As you are reading this, why not take a moment to and ask yourself one simple question: "Am I happy?"
The answer according to the annual "World Happiness Report" published today, might very well depend on which country you happen to be living in. The report finds that, with the exception of Costa Rica, the top 20 happiest countries are among the wealthiest in the world. Meanwhile eight out of the least happy countries, are in Africa. Yet do these figures really reflect reality? Are those broody phlegmatic Scandinavians really so unerringly cheerful and is there a genuine 'happiness deficit' in sub-Saharan Africa? Experience might suggest otherwise.
Indeed the findings of another now defunct annual survey, had very different results. The last edition of the Global Barometer of Hope and Despair published in 2011, which polled 64,000 people in 53 countries, found Nigeria to be the happiest nation on the planet. The most miserable was France.
Whilst polls like these are great fun - scrolling down to find where different nations sit in the happiness league and having a chuckle at the expense of the one at the bottom of the table - they also raise interesting philosophical and cultural questions. What is happiness? Is it an absolute or relative thing? Do different cultures have different understandings of happiness? And how on earth does one go about measuring this most elusive and intractable of things?
The generally agreed definition of happiness is a state of mind or feeling characterised by contentment, love, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy. However, human happiness is complex and varies from person to person. It cannot be explained purely in physical terms but has to take into account environmental and spiritual factors. Some people confuse happiness and pleasure and although they may appear similar they are not the same. The satisfaction you may derive from gratifying a desire, need, or appetite may well give you pleasure but it will not necessarily make you happy. Pleasure requires external stimulus whereas happiness originates from a different, less tangible source.
Different societies and different times will have different conceptions of happiness. In ancient times philosophers and religious thinkers defined happiness in terms of 'living a good life' whereas Eastern philosophy tends to see happiness as the reduction of suffering. In modern Western societies there has become something of an obsession with happiness and indeed, America's Declaration of Independence upon which the nation is founded demands "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
In Western societies there has been a tendency to link happiness and prosperity. Although most people will agree that "you can't buy happiness" they will persist in the belief that greater wealth will make them happier. Numerous studies have shown that an increase in income may indeed result in a short-term increase of happiness, but this increase will not last. These studies have revealed a paradox which suggests that rather than produce greater happiness increased wealth can have the opposite effect. This may seem baffling to most of us who are struggling to get increase profits or get that raise but it is something that Eastern tradition has acknowledged for centuries. It is summed up succinctly in a Buddhist proverb: "No food, one problem. Much money, many problems."
"In Nigeria the communal way of living is at the heart of daily life," Ogechi Kemdirim, a 34 year-old development analyst from Lagos told me. "Family doesn't just include parents and children, brothers and sisters but extends to all relatives and they are involved life decisions that in the West are left to the individual." Indeed in Western societies families have become increasingly separated as people live more atomised lives, living in big cities and separated by greater physical distances and self-constructed barriers. Many Westerners grow-up without a large external family surrounding them and for many even occasional family gatherings such as Christmas, become an ordeal. As the comedian George Burns once quipped, "Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family...in another city."
The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus claimed that the only path to happiness is to cease worrying about things which are beyond our power to change. Former US President Roosevelt once described happiness as "the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort" and in Western societies people have become so focused on achievement that they sometimes lose sight of their limitations.
In reality there is no recipe for happiness. It is not something you can easily quantify or measure. But as the saying goes: "You may as well be happy while you're living, because you're a long time dead."Suggest a correction