We spend our lives searching for ethereal happiness. From marketing ploys to society norms, the pursuit of happiness guides us through life. Driven by the desire to seek pleasure, we make considered choices with this elusive goal in mind. But what is true happiness? How will we ever know if we get there? We all share a deep craving for this feeling, but, can it be measured?
In 2019 Dan Haybron published a piece in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy called Happiness. Haybron’s work on the philosophy of happiness is touching, jarring and exciting in every way. He tackles concepts like life satisfaction, emotional state and the role happiness plays in social and political decision making.
But before we can even comprehend if we’re happy, surely we have to understand what happiness is? Haybron looks at happiness in two ways. There’s the idea that it’s “synonymous with wellbeing or flourishing” while some see it as “purely descriptive”, in the same breath as feeling “tranquillity” or “depression”. Happiness, then, is both a state of mind as well as a description for a life well-lived.
When you think of happiness, you think about what it means to you. You are going to define your happiness through what you value. This is why happiness is almost impossible to define or measure. (Good start, right). You define your values, making it immeasurable for anyone else but you. But, your values are inevitably affected by your circumstances.
It’s the desire for hope and happiness that gives our existence a purpose. We assign ourselves goals and aspirations to provide our mundane day-to-day lives with meaning. When you ask what happiness is – what do you mean? Are you asking about how to get there (somehow defining this non-existent destination)? Or are you asking what sort of life benefits a person, bringing them this elusive happiness?
There are two debates over happiness. Both toe the line between life satisfaction and emotional state. Let’s unpack these a little…
Life Satisfaction vs Emotional State
Life satisfaction is holistic. It spans across your entire existence. It’s not the aggregate of moments in your life but rather “the global quality of one’s life taken as a whole”. It accounts for all the ups and downs life will throw at you, looking back on the story in its entirety. It’s the “ending” that haunts our daily decision making. We create our system of values through our relationships, families, communities and political circumstances and in doing so we define our ultimate end goal of happiness. Every decision we make throughout our lives looks forward to this ending. Without realising, we embody this judgement and intuitively align our lives to accomplish it.
On the other hand, the “pleasantness of our experience” is related to our emotional state of happiness. Many think it’s implausible, but the argument exists that the small things, invariably make a difference to how happy we are. It’s here where gratitude comes in, as does meditation, and daily mantras. Entrepreneurs preach about their mindset, the small steps they have made to appreciate everything. Can the feeling of gratitude bring you the daily pleasure you’re seeking? Will this daily joy make you happy in the long run? I’d like to believe – perhaps, naively – that we can have it all.
The Politics of Happiness
On a political front, “what governments do affects happiness, and in turn, the happiness of citizens in most countries determines what kind of governments they support.” That’s the findings of 2019’s World Happiness Report. The report defines happiness on three key measures – life evaluations, positive affect and negative affect. They generate a life evaluation score through a scale of 1 – 10, 0 being the worst possible life and ten being the best. Positive affect comprises the frequency of happiness, laughter and enjoyment while the adverse effect is the frequency of worry, sadness or anger.
Most interesting is the documentation of Mexico’s life satisfaction over the last seven years, where peaks in comfort directly correlate to government decisions. In 2015, free long-distance calls were introduced, increasing overall life satisfaction. Life satisfaction dropped substantially in 2017 with a rise in fuel prices only to peak again in 2018 with the elections. Perhaps one of the key contributors to a country’s well being is happiness inequality. In countries where social trust is considered low, variation is ripe.
Countries like the US continue to drop in happiness while Scandinavian countries like Finland surge ahead year after year. So much for the American Dream! And most of this comes down to a secure social sense of safety. The government has taken significant steps to eradicate inequality with progressive and successful approaches to ending homelessness. Happiness, this would suggest, comes from opportunity and in countries like Finland, the high-quality education system continues to close the gender gap.
We might consider the goal of happiness as only something rich countries have the luxury of worrying about, but, it goes much deeper than that. The countries with the highest GDP don’t top the charts on happiness. Does this mean money can’t buy happiness? On the national level, perhaps so. The pursuit of happiness comes down to three things; improved personal freedom, a sense of social safety and an excellent work-life balance. Which is why the Finns, who enjoy a strong sense of community, public services, education, health care and child care, top the charts year-on-year. Go Finland!
What’s more, Haybron’s research raises the point of the “Easterlin Paradox”; wealthier people do tend to be happier within nations, but richer nations are little happier than less prosperous counterparts, and—most strikingly—economic growth has virtually no impact. In short, once you’re out of poverty, absolute levels of wealth and income make little difference in how happy people are.
We can’t ignore the politics of happiness. Traditionally the drive for economic growth was thought to promote wellbeing. These days we can’t be sure this is true. Rather than introducing policies around economic growth, governments should focus on eradicating unemployment, prioritising urban planning, education and health care to provide equal opportunity. Haybron would argue, though, that cross-cultural comparisons of happiness, where differing norms about happiness occur, may undermine the legitimacy of reports like this. The French might report lower happiness than Americans, for instance, not because their lives are less satisfying or pleasant, but because they tend to put a less positive spin on things. Merde.
However we measure it, happiness is undeniably worth seeking. Whether we always do a good job of it is the question. Focus on your opportunities, your surroundings, and how they define your values and perhaps you can understand what “happiness” is to you. It’s wellbeing, it’s opportunity, it’s the small things, and it’s the big things. It’s a beautiful amalgamation of everything science has understood it can be.
Written by Emma Dittmer