Lula’s victory changed how I think about happiness – and made me believe it is possible for all | Yara Rodrigues Fowler

On 30 December last year, Jair Bolsonaro lost to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil’s presidential election, making Bolsonaro the first incumbent to fail to be re-elected in Brazil since redemocratisation. Just over a week later, Brazil’s congress, presidential palace and supreme court were invaded by thousands of supporters of Bolsonaro. They proceeded to smash the windows, artworks and computers of the buildings that symbolise Brazilian democracy. I mention this not because the invasion of Brasília made me happy (it did not), or because Lula’s election made me happy (it did), but because Lula’s campaign slogan was sem medo de ser feliz, which translates literally as “without fear of being happy”, or, put more succinctly, “unafraid of happiness”.

In his first speech as president, Lula began by promising every Brazilian three meals a day, a job, and access to healthcare and education. He went on to promise zero deforestation, indigenous land rights and the recreation of the ministries for racial equality, women and culture. Lula’s slogan acknowledges something we can be loth to admit. That happiness – this supposedly intangible, romantic thing – is directly linked to the most quantifiable and decidedly unethereal aspects of lives: our material conditions.

It may be an obvious thing to say, but it is our material conditions that determine how long and how hard our lives are, what we can do with them and where. Sem medo de ser feliz argues for better material conditions not simply for their own sake – or for the sake of increased productivity or fairness – but for the sake of happiness.

It was not a given that things would be this way. My Brazilian mother and British father married in London in 1988, the year Brazil passed a new constitution after two decades of military dictatorship. I was born in 1992 and grew up surrounded by post-cold war political optimism: one of the earliest things I can remember is my reception teachers celebrating Labour’s victory in 1997. Until the financial crash of 2008, the defining mood of my childhood and adolescence was that things could only get better.

However, as an adult, the material conditions experienced by my generation are worse than those experienced by our parents at our age. Most of us rent at a time when rented housing has become harder to secure (bidding wars and payments of a year’s rent upfront are now commonplace in London) and of increasingly low quality (the Times reports that only 10% of flatshares in London have a communal area). Inflation is increasing and wages are not, and in many sectors pensions are also being slashed. Childcare provision is collapsing and the climate crisis only worsens.

When I think of myself and my friends, it is obvious that our happiness is determined by our material conditions. One friend can’t live on the same continent as his long-term partner because he doesn’t earn enough to sponsor her visa. Another puts off having a baby because it’s too expensive. Another has been evicted for the second time in a year because their landlord has decided to sell. Others spend the working day in discomfort because they can’t afford to heat their homes.

These kinds of stories are not exclusive to young people; they’ll be familiar to people of all ages, especially people with dependants, people who do not own their own homes and do not have family wealth. In terms of happiness, the effect is both day-to-day deprivation, and something qualitatively different, more prolonged. We are less free.

Lula’s victory has made me feel freedom is possible. His strategy was to build a broad coalition of Black, Indigenous, gay, bisexual, transgender and working-class Brazilians. He did this by promising to improve the material conditions of all these groups. The logic here was the opposite of austerity-style scarcity, which pits one marginalised group against another, whether that’s trans and cis women, or working-class people from migrant- and non-migrant backgrounds. The logic of Lula’s broad coalition is that if the most vulnerable in society are better off, everyone else will be better off too. It asks Brazilians to dream of freedom for each other – happiness for all – instead of fighting each other for scraps.

Happiness then to me is, first and foremost, a case of material conditions – of good, warm housing, education, healthcare and a job. Because having these material needs met means freedom to live well and as you wish.

The way I see it, sem medo de ser feliz means being unafraid of the happiness of others too. It means letting go of the fear that if the material conditions of another group of people improve that the group I belong to will suffer. To me, being unafraid of happiness means believing in freedom for us all.

The Guardian