Wednesday, April 22, 2009

What is happiness, really?

I recently purchased a book titled, The Geography of Bliss, in which the author, who spent 10 years as a foreign correspondent for National Public Radio visiting some of the unhappiest places on earth, decided to visit some of the happiest. There is actually a map of the happiest and unhappiest places on earth. Denmark has topped the charts for the past 30 years as the happiest country on earth. The United States is currently ranked number 17 out of 95, up from 23 in 2006 (Zimbabwe and Moldova ranked at the bottom), and number 97 out of 140 in peacefulness.

We as Americans believe that we have such a high standard of living. We have convinced ourselves, rightly so, that we are the greatest nation on earth, but we have so much to learn from other countries that appear to have so much less, yet are ranked higher in happiness. People in other countries have enough. We have excess everywhere we turn: extremes of wealth and poverty, consumerism, obesity, you name it.

I think that our American need to be the best and have the most has created a very unhealthy lifestyle, especially in areas like the Northeast. We spend too many hours working and driving and too little time relating, exercising, and enjoying ourselves. Parents compensate for being absent by spending guilt money on their children. More and more stuff and less and less quality time is the name of the game. We have also lost the fine art of conversation. People don’t have anything to talk about except who worked more hours than whom (which often turns into a p*ssing contest), what they bought, and everyplace they had to drive the kids to. People don’t talk about books they’ve read, or a meal at a special restaurant that they enjoyed, or the beauty of a sunset at their vacation island.

I had a conversation yesterday with a lovely man from Columbia. He described life in his town, where people dress up in the evening to go for a stroll through the square, the streets are closed off for walking on the weekend, and people don’t have a whole lot of money, but seem to really enjoy themselves and their relationships. And they are much healthier. I find that this is sadly lacking in our American lifestyle. People really do have a lot but no one seems to be enjoying any of it very much. Stress levels are very high and satisfaction is low.

But I think the authors might be confusing satisfaction and contentment with happiness. Morley Safer of 60 Minutes did a segment on Danish happiness in 2008 to find out why the Danes are so happy. A Danish research team concluded that, although the Danes do a lot of complaining, they have modest expectations; therefore, they are rarely disappointed. I lived in Denmark for 13 months from 1978-1979 and I can tell you that my stay there was one of the happiest times in my life. As a people the Danes have a very high self-esteem that borders on arrogance. They are very outspoken and not at all politically correct. But they sure are a lot of fun to hang out with. I recently asked a Danish friend what he thought of the researchers’ finding and he told me that, because of their social welfare system, “I know that whatever happens, I cannot fail.”

My friend’s statement pinpointed the contrast between life in the US, which can be one long adrenaline rush, and life in some of the happier, safer places on earth. People come to the United States for challenge, excitement, and the chance for a new life. It’s a crap shoot. We fight for our survival everyday here because failure can put us out in the street, as we have seen with our recent economic crisis. But that is also what makes us so creative, innovative, and competitive. We have to be—it really is a matter of survival.

But our failure right now can be a good thing. I think we have traded our health and happiness for having more stuff. This economic crisis is forcing young people in their 20s to move back home. It’s not the ideal, but families are getting closer. For the first time in decades, people are saving more, buying less. Everyone is getting more conscious of the environment now, too. We are resetting our values. I think this will all lead to healthier lifestyles in general. People are switching to new careers and learning new skills that they never would have considered before. I think we as Americans can adopt a healthier lifestyle, maybe tone it down a bit, but I don’t think we can ever be the happiest nation on earth—that would mean that we have stopped searching, exploring, daring, taking chances. Innovators and dreamers are never satisfied or content, and that is what we are. But we can be healthier while we are pursuing our bliss and that is something that we can achieve.

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