When I was an unhappy girl, I tried complaining to my mother (may she rest in peace). I only tried a few times, enough to realize her answer would invariably be the same. “Happy, schmappy!” she’d shrug, “Who’s happy?”
If you’re listening, Mom, I’ve got an answer.
This month’s Ode Magazine features a story about two different attempts to learn which people are Earth’s happiest. The Happy Planet Index (HPI), a project of the London-based New Economics Foundation with support from Friends of the Earth, uses three indicators—ecological footprint (i.e., sustainability), life-satisfaction and life expectancy—to derive a factor by which the happiness of one individual, community or nation can be ranked. The World Happiness Index (WHI), created by a professor at Erasmus University in Rotterdam, is based primarily on self-reporting, adjusted for sampling bias (such as under-sampling of rural population).
By including environmental impact, the HPI leans a bit toward the utilitarian idea that true happiness entails the greatest good for the greatest number, whereas the WHI trusts us to define our own happiness. But by either measure, the U.S. and its most-industrialized counterparts fall far short. On the HPI, the U.S. is 150th: the Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu (population 250,000) tops the list, followed by Columbia and Costa Rica. Vanuatu’s life-satisfaction factor is 7.4, life expectancy is 68.6, and environmental footprint 1.1, for an HPI of 68.2. In contrast, the U.S. shows the same life-satisfaction and a longer average life expectancy (77.4), but an unsustainable environmental footprint of 9.5, for an overall HPI of 28.8.
The WHI, focusing solely on self-reported satisfaction, places the U.S. in the 17th rank, with a happiness factor of 7.4. In contrast, Denmark ranked first with 8.2 and Colombia second with 8.1.
What are your knee-jerk responses to these rankings? My first thoughts fall into the “money can’t buy happiness” category. The happiest nations weren’t the most impoverished, but neither were they richest. Neither were they the places where advertising’s steady drone is the loudest and most persistent, urging us to discover new desires that can be fulfilled in the marketplace. Researchers have pointed out that especially on the WHI, happiness tended to correlate with liberal social policies such as generous vacation and retirement benefits. That matches my own hunch that a balance of work and leisure promotes happiness.
Maybe so. There’s probably something plausible in any attempt at explanation, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if explanations are even relevant. I wonder if what I have been discovering about individual happiness is also true for nations: that to a remarkable extent we can decide to be happy, that much of the time, feeling good is surprisingly independent of life circumstances.
In both indices, the happiest countries seem to be free of overweening ambition: no superpowers, no world domination wannabes. Our own national political culture is rooted in striving: nearly every political speech is about how we can stronger, richer, better in every way, and lately, how we can restore our tarnished preeminence. In contrast, the top-ranking nations in these happiness scales seem mostly to enjoy being themselves, aiming to feed, shelter and educate their people and to avoid preemptive wars and conquests.
Like many of us, my mother believed her own happiness was conditioned on external circumstances. If things would ever line up just right—the bills paid, no one fighting, everyone safe and healthy… What she deduced from her life was that meeting the desired conditions were as unlikely as two sunrises in a single day. “Happy schmappy” was shorthand for that conviction.
But what if the secret of happiness, in the small world of a single human life or the big world of nations, is deciding to enjoy your experience instead of driving yourself mad because of what it isn’t? What if adopting a philosophy of kindness and compassion toward oneself and others produces more happiness than conquering worlds or cornering markets? Once in awhile, I come across a spiritual teacher who demonstrates this principle in extremis, pointing out from experience that whatever condition of suffering imposed on us, we still have a choice to find happiness. Consider the Dalai Lama (this is from Ethics for the New Millennium):
During the course of my life, I have had to handle enormous responsibilities and difficulties. At sixteen, I lost my freedom when Tibet was occupied. At twenty-four, I lost my country itself when I came into exile. For forty years now I have lived as a refugee in a foreign country, albeit the one that is my spiritual home. Throughout this time, I have been trying to serve my fellow refugees, and, to the extent possible, the Tibetans who remain in Tibet. Meanwhile, our homeland has known immeasurable destruction and suffering. And, of course, I have lost not only my mother and other close family members but also dear friends. Yet for all this, although I certainly feel sad when I think about these losses, still so far as my basic serenity is concerned, on most days I am calm and contented. Even when difficulties arise, as they must, I am ususally not much bothered by them. I have no hesitation in saying I am happy.
This is my first New Year’s wish, for you and for myself.
The reason why the Dalai Lama and those who share a similar kind of attitude don’t hesitate in saying that they are happy is that they have overcome the temptation to think of happiness as a visceral feeling. I’ve been working on this topic, googling, reading blogs, books, whatever, and the thought that happiness must be some kind of detectable feeling is pervasive.
But if that’s all happiness is, then we should just have a couple extra glasses of champagne at the New Year’s Eve party…and let the bubbly make us happy.