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David Bouchier: A Few Well Chosen Words

The Happiness Puzzle


This is not a big election year for us, apart from the New York Mayoral race, and I have nothing to say about that except that we could use someone more entertaining, like Boris Johnson the Mayor of London. If politicians can’t be effective at least they should be fun. Right now politics is all tricks and no treats.

But after the elections we can turn with relief to the prospect of National Pursuit of Happiness Week which is scheduled to begin on Thursday, except that it’s not. Unless I’m missing something National Pursuit of Happiness Week has been cancelled this year, or perhaps it is being celebrated secretly in southern California. What does this mean? Has the Big H finally been achieved, or has the pursuit of it turned out to be too difficult, as in Lewis Carroll’s satirical poem “The Hunting of the Snark” that describes “The impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature."

The pursuit of happiness has become a whole industry devoted to measuring, in the jargon of the trade, our perceived quality of life. Not a week passes without a new survey that claims to show comparative levels of happiness between nations, or between states, or between sexes or age groups or economic classes. Considering that we don’t actually know what happiness is, the amount of attention it gets is impressive.

The International Society for Quality of Life Studies holds an annual conference to discuss the latest research. Their 2013 World Happiness Report ranks nations around the globe, with Denmark, Norway and Switzerland leading the pack. America comes in at number seventeen, behind Canada and Mexico, but at least ahead of the British and very much happier than the Russians who languish down at number ninety-eight. These rankings are based on surveys that ask people to describe their own feelings about their lives, and add in factors like life expectancy, political freedom, and so on. It all looks very scientific and the findings must mean something, but what?

We have spent quite a lot of time in France this year, and the French seem more obsessed with their happiness of the lack of it than anybody. In fact they claim, almost with pride, to be the most miserable nation in Europe In reality France ranks twelfth in Europe, well above Germany, Spain, Italy and Poland, but the French prefer to believe they are more miserable than any other nationality.

What the surveys show is that there are happy cultures and unhappy cultures, and the differences are pretty consistent. Happy nations tend to stay happy through good times and bad. Depressed nations stay depressed, no matter how many cable channels or fast food outlets they get. Money has remarkably little to do with it.

So the answer to the happiness question depends not so much on who you ask but on where you ask. The French and the British are gloomy, and the Russians are famous for it. But Americans have always been optimistic and positive, so the apparent disappearance of National Pursuit of Happiness Week comes as a shock. Let’s hope that this is temporary state of affairs caused by the antics of the 113th Congress. Somewhere over the rainbow the sun will come out tomorrow, so we can put on a happy face and let the sun shine in while we dream the impossible dream. Meanwhile, we can all pretend to be French.

Copyright: David Bouchier


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