Brazil looks at adding 'happiness' to constitution

In a nation known for its jubilant spirit, massive parties and seemingly intrinsic ability to celebrate anything under the sun, is a constitutional amendment really required to protect the pursuit of happiness?

Several lawmakers think so, and a bill to amend Brazil's Constitution to make the search for happiness an inalienable right is widely expected to be approved soon by the Senate, which reconvened Tuesday. The bill would then go to the lower house.

The debate comes a month before Brazil's Carnival, a raucous festival replete with tens of thousands half-naked men and women that Rio officials call the largest party on Earth. But supporters say the happiness bill is a serious undertaking despite the revelry, meant to address Brazil's stark economic and social inequalities.

"In Brazil, we've had economic growth without the social growth hoped for," said Mauro Motoryn, the director of the Happier Movement, a non-governmental organization backing the legislation. "With the constitutional amendment, we want to provoke discussion, to seek approval for the creation of conditions in which social rights are upheld."

Similar explorations of officially finding happiness have been pushed by other governments. Both Japan and South Korea include the right to happiness in their constitutions, and earlier this month, the British government detailed plans to begin a $3 million project to measure citizens' well being.

In the early 1970s, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan pioneered the idea of maintaining a "happiness index." Well before that, the 1776 U.S. Declaration of Independence made its often-noted stand for "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

The bill before Brazil's Congress would insert the phrase "pursuit of happiness" into Article 6 of the constitution, which states that education, health, food, work, housing, leisure and security — among other issues — are the social rights of all citizens.

Cristovam Buarque, a senator and former minister of education who is the bill's sponsor in the Senate, said adding the "pursuit of happiness" was essential to helping ordinary people begin holding to account a government that has long been accused of not providing basic services to the poor.

While Brazil is on track to becoming the world's fifth largest economy by the time its hosts the 2016 Olympics, it's lagging public education system, poor roads and railways and crime-ridden slums threaten further advances.

Cristiano Paixao, a constitutional law expert and professor at the University of Brasilia, said he thought the proposed amendment was pointless tinkering that would end up being "legal folklore" as Brazil's democracy has moved beyond the need for such gimmicks since the end of the 1964-85 military dictatorship.

"It would make sense if we were in the moment of redemocratization, of the movement for direct elections," he said. "Now, it just won't be of use."

At a Senate hearing before the bill was passed by a committee last November, Daniel Seidel of the National Conference of Brazilian Bishops criticized the "pursuit of happiness" movement as little more than a marketing campaign that didn't propose solutions to Brazil's social woes.

"Wouldn't it be better to speak clearly about social welfare, about the reduction of inequality?" he asked senators.

But Luciano Borges, president of the National Association of Public Defenders, said the movement could breathe life into a legal push for stronger social rights.

"This great proposal would establish tools that would permit, in the pursuit of happiness, the rescue of social rights," he said.

Motoryn, of the Happier Movement, said he is simply hoping society will take a serious look at the proposed amendment, and perhaps change their expectations.

"Happiness isn't a game, people confuse it with something that is superfluous and it isn't," he said. "We need quality health care, which we don't have. We need quality education, which we don't have.

"It's about creating conditions for people to pursue happiness, but with training, with knowledge, preparing us to be a more advanced society in the future."