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In the pursuit of...happiness?

A lot of Canadians are not
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Is the search for happiness a reasonable goal?

It’s been 10 years since the song “Happy” was a global hit and worldwide dance craze, and it remains one of the most downloaded songs of all time. But it didn’t come easy. It took singer/songwriter Pharrell Williams ten attempts to come up with the song for the animated film Despicable Me 2. Williams said the first nine songs didn’t feel right. Following the tenth try, he and his wife drove around listening to it and he remarked, “I don’t know what this is, but it feels good.” It went on to become Billboard’s number one single of 2014, won a Grammy Award and was nominated for an Oscar. 

The message of the song is to always be happy. The feel-good lyrics and catchy melody spawned the world’s first ever 24-hour music video featuring characters and people dancing in the streets enjoying blissful lives. If only it was that easy.

December 2023 the Angus Reid Institute released data indicating only two in five Canadians said the year was more good than bad. In terms of overall life satisfaction, 51% said they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied. Comparing the results to data collected in 2016, it was noted that happiness levels have dropped nine points overall.

Then there’s the World Happiness Report released last month. For the seventh year in a row Finland tops the chart. Canada is number 15, down two spots from last year. While life satisfaction has decreased for Canadians under the age of 30, (we rank 58th) that age group in sub-Saharan Africa are reporting higher levels of satisfaction, and those under 30 living in Lithuania are the happiest. Research methodology and interpretation is complex across different countries and cultures, so my question is this: what does it mean to be happy? How is this question to be answered? Does it matter who is doing the asking?

If your boss calls you into the office and asks if you are happy, your mind will assess the situation for potential appropriate responses. What if your spouse looks you in the eye and poses the same question? Our response would be impacted by entirely different factors. How, then, do we determine happiness? Disneyland calls itself the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’. I have had many happy days there, but I have also seen families fighting and guests be rude. IHOP advertises “Come Hungry, Leave Happy”. Yes, for those who can afford to eat out or don’t have allergies that make restaurant food a potential problem. Coca-Cola ran commercials showing people drinking pop and having fun attached to the slogan “Open Happiness”. It’s that easy to find.

A definition results in endless debate. Happiness can be described as positive and pleasant emotions ranging from contentment to joy. So can you be happy without being content? Joyful without being pleasant? Are joy and happiness connected?

Researchers have found a gene they say indicates happiness can be genetically determined. Others dispute this as an inadequate predictor.  Some study internal factors; others external. Methodology raises skepticism as some argue for subjective factors to take precedence, others objective, still others looking for some sort of balance.

Happiness economists (yes, it is a thing) are unconcerned with that and more interested in using direct questions to assess average happiness of populations. In some places their work informs public policy and government initiatives. Bhutan has been measuring gross national happiness for more than a decade and other countries are taking note.

But I think these studies and conversations miss the mark in their approach to happiness. I believe we need to ask different questions and switch the focus. Make it about more than feeling good. 

Seeing happiness as something we are entitled to at all times shouldn’t be the objective. But looking beyond ourselves, we quickly discover that a byproduct of getting the focus off of ourselves actually produces a sense of happiness. It is more fulfilling to do for others than indulge ourselves. In moments when I have encountered difficulties and sadness I realized feeling happy wasn’t nearly as valuable as feeling comforted, connected, safe, supported and loved.

 If our goal is simply to make ourselves happy we are seeing so little of what this life has to offer. But if we invest ourselves in the lives of others we are getting a fuller glimpse of what is out there and how we can be a part of it. Rather than focusing on personal satisfaction, the statistics would be off the charts if we were all intent on helping someone else experience contentment and joy. We need to ask the right question. Instead of “how happy are you” it would be better for ourselves and for others to ask “what can I do today to contribute to the happiness of someone else?” That’s my outlook.