easterlin happiness does not depend on the total income but on a relative one correlated to other variables, currently other economists are exploring the impact of social policies and processes of empowerment on the well-being of individuals (H.D.Dixon, 1997). For example Ott (J.C. Ott, 2010) analysed the impact of the quality of the governance of a country on the happiness of individuals: the comparison between 127 nations shows strong connections between quality of governance and average happiness of the citizens. The technical quality of the governance seems to be the factor of major importance for the happiness of the cittizens both in western countries and in asiatic or latinamerican ones. The technical quality of governance seems to weigh more than the quality of democracy that becomes a decisive factor only when the technical quality of governance reaches a minimum level of acceptability. In a study on a sample of 100 nations Gropper and colleagues (Gropper and coll., 2011 ) establish a clear connection between levels of happiness in single countries and the Gross National Product of the country in question and also its degree of economic freedom. Finally, a quite interesting case is of an entire country, Bhutan, that has officially decided to introduce assessments of happiness among the annual economic descriptors. The notion of "gross national happiness" is an indicator that tries to assess in a holistic way the social progress and the quality of life of a nation, thus adding to the traditional manner of assessment of the Gross National Product usually used by economists to measure the market value of all the products and the services produced in a year by a nation. This notion (Karma Ura and Karma Galay, 2004) was introduced by the king of Bhutan and subsequently used to formulate Bhutan's five year plan that had as its aim not only the production of goods but also that of social happiness. The four axes of "Gross National Happiness" are: the promotion of sustainable development, conservation of local cultural values, conservation of the natural environment, good governance. The elements that contribute to the assessment of Gross National Happines are many and are a mix of quantitative indicators (infantile mortality, for example) and qualitative ones such as the feeling of satisfaction or of well.being of the citizens. In 2006 the International Institute of Management of the USA proposed a more complex assessment of Gross National Happiness as an index, function of the average total per head of the following values: a) Economic Wellness b)Environmental Wellness c) Physical Wellness d) Mental Wellness e) Workplace Wellness f) Social Wellness g) Political Wellness. Currently a development plan 2013-2018 exists for Bhutan, based on the notion of Gross National Happiness.
We have to retake into consideration happiness in order find once again within each of us and among each of us, the ideas, the emotions and the words that define the collective paths to be undertaken in the direction of "The dream of a thing". On the 26 January 1962, Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote to Franco Fortini (P.P.Pasolini, 1976) to ask the bibliographic reference of the letter written by Marx to Ruge (quoted in this Editorial). The phrase of Marx to which Pasolini referred will become the title of one of his novels, precisely The dream of a thing and alludes not so much as to Utopia in itself but to the way leading to the Utopia of public happiness.
This is an indication that alongside our reflection on Urban Suffering it is time to ask ourselves what does its contrary - Urban Happiness - consist of, so as to place alongside our ability to document the suffering that the city imposes on its inhabitants also the capacity to return to the way leading towards Urban Happiness, a way to be undertaken together.


1) Bloch, Ernst 1971. Moral and ultimate sources of the courage to live. In Bloch E: Ateismo nel Cristianesimo, p.313. Milano: Feltrinelli.

2) Colmegna, Virginio 2011. La Pedagogia dello stare nel mezzo. Laurea Honoris Causa Università Bicocca, p.19. Milan: Casa della Carità.

3) Communauté de Taizé 2003. Lettre de Taizé n°3. Taizé Editions : Taizé.

4) Dixon, Huw D. 1997. Economics and Happiness. The Economic Journal 107,1812-1814.

5) Easterlin, Richard 1974. Does economic growth improve the human lot? Some empirical evidence. In Nations and Households in Economic Growth, ed. P.David and M.Reder. New York: Academic Press.

6) Gropper M. Daniel, Lawson A. Robert, Thorne T. Jere 2011. Economic freedom and Happiness. Cato Journal 31,2,237-255.

7) Karma Ura, Karma Galay 2004 : Gross National Happiness and Development. Thimpu : The Centre for Bhutan Studies.

8) Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm 1680. On Public Happiness. 1985, p.613. Paris: GastonGrua 1948; repr. New York: Garland Ed.

9) Marx, Karl 1843. 3rd letter to Arnold Ruge. In The genesis of dialectical and historical materialism. A rereading of the juvenile writtings of Marx through Hegelian idealism and Feuerbachian humanism from the Degree Thesis to german ideology 2000. Milan: Prometeo Ed.
10) Muratori, Ludovico Antonio 1749. Della pubblica felicità. 1996 Rome: Donzelli Ed.

11) Ott, J. C. 2010. Good Governance and Happiness. In Nations: Technical Quality Precedes Democracy and Quality Beats Size. Journal of Happiness Studies 11,3, 353-68.

12) Pasolini, Pier Paolo 1976. Letters vol.II, p. 499.Turin: Einaudi

13) Rousseau, Jean Jacques 1762. : Preface. In : Émile ou De l'éducation. 1961 Paris : Garnier.

14) Stevenson, Robert Louis 1881. Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers. London : C. Kegan Paul & Co.

















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Center for urban suffering

The study centre wishes to study the phenomenon of urban suffering, in other words the suffering that is specific to the great metropolises. Urban Suffering is a category that describes the meeting of individual suffering with the social fabric that they inhabit. The description, the understanding and the transformation of the psychological and social dynamics that develop from the meeting of ...

Who we are

The Urban Suffering Studies Center - SOUQ - arises from Milan, a place of complexity and economic and social contradictions belonged to global world.Tightly linked to Casa della Carità Foundation, which provides assistance and care to unserved populations in Milan (such as immigrants legal and illegal, homeless, vulnerable minorities), the Urban Suffering Studies Center puts attention on ...


Centro studi Souq Management commitee: Laura Arduini, Virginio Colmegna (presidente), Silvia Landra, Simona Sambati, Benedetto Saraceno ; Scientific commitee: Mario Agostinelli, Angelo Barbato, Maurizio Bonati, Adolfo Ceretti, Giacomo Costa, Ota de Leonardis,  Giulio Ernesti, Sergio Escobar, Luca Formenton, Francesco Maisto, Ambrogio Manenti, Claudia Mazzucato, Daniela ...
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ISSN 2282-5754 Souquaderni [online] by SOUQ - Centro Studi sulla Sofferenza Urbana - CF: 97316770151
Last update: 20/04/2019

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