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Does the Search for Happiness Make Us Happy? Maybe.

Happiness can be hard to find, but striving brings its own rewards.

Key points

  • There is increasing research about the importance of happiness for individuals and entire countries.
  • Sometimes, we seem to avoid happiness by making the same bad choices repeatedly, neglecting our lifestyles, and failing to reach out to others.
  • Happiness cannot be guaranteed, but the right to pursue happiness is vital and valuable.
  • Setting the world aside for periods of time and becoming absorbed in an activity is very helpful. Happiness often follows.
Nataliya Vaitkevich/Pexels
Activites that absorb us can also make us happy
Source: Nataliya Vaitkevich/Pexels

Happiness matters to everyone, but it is only in recent decades that public policymakers and researchers have started to take happiness seriously.

Recent years, and particularly during this time of COVID, have seen a deluge of self-help books, guided recordings, websites, and manuals devoted to the meaning of happiness, ways to attain fulfilment, and strategies to stay happy forever. There have been lengthy volumes about the economics of happiness, the psychology of satisfaction, and theories underlying the new "politics of happiness" which has taken root in many countries around the world.

This focus on happiness can feel exhausting. And it is sometimes not clear if any of it makes us happier. I wonder: does it?

Looking to Bhutan

Part of the recent revival of interest in happiness finds its roots in the Kingdom of Bhutan, a tiny, mountainous country in South Asia, with a population of fewer than one million people. Up until the 1970s, Bhutan’s chief point of distinction was that it possessed one of the smallest economies in the world, based primarily on forestry and agriculture. Economic progress, as measured by traditional measures such as Gross Domestic Product (GDP), was minimal.

In 1972, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the new king of Bhutan, attracted international attention by deciding that "Gross National Happiness," instead of GDP, would be the unit by which national progress in Bhutan would be measured henceforth. Gross National Happiness quickly became a key element in the country’s economic and social planning.

In Bhutan, Gross National Happiness has four key pillars: (1) good governance; (2) stable and equitable socioeconomic development; (3) environmental protection; and (4) preservation of culture.

Bhutan’s emphasis on happiness duly found strong support in various other countries around the world which are now placing greater emphasis on happiness, well-being, and life satisfaction when planning public policy. This is a sensible move: people value happiness above most other things in life, including wealth. Happiness matters to everyone. It should matter to governments too.

The pursuit of happiness

One of the key problems with government efforts to increase happiness is that happiness can prove hard to find, let alone purposely build. To complicate this more, we often say we want to be happy but seem to do essentially everything we can to avoid it: we make the same bad choices, again and again. We neglect our diets and lifestyles, and we fail to reach out to other people in the way that we would like them to reach out to us. Random events and life circumstances intervene, sometimes making it difficult to achieve happiness, at least for now.

With this in mind, it is useful to value the pursuit of happiness as an interim step, in addition to valuing happiness itself. The search for happiness has immense merit in its own right, regardless of how distant the end of the path might seem. Striving has a value and dignity of its own.

As long ago as June 1776, the Virginia Declaration of Rights outlined “certain inherent rights” of the individual which included “the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.”

The importance of the pursuit of happiness, rather than necessarily finding it, was declared “self-evident” in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that July: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These rights relate to life and liberty themselves, but to the “pursuit” of happiness rather than happiness itself. We have the right to search, but what we find is up to us.

Absorption is one path

There are many ways to pursue happiness. One of the most powerful is to try to shift emphasis from the end goal and to focus on the present moment, possibly through an activity that absorbs us. There are many examples: running, swimming, gardening, knitting, reading, yoga, meditating.

Setting the world aside for periods of time is often the best way to appreciate our place in it, gently move beyond the past, and feel our way into the future. Absorption is the key. Happiness often follows.

References

Kelly B. The Science of Happiness: The Six Principles of a Happy Life and the Seven Strategies for Achieving It. Dublin: Gill Books, 2021.

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