Based on my own experience working closely to development projects, I have realized that there are different definitions of development and happiness.

From the government’s perspective, development will improve people’s lives and therefore bring people happiness. They say that modernization or urbanization is the means for people to obtain this happiness and so they try to bring big development projects like mining and hydropower dams to communities. In reality however, most of the benefits go to investors and governors. What have communities received from this type of development? Suffering, hurt, tears, and unhappiness.

On our first day arriving arriving in Northeastern Thailand on a field trip with the EarthRights School Mekong, we discussed this idea with local villagers. There were many perspectives about these questions, however almost all of the villagers we talked to said that they used to be happy. They were happy because they were able to rely on nature and lived collectively and without harm to their livelihood. Even though the villagers weren’t rich people, they felt that they used to be a rich community before the government started bringing development projects to their village.

When we asked them about development, the villagers replied that their definition of development was the support of community activities such as training in technical agriculture and eco-tourism. They said that it didn’t only mean being asked whether or not the community agreed with the projects proposed by the government, but being asked what type of development they really wanted. Otherwise, they claimed, development projects are harmful and not really development at all.

The community knows clearly how to develop sustainably. Supporting their own decision-making power and developing the existing potential in the community is a much more sustainable form of development. Respecting their perspectives is the best way to help. If a community wants to live a certain way and they receive happiness from it, it should be respected.

Happiness has no particular look, smell or touch. There is no single definition of happiness to fit all people around the world because we are all different. We have our own meaning of happiness. Just like the villagers said, “No one can define happiness but us. Happiness is inside our heart.”