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.