Since the dawn of humanity, we have been seeking happiness to help us get through the suffering that comes with life and ways to increase the length and frequency of those joyous moments that make us appreciate what we have and where we are. Hundreds of years of contemplation by philosophers and decades of scientific endeavors by scientists surely have shed some light on how we can achieve it. But how much progress have we made while moving forward through time? Are we happier than our forefathers? These questions are not easy to answer. While there is no denying that mankind’s power in overcoming obstacles and alleviating pain has astronomically improved, we cannot say the same thing for our state of happiness and well-being. It seems that the more actively we pursue happiness, the further it eludes our grasps; As Henry David Thoreau eloquently put it:
“Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.”
The question that remains, however, is whether there is a certain way to achieve happiness. If so, how do we get there? There is a whole field of psychological studies dedicated to answering these questions. Positive psychology is the scientific study of the factors that help people lead fulfilling lives by focusing on positive experiences, traits, and institutions. Numerous studies show that a slight change in perspective can drastically improve the happiness we experience in our everyday lives. Gratitude, physical affection, buying experiences as opposed to material possessions, and helping others are all suggested ways to increase happiness. While there is no consensus on the absolute definition of happiness in scientific terms, the most generally accepted definition is “subjective well-being” which is measured by self-assessment reports from individuals. The amount of joy, contentment, and well-being that one experiences by well, their own definition.
Definition Through Cultural Lenses
The concept of happiness, however, means different things in different cultures. In western cultures, happiness is more associated with personal achievements and high arousal-positive emotions like excitement and enthusiasm while in the eastern viewpoint, happiness is more found in the states of peace, tranquility, and social harmony. In collectivistic cultures, the paradoxical effects of valuing happiness are minimized because people pursue happiness through social engagement whereas, in individualistic cultures, more weight is put on self-esteem and the sense of self-worth. In the cultures that are heavily influenced by Buddhist tenets, happiness is more experienced by deriving satisfaction from the journey rather than the feeling of joy after reaching the destination. Some western philosophers, like Nietzsche on the other hand, have defined happiness as the result of rising through the power hierarchy and the dominance one gains over the surroundings. Understanding these profound differences can open new doors for those facing dead ends on their way to happiness.
The World’s Happiest Countries
It is not all subjective. There are clear overlaps on what factors contribute to happiness in different cultures: Favorable external conditions. The economic climate, living environment, social justice, education, and many other things that we don’t have immediate control over, do influence the state of our being. In the World Happiness Report published annually by the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network, researchers measure each country’s level of happiness by assessing 6 variables: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption. These are all objective criteria and great determinants of our living conditions.
For years, certain countries have consistently managed to remain on top of the list of the happiest countries in the world. Finland’s top priority is education and they have one of the best education systems in the world. The state-funded education system focuses on quality of learning by focusing less on standardized quantitative testing and more on lifting the limitations traditionally imposed on the children in school. Denmark ranks top in metrics like social support, life expectancy, and generosity because of the economic security, good work-life balance, and the trust people have in the government.
The Netherlands is famous for its healthcare system, safety, and social freedoms. It’s worth noting that contrary to the popular belief in its tolerant drug policies, drugs are illegal in the Netherlands. Selling cannabis and CBD is only allowed under certain conditions like medical use. In fact, the same regulations regarding therapeutic use apply in some states in the US and people must submit, for example, a new jersey cannabis manufacturing application for those purposes. In Switzerland, people play a huge role in making political decisions and vote in referendums up to four times each year. The direct democracy system allows the citizens to have much control over the societal factors that affect their lives. Sweden is one of the best countries for women due to its laser-like focus on social equality. With a well-defined welfare system that provides free daycare and 16 months of paid family leave after childbirth, the Swedish populace is one of the happiest in the world.
Overall, happiness is affected by both internal and external factors. Ignoring any side of this balance only adds to the adversity. While we should always take action to improve our circumstances, we have to equally make a conscious effort to adapt, adjust our expectations and develop healthy thinking skills.