And do we even know what we're looking for?
For a number of years now, the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network has been publishing an annual report on world happiness that includes a total of 157 countries. From one year to another, it’s common for countries to go up or down on the scale. Poverty, unemployment, and economic crises are seen to be determining factors on the happiness scale, although in some countries it doesn’t seem to be as relevant as for others.
In 2011, an article in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization titled “Dark Contrasts: The Paradox of High Rates of Suicide in Happy Places” revealed the perplexing irony that the “happiest” countries in the world actually have the highest rates of suicide. One possible interpretation of the data is the fact that, in countries where the quality of life is high and enjoyed by most, those who are unable to access the lifestyle of their peers fall prey to envy and great frustration. I find that interpretation a little naive, and reflective of a rather limited vision and understanding both of happiness and of existential frustration.
On the other hand, these factors do seem to be some indicators of what most people feel they need to be happy:
- economic security
- free time
- healthy eating
- plenty of friends
- freedom to make your own decisions
- a long life expectancy
- good health
- spiritual life, and things of that nature
Few would question that these are indeed positive and desirable things. But are they actually the causes of a happy life, or a consequence?
There are a number of important questions that are not addressed and which might, in fact, put the happiness scores in a different perspective, such as:
- What is happiness?
- Is happiness a mood that changes like the weather?
- Is happiness reduced to psychological and material well-being?
- Does eating healthily, enjoying financial security, and having lots of friends result in a happy life?
- Are there practical recipes for happiness?
- How do we explain the great paradox observed throughout the history of humanity of people who were very happy despite having endured great scarcities and making enormous sacrifices?
- Why are there so many very poor people with a high level of material insecurity who are quite happy?
- How is it that, despite having all the “desirable” things supposedly needed to be happy, some people are deeply unhappy?
- Could it be that we have reduced happiness to psychological and material well-being?
- Could it be that the drama facing those who feel unhappy is a lack of understanding of the real meaning of life?
A narrow horizon
No one can deny that the neurosciences and psychosocial research provide quite a bit of information that can help us to better understand human life and ways of living, beyond what we could have dreamed of in years past. However there is a danger of falling into a certain empirical reductionism that reduces reality only to what is observable by research, oftentimes without questioning the theoretical assumptions behind the research.
The data is accepted without doubt because “the numbers speak for themselves” – without questioning the actual questions that are asked in surveys, nor the cultural, linguistic, and philosophical factors that condition the ways we think about reality and about ourselves. We speak of the results of quantitative research as if we were before the totality of reality, before the only possible and irrefutable version of events, without taking into account the underlying limits, variety of interpretations, and cultural conditioning.
The obsession with “being happy”
The 20th century and the beginning of the 21st have witnessed an unprecedented cultural change. The crisis of the great referents of meaning and a vacuum of certainties have created generations of people seeking to rebuild a firm foundation on which to base life.
What are human beings now looking for when they say they want to be happy? The ideological colonization promoting a culture of consumption has reduced the concept of happiness to emotional and material well-being.
Many psychologists today point to an obsession with happiness that seems to have the opposite effect than the desired end: the pursuit of happiness is increasing the number of people who see themselves as unhappy due to the idealization of “a happy life.”
The Austrian neurologist, psychiatrist, and philosopher Victor Frankl, a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, placed the problem of the “meaning of life” at the center of his reflection. He was convinced that the more a human being seeks happiness, understood as well-being, the more he is diluted and loses himself, and ends up becoming unhappy.
For Frankl, happiness is a consequence of a meaningfully lived life, the result of an inner plenitude that is not crushed by external factors, however hard they may be. That meaning is provided by a great love, high values by which to live, and openness to the transcendent (God.)
From this perspective, happy people are those who live with a sense of meaning or purpose, given over to a cause or to other people, capable of sacrificing and giving themselves to others, who become capable of overcoming extreme situations and transcending.
Many people who live according to the happiness “tips” of the consumerist market tend to run after models of a “happy life” culturally guided by the media and advertising, and thus live with a daily dissatisfaction and anxiety, pursuing a sense of peace that never seems to be reached.
Expand your existential horizon
The human person is the only creature that is self-reflective, who questions and seeks to transcend himself, and thirsts for a fullness he cannot reach on his own, one he can only receive from outside himself. The word “happiness,” in fact, has been squandered and abused, and is too often found in stores among “how to be happy” self-help manuals preaching postmodern individualism.
Perhaps if we return to the classics and read the wisdom of the ancients such as Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine we will find some clues to broaden our outlook so as to be able to see the meaning of human life in greater depth, beyond the narrow confines of a materialism that reduces the human being to a consumer of sensual experiences pushed by marketing and advertising guidelines.
Reading two small works by St. Augustine, which are as relevant today as they were 1,600 years ago – “On The Happy Life” (De Beata Vita) and his “Confessions” – can be an exciting adventure that will allow us to enter within ourselves to seek and find, more than mere practical advice, but wisdom with which to live a life of meaning.
For his part, in his little treatise “On The Happy Life” (De Beata Vita), Seneca writes that living happily is what everyone wants, but discovering what it is that makes life happy nobody sees clearly – because the more we look for it, the farther we move away from it. He warns that we must take care not to follow the opinion of the majority like mere sheep, since it’s usually never a reliable criterion of truth — quite the opposite. He believed that the best guide to discerning the true from the false is found in the soul itself, where one can review life and discern those things that do not bring us happiness.
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