The right to pursue happiness on a healthy planet is a fundamental right

By Eric C Ip and Trevor T W Wan.

Happiness and health determine what, why, and how we do what we do. There is a profound relationship between the two. The Constitution of the World Health Organization, a multi-lateral international treaty, proclaims in its preamble that health is ‘basic to the happiness’ of all peoples.  Healthier people tend to be happier, and happier persons live longer. Whether we understand happiness as the ‘hedonistic’ attainment of pleasure and avoidance of pain, or the ‘eudaimonistic’ pursuit of meaning and self-realisation, it is unsustainable on a planet whose health is rapidly deteriorating.

In the present Anthropocene epoch, during which humankind has for the first time become a ‘planetary force’, the threefold crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution has wreaked havoc on global health, especially among marginalised and disadvantaged populations in low-income countries. Without immediate human action, the Anthropocene is bound to become ‘a one-way trip’ for humanity living on a much warmer and unpredictable planet. Mental health problems interfere with the pursuit of happiness more than most other health complications. Hazards triggered by extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, wildfires can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder and increased incidence of suicide and suicidal ideation, whereas increases in temperature patterns and drought frequencies, rising sea levels, and the disappearances of rivers can alter the social determinants of mental health, resulting in chronic psychiatric distress over time. Grief relating to ecological loss and anxiety about anticipated threats to our planet’s ecosystems is inflicting an increasing toll onto the environmentally-concerned, many of whom are suffering from depression, guilt, and eating disorders.

It is plain and simple. If governments behave in ways that respect and protect planetary health, then their populations will become happier. It is in this spirit that the United Nations Human Rights Council declared ‘a clean, healthy and sustainable environment’ to be a human right in October 2021, albeit without strict legal effect. If happiness, health, and an ecologically balanced planet are mutual determinants of each other, then the rights to the pursuit of happiness, health, and a healthy planet should be interpreted in a mutually reinforcing way. A fundamental right to pursue happiness on a healthy planet needs to be anchored not just in international treaties and soft law documents but also in national constitutions, whose potential in promoting planetary health for this Anthropocene epoch should not be left untapped. No matter how bold they are, international legal principles on health and the environment can come to life only when given effect in concrete domestic settings.

Explicit awareness of the pursuit of happiness on a healthy planet as a constitutional right is alarmingly weak, if not non-existent, in many places. But there is cause for hope. Though unnoticed, we suggest that it is already there inside most constitutions. Over 130 national constitutions recognise happiness or well-being as a constitutional value worthy of protection. The Bhutanese Constitution 2008 famously commits the government to protecting and strengthening the ‘happiness of the people’. The post-War Japanese Constitution 1947, echoing the US Declaration of Independence, guarantees the ‘right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’. The Constitution of Ghana 1992 and the Nigerian Constitution 1999 require that the national economy be managed to promote citizens’ ‘maximum welfare, freedom and happiness’. Many of these same documents, indeed no less than two-thirds of the world’s constitutions, contain a clause addressing health or healthcare, be it an aspirational goal for the country, or a legal entitlement of its citizens.

The failure to appreciate the inherent inseparability between happiness, health, and a healthy environment could lead policy-makers and communities-at-large to over-emphasise one over and against another. Excessive emphasis on the consumerist pursuit of happiness would almost certainly cause detriment to the environment and long-term human health, and lopsided devotion of resources to protect one might end up curtailing the others. Only when happiness, health, and a healthy environment are seen as an integral, organic, whole can each mutually enrich and reinforce the others, without undue suppression of any. High profile judicial opinions and scholarly consensus are important but clearly insufficient. What is needed may not be constitutional amendments, but activation by legislatures and domestic high courts around the world through legislation and judgments that tease out the contours and implications of this right. If a healthy planet is integral to the pursuit of happiness, and happiness to the purpose of national constitutions, then a healthy planet must be integral to the purpose of national constitutions. In the Anthropocene, there can be no happiness without planetary health. Countries must take appropriate action if they are to live up to the promises of their own founding documents.


Authors: Eric C Ip1 and Trevor T W Wan2

Affiliations: 1. Centre for Medical Ethics and Law, The University of Hong Kong. 2. Asian Institute of International Financial Law, The University of Hong Kong.

Competing interests: None declared

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