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Saturday, June 03, 2006


This is my LIVE WRITE column for next week - comments always welcome.

Not everybody agrees that happiness is the ultimate goal in life; however its desirability is almost undisputed. But what constitutes a happy life?

The struggle to understand human contentment is not new – the ancient Greek philosophers were absorbed by the question. According to Aristotle, “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of live, the whole aim and end of human existence.” Modern era thinkers also ponder the question. Mahatma Gandhi said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”

Social scientists are exploring this subject as well. Happiness researchers – yes, there is such a calling – conduct social indicator research. Understanding happiness can provide useful information for developing economic, social and health policies.

The World Values Survey is the most comprehensive and wide-ranging survey of human values ever undertaken. It is an ongoing (since 1981) academic project, led by social scientists, to assess the state of socio-cultural, moral, religious and political values of different cultures around the world.

One element of the survey asked thousands of global residents to rate themselves as very happy; quite happy; not very happy; or not at all happy. It also examined the basis for their happiness. The most recent version of the survey discovered that Nigeria has the happiest people on earth (leading me to wonder if running internet banking scams is a contributor to happiness…but I digress).

Nigeria was followed by Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador and Puerto Rico. The melancholic Russians, Armenians and Romanians languish at the bottom of the 65 countries in this particular survey. Canadians placed a respectable 10th in the happiness rankings. Americans are possibly the only people in the world with a constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness, but they ranked 16th in this survey – proving it’s only the pursuit part that they are guaranteed.

Why are Nigerians and Mexicans happier than the rest of us? Consider the list of factors below that smooth the path to happiness (adapted from the World Values Survey). You’ll notice that most of these pursuits don’t require affluence.

Choose happy parents, as there is a genetic factor. Get married or have a significant other. Make friends and value them. Have sex when you can (responsibly of course). Desire less. Do something good for others. Have faith - religious or not. Stop comparing your looks with others. Earn enough money (beyond basic needs, more cash affects contentment only marginally). Grow old gracefully. And finally, work at something you enjoy doing.

The list varies from culture to culture and may not apply to everyone, yet it is based on serious research. If I were interviewed in the next survey I might suggest adding, ‘have a good sense of humour’.

Two modern philosophers, of the humorous variety, had something to say about happiness. Spike Milligan noted that, “Money can't buy you happiness, but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery.”

His American contemporary, George Burns, told us that, “Happiness is a large, loving, caring, close-knit family…in another city.”

I plan to work my way through the list above and if all else fails, move to Nigeria.

hi Gary,
I have a poem(wrote last month on my blog) for a comment...

Pursuit of Happiness

Have you ever felt speechless at times
Leaving yourself in the hands divine
Seeing sad faces bearing the grind of life
Crumbling under the modern strife
Sense of being alone amidst the crowd
The growing inner emptiness and absurd
The serenity that is long gone
The restlessness that can’t be undone
Is this the fate of modern civilized man?

The surveys show
The happiest in the world are in Nigeria and Bhutan
Where poor live with peace and calm
Is it not the time to question
The modern civilization
And its ways
Widespread angst and great stress
Is this the pursuit of happiness?
Down with Prozac; up with banking scams!

What an interesting topic. How did you get the idea? I'm going to make sure some folks read this. It's very good and insightful.

Whatever they're paying you, you deserve a raise. You're very good.
I really like this article. The factors for happiness are pretty basic... it is too bad that we get caught up in the materialism of "having" to appreciate the beauty of "being."
Another insightful article indicating the importance of a life philosophy to happiness and reminding us materiality is not a pathway to contentment.

Strangely enough I think our enlarged knowledge base can also be a catalysist for worry.
Today I often cringe when I hear the expression ‘Make it Happen “ as its assumes an inherent control over all outcomes, rather than a partnership approach, needed with communities, countries and nature .

I think knowledge and reality are the same thing, hence our degree of happiness is linked to our knowledge , hence as expectations increase so our level of happiness more or less stays on a plateau over the different generations. I also think the westernised world has become unjustifiably more fearful , reducing our level of happiness.

You might consider linking your excellent article to the study and the type of questions asked by the researchers. Given your degree of knowledge Gary, I am willing to bet you the best bottle of full malt whisky, you would be unhappy living in Nigeria to day , assuming your unable to import a 4o foot container of mod cons to keep in the style your accustomed while over there !! No worries !!
best wishes
yes, I didn't see ignorance mentioned in the list - ignorance is bliss, remember the adam and eve story! which makes me wonder whether the ''pursuit'' of happiness is a futile endeavour - either you're happy or you're not. Trying to alter this condition is surely counter-productive: once you are aware of the two opposite conditions, you'll swing to and fro between them like a pendulum. Only when you stop moving do you find calm.

My mum was oft heard to say ''oh so-and-so's only happy when they're complaining!'' and, conversley, I think some people will declare they're happy souls when they're evidently no happier than the next person. When asked, 98.4% said they didn't believe the evidence of polls.
You better have a sense of humor in these days and times or else have someone keep you away from sharp objects and guns.

I totally agree with what george burns said. I can prove it too.
Nice work Abhay, I like what you have on your site too.

Jublu and Lindsay - I chose this topic because of something Lindsay wrote about fear (in relation to not getting pulled too much into the negativity of the world).

Lauren, yes, we are 'human beings' after all, not 'human doings'.

Lindsay - I should get you to be co-author, you have such great insights. The article is every 2 weeks and is supposed to be about 500 words, so it's tough to get into much depth. I usually have enough material for several pieces.

POP - yes, George's comment is profound. I like a good Cuban cigar too.
I think Lindsay is onto something. I have lately been pondering the meaning of happiness, I guess due to the recent passing of my uncle. I was wondering if he had a "happy" life. So what constitutes a happy life? Naturally, since we live in a post-Einsteinian world, I am inclined to say that happiness is relative--to the person, the culture, the time. My mother, when questioned on the topic of my uncle, said that we Greens just aren't inclined to be happy people. Hmmmm. Interesting. I am sure I wouldn't be happy in a world without electricity, books, or the Internet.

A great column as usual, Gary. I with Ju. You need a raise.
Thanks Elizabeht and Ju - maybe I'll pass your comments to the editors and see if I can get a little more dough for these columns (not that it will make me happier of course).
“Money can't buy you happiness, but it does bring you a more pleasant form of misery.”

Just wanted to say that's a good one.
Right on Gary!
The biggest cause of death in society is stress.
No, I'm not kidding.

(PS maybe obesity will take over at some point, but even that malady is caused by stress ... so there)
My OB/GYN is a wonderful Nigerian doctor. I love him. During my difficult pregnancy, he always made me and Hubby feel safe, informed, and yes, happy. And he has an infectious smile that lights his entire face up.
I love that Ghandi quote!

Thanks for the invite to the potluck, btw. I actually was looking at property down that way last night. Who knows? If you'd ever like to stop in for tea in Horsebite, you've got my e-mail!
"Thousands of candles can be lit from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared."
~ Buddha

It's funny, I'm going through more shite than I've ever had to before (and that's saying something!), but I'm also more content (or happy if you like). Being Canadian gets me in the #10 slot, getting divorced and being raised by grumpy parents lost me lots of points, (but wait I LIVE in the US what does that do to my score?!) ah well, all of that I choose not to carry with me.

I think they could include pets, but that is only relative to certain countries I suppose - perhaps anything that has you thinking and caring outside of yourself, or for the benefit of someone else (furry or otherwise).

I have a Nigerian friend, she, her kids and her family are one of the most loving and happy bunch I know - so maybe there IS something to this....

"Happiness equals reality minus expectations" ~ Tom Magliozzi
I've been missing your posts somehow.

Just saying hi. I don't know why I was gone but I'm back.

I know, I'll blame it on blogger.
this may seem too simplistic and even obvious, but i have found it to be true for myself - happiness is found in doing the things that make you happy.

this is also universal since different things make different people happy
Thanks all - yes Tom, it may sound simplistic, but probably it's profound.

Calooh and Tina - real Nigerian evidence! My brother lived in Nigeria for 3 years and found that in spite of poverty and political upheaval, there was a lot of joy and wonderful socializing.

Zee - you're stressing me out man!

Madcap - really, drop by if you search in this area.

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