The Age-Old Question

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how important it is to research happiness – the most prized and elusive goal of nearly all human beings, a concept born in the B.C.’s and still puzzling modern man.  It’s no surprise that the most emailed NY Times article today is Nicholas D. Kristof’s The Happiest People.

Based on several indexes, the happiest people seem to be the Costa Ricans.  Kristof offers several reasons for this: investment in education rather than an army, beautiful beaches, environmental friendliness, and a healthy economy due to computer-chip exporting and American tourism.

The bit on education may be the most significant here.  Education increases our knowledge and challenges us with new ideas, which improves our personal decision-making and multiplies the possibilities we see in the world.  (I guess ignorance isn’t bliss?)  The Greek word for happiness actually means “flourishing,” and to flourish in the world requires knowledge of that world and knowledge of the self.

Beyond that, there’s little insight to gain from the example of Costa Rica.  There may not be any causal relationship between the factors that Kristof picked out and the country’s average happiness level (8.5); maybe they have friendlier salespeople, or less traffic (or lower standards).  And any broad-brush claim about happiness in a population can’t capture the complexity of each individual’s psychology, the thousands of factors that affect whether and to what extent any particular Costa Rican is happy.  (I’m sure some Costa Ricans aren’t happy about their country’s carbon tax.)

So the mystery of happiness remains a mystery, as expected.  But that won’t stop readers from clicking eagerly on the title “The Happiest People,” or from seeking out success and love to bring them happiness – nor should it.

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3 thoughts on “The Age-Old Question

  1. As true of almost everything, the answer lies right before us. Happy is a mnemonic:
    H health
    A attitude (fundamental) of the joy of living
    P pride in your ability to stay alive
    P personal loving relationships
    Y yarrow, a strongly scented herb (activity) that adds spice to life

    Without these 5, all the rest do not matter.
    Enjoy your blog. Dnomyar

  2. Also, let us take Kristof’s politics into the equation. Especially, “investment in education rather than an army.”

    What colossal ignorance of Armies and what it takes to be a soldier! For example, I would pit my education in becoming a nuclear missile electrical and computer guidance technician against any technical programs offered in Costa Rica. Or, look at Army doctors whose wartime trauma surgeries, from which the basis for cosmetic plastic surgery was derived, since its advent during World War I.

    Happiness is what each individual makes of it. As for nations, it cannot be quantified without resort to huge amounts of subjectivity.

    To quote Harry Lime in “The Third Man”: “Don’t be so gloomy. After all it’s not that awful. Like the fella says, in Italy for 30 years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they also produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love – they had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

  3. Ilya has commented on happiness research. You can ask him about it at some point. One major consideration is that there is no way of knowing that a Mexican rating his life as an “8” is as happy as an American rating his life as an “8,” which is kind of what you said. This is an argument for using longevity as a proxy for happiness, even though longevity isn’t the actual goal.

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