How To Be Happy

Almost every morning, this blog highlights problems. It’s usually a downer, I know. (I often tell friends that, sometimes, having the ability to vent regularly is all that keeps me from searching for a glass of hemlock.) But every so often, I’m reminded that we really don’t live in a dystopia, and that lots of folks–including yours truly–are pretty happy most of the time.

Granted, it’s a lot easier to be happy when you are a middle-class privileged person with a nice place to live, enough to eat, and perfect grandchildren. But we all know people who manage to be happy despite life circumstances that are anything but comfortable, raising the question: why? Why are some people seemingly hard-wired for happiness–or at least contentment–while others who appear incredibly fortunate, apparently enjoy being miserable?

Are misery and happiness basically genetic, or is there a role for public policy? Several countries seem to think that policy plays a part.

Several years ago, when my husband and I visited Bhutan, I remember being impressed with that country’s Gross National Happiness Index. So much more humane than the economic measures we favor in our “advanced” country! The United Nations also sponsors a Happiness Index (which usually finds Denmark’s citizens to be the world’s happiest). In 2016 the UAE installed a Minister of State for Happiness. In 2019, New Zealand introduced a wellbeing budget to ensure policies consider citizens’ quality of life.

Happiness has also become the focus of academic study. Some time back, the Guardian ran an article on the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. The Institute is an independent think tank, founded in 2013 to “look at happiness from a scientific perspective”, by analyzing data to figure out why some folks are happier than others and–more importantly– how societies can boost their citizens’ wellbeing.

The article questioned Meik Wiking (the “happiness guru”), who founded the Institute, about the impact of the pandemic on happiness.

What the pandemic has done is underscore the joy of simple pleasures. The link between happiness and money has been well-documented over the years and while, in general, rich people are happier than poor people, it’s not that money buys happiness but that “being without money” and unable to afford food and shelter causes unhappiness. Once you’ve passed a certain threshold, “if you’re already making good money, and you make £200 extra, you buy a more expensive bottle of wine but it doesn’t matter”….

Covid-19 has also diminished the possibility for social comparisons. “There’s an American saying that ‘A happy man is a man who makes $100 more than his wife’s sister’s husband,’ and that concept shows up a lot in the data,” says Wiking. We derive pleasure from being more successful than our neighbours or friends – but become anxious when we’re not. By purging our social media feeds of sparkling shots of Michelin-starred meals and island getaways, the pandemic has reduced angst, envy and fear of missing out.

Genetics clearly plays a role in happiness, as studies of identical twins have demonstrated, and researches have also documented what they call “the natural rhythms of life,” finding a “U curve” in which happiness tends to be highest when we’re young and again when we’re old–or at least, past middle age. Where we live is also important– least-happy countries include war-torn Syria, Burundi and the Central African Republic.

“I don’t think we can go to people in refugee camps and say, ‘Listen guys, happiness is a choice,’” says Wiking. “We need to acknowledge external and genetic conditions and not put the entire responsibility on the individual.”

The happiest 10 countries – the Nordics, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland – are all wealthy, so money matters. But so does policy. Countries with similar GDPs have very different levels of life satisfaction, and some poorer nations, such as Costa Rica, score high.

According to Wiking, a nation’s success at converting “wealth into wellbeing” mostly comes down to its ability to eliminate sources of unhappiness. Denmark’s widespread access to education and healthcare removes anxiety- inducing competitiveness. Wiking says that the Nordic countries are not the happiest in the world – they’re the least unhappy.

What I found when I was doing research for my book God and Country supports Wiking’s thesis. People in countries with strong social safety nets were not only happier than Americans, they were less violent. And of course, if happiness is undermined by comparisons with those who have more than we do, America’s current “gilded age” is a constant “in your face” source of discontent.

Public policies can’t change your DNA. They can’t turn pessimists into optimists or make grief over loss less wrenching. But–as Wiking says–good public policies can make you less unhappy.

And that’s not nothing.


  1. “Are misery and happiness basically genetic, or is there a role for public policy?”

    Just this morning I replied to a FB “friend” who posted, “I see those jobs advertised for $15 an hour but are they air conditioned?” There are those who would never be satisfied, or “happy”, whatever the public policy provides or prevents. The same is true for those who are a “…privileged person with a nice place to live, enough to eat…”; take Donald Trump (PLEASE!) who has lived his entire life as a privileged person, Republicans provided him with the White House as his home for four years and Lord knows he has had more than enough to eat. Did he ever appear to be a happy person? He only appeared “happy” when making others miserable and causing pain and deprivation.

    Happy, miserable or indifferent; our surroundings, including public policies, force us to decide how we are going to deal with the hand we are dealt. What is a “good policy” for some is a burden for others. The Republicans sitting in Congress today and preventing progressive public policies is an excellent example as they happily block progress to maintain their personal level of power as millions of Americans pay the price.

    Am I happy? Only for brief periods when with family or friends which gives a respite from reality; then I return to my “fight or flight” mode to meet the day.

  2. Since you mentioned Switzerland, I have to comment. I’ll tell you about my Swiss friend here. She’s 36 years old and fell on hard times in her mid-twenties. She shared an apartment with two others and lived on “welfare” for nearly 3 years while she tried to find a job that paid her enough to live on. Yes, Switzerland has a high rate of millionaires and probably dark money, but not all jobs pay a liveable wage. A one bed apartment runs at least 1000 a month, plus utilities. Well, she was notified last year that since she has a job, she had to pay back that welfare she received and she had 30 days to come up with 15,000 Swiss francs. Dollar to francs is steady at 1:1. She was distraught! She had to borrow the money from friends and now is paying them back for the next few years. How does someone recover their life when you have the feds coming after you?

    Systematic racism and age discrimination is alive and well, even here. How do I know? Because she was adopted from India 35 years ago and when she voted in person last year, she vowed to only vote by mail in the future. The questions and dirty looks was more than she could take.

    There’s homeless here too but sleeping rough (in tents) is not allowed so the police round them up and take them to shelters. The food kitchen for homeless (who I support) has been feeding more families than ever since covid lockdowns. Oddly, their private support by corporate sponsors pulled out this year because they didn’t like the race of the recipients of the free meals! (Some are Eastern European).

    I’ll stop there but honestly this corporate mind of running countries is going to kill us all. But there goes my liberal bleeding heart…

  3. Does happiness also correlate with needs or unmet needs? Maslow?

    What’s ironic is the USA ranks high on Happiness Index, as do all Western Democracies, but is a third-tier country on Social Progress or Wellbeing.

    You would think they’d be more highly correlated. They are for the Scandanavian countries, but not for the USA.

    It doesn’t take much to dive into the numbers to see why the USA is a laggard. Even Canada enjoys a higher ranking than the USA. As you evaluate the numbers, the differences are Scandavanavian countries and Canada are more social democracies. They mirror what Einstein proposed. They are wealthy countries but the people have a higher input in how the wealth is distributed.

    They don’t want to be bothered by work and health insurance while they enjoy life. They also value education and creativity.

    I’m not sure why we rank so well in Happiness because we are the most violent nation on Earth. We have more people locked up in prisons than all others combined.

    I see a titanic shift coming which our leaders in the political realm aren’t prepared for and will get caught off guard. The whole concept of work your asses off all your life so you can retire and enjoy life is about to end whether the Oligarchs like it or not. The shifts coming are from the working class versus the self-appointed “leaders.” It will be interesting to see how the political landscape changes as a result.

  4. “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.”

    Happiness is a matter of public policy. Sheila, thank you for the “thank God it’s Friday” post!

  5. My father pummeled me with, “Work hard while you’re young so you can retire and enjoy life when you’re old.” When I was about sixteen, I pushed back with “I want to retire and enjoy life A LITTLE BIT EVERY Day.” That became serious argument that went on for decades and presaged the current issue. Dad did retire but without ever taking up a hobby, or any other interest, so his retirement was more or less as a dead man walking. I retired a little every day, as I planned, and when I retired I had to learn how to live on a mere $680 a month, which I did. Yet, I was still happy… At least I could still work at things I liked to do, such as writing novels, from which royalties now enable me to live pretty high on the hog. Funny how things work out (sometimes) despite intent, plans, and policy. TO BE HAPPY ONE MUST BE WILLING TO BE HAPPY EVEN WITH UNHAPPY INTERVALS. What happens to one’s happiness when their misery is, or seems, unending, or when their privilege and fortune seems eternal, is another matter and out of the equation dealt with here.

  6. JoAnn – Good thoughts but Trump is a sociopath and they’re only happy when they perceive that they’ve triumphed over someone in their zero-sum world-view.

    I’ve sometimes been described as negative or a pessimist. I don’t think this necessarily tracks with unhappiness. My neighbor’s son-in-law, whose family visits the lake home next door often and with whom I’ve become friends despite our 30-year age difference, spoke about this very recently.

    He simply said: “We see everything”. Being observant, curious, and having a good perception of risks and potential outcomes can be a burden. Sometimes I wish I was more like my friend’ father-in-law who is a retired surgeon and a classic “absent-minded professor” type. He sees nothing and seems to be quite happy – until something bad happens and he is caught off guard and totally unprepared for the consequences.

    I think I’m happier knowing what’s going on.

  7. For many today, sadly, happiness is having a personal “brand”, the ultimate capitalist psychosis, Starbucks makes a nice example (from NY Times story):

    Orders are not barked out by number as they are at other fast-food chains but rather are announced by name, suggesting customers are friends or part of the Starbucks club, said Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University and author of “Everything but the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks.”

    “Starbucks did something remarkable: taking a really ordinary product, coffee, and remaking it as an identifier of class, of culture, of discernment and of knowledge,” Mr. Simon said. “Starbucks is a way to communicate something about yourself to other people. While it has become more complicated over time, that drink still says: ‘I deserve a break in my life. I can afford to waste money on coffee.’”

    If it isn’t coffee, it is how much/what kind of exercise, music sub-genre, etc.

    In some ways, the poor are happier, not having to burden themselves with self-glorification and gaining happiness from sunshine, family and love.

  8. My Dad, who had ample reasons to be unhappy, looked at it this way: “It doesn’t take any more wind to whistle that it does to whine, so why not whistle?”

  9. I have heard that happiness is an inside job. I often wish I was a more optimistic person but nursing and Buddhism have made me a realist. I had my existential “mid-life” crisis at age 21 because we nurses face death and mortality early on.

    Staying in the present as opposed to spending time in the past or the future is part of my happiness practice.

    Any day that I get to practice a simple act of kindness with someone is a day where the light breaks through. It really lifts my spirit. It does not take a lot for me to enjoy life. All I need is a good book, dinner with friends, writing a new song or singing, my cat on my lap, or learning something new.

    Because I grew up in small rural towns, I learned to enjoy the simple pleasures in life. I I got to spend a lot of time with my grandparents in my early childhood. My grandparents lived through both world wars and the Great Depression. They taught me how to simply sit and enjoy life. The Danes have a joyful practice called Hygge which you can learn about on You Tube.

    There are lots of recipes for happiness. We each have to find a recipe that works for us. Hopefully our recipes do not involve harming others or ourselves.

  10. I am in askance with the criteria for measuring the Happiness Index, but even so and with all such “measurements” laid out, I note that poor people are frequently “happy” even though poor. I consider (and I know the dangers of self-diagnosis as the uncle of three MDs) myself to be relatively happy though old and having lived dirt poor through the Great Depression and WW II, a war in which I served. I am now not dirt poor but feel no “happier” than I did during the Depression. Why? Beats me and (I suspect) those who established the criteria for the index. I think we are into the realm of individual differences, i. e., different stimuli elicits varying responses.

    Let’s just be as happy as we can be with things the way they are. Uh. . .

  11. JoAnn, I don’t think Trump was happy, as you suggest, but gleeful.
    Peggy, I love that. The Buddha would, too, probably.
    Lester, I was already thinking of the song from Porgy and Bess, “I Got Plenty of Nothing.”
    Gerald/Robin: The Buddha said that the source of suffering (we can call that a form of unhappiness) is the “…craving for things to be different,” than they are.

    I had a pretty horrid start in life, with one parent dead before I was 5, and the other then hospitalized until MS took him just after I turned 10. I consider myself the luckiest orphan this side of the west coast (I’m on the east coast) because I had wonderful maternal g’parents take me in. I’ve been retired for 2 years, this month, am involved with people and hobbies that have become purpose, and am happy…when I’m not thinking of Trump and the QOP, whose purpose seems to be making “others” of any sort, unhappy. There is, reportedly a “set point” for happiness, or comfort, with one’s life, which, by definition must be rather genetic, from which people do not vary by much, over the long haul. Research has found that, for example, even people who become wheel-chair bound because they’ve lost both legs, return to their “set point” after not a great while.
    Public policy, on the other hand, I do expect, can go a long way towards preventing suffering, and those countries that have caring public policy, I will bet, do not have it by accident, but by, if you will, those countries DNA.

  12. Mitch,

    Believe you are RIGHT ON. On my travels to Au/Nz, I was struck by the “mate” culture – people proudly talk about it. It is evident in fascinating ways, one that amazed me was that people speed or drive recklessly. Contrast that with fairly clear evidence of ours, ME rather than WE.

  13. I am reminded of “the happiest man in America” based on the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index back in 2011. They listed several parameters and found that the “happiest man” was:

    A tall, Asian-American, observant Jew who is at least 65 and married, has children, lives in Hawaii, runs his own business and has a household income of more than $120,000 a year.

    I guess I am out of luck – I can’t become tall or Asian-American, and I don’t think I am going to start a business now, nor move to Hawaii.

    By the way – some news organizations found him – Alvin Wong – he thought it was pretty funny.

    All in all, I agree – money doesn’t buy happiness, but lack of it can really get in the way. If I recall, a few years back, anything beyond about $75K/year no longer increased happiness (I believe this was self-reported) — ashamed we can’t convince the 1% and the Republicans of that.

  14. Thank you Larry Kaiser for your account of your life experiences pertaining to happiness. Your dad probably didn’t know that ignoring or suppressing his gifts and talents would cause them to wither to the point that when he was old and financially comfortable, the impetus for persuing his interests would be nigh nil.
    I love drawing and writing, but I married a high maintenance man and had four children. The children are still a joy, but I devoted my precious life to fulfilling the (now ex) husbands exacting requirements. All that is just to say I ignored the desire to draw, and to my distress, am having a helluva time trying to get it up and going again. (I enjoy good health and energy.)
    You are so right on. I did not anticipate that what I believed would always be there could wither.
    And yes, like Joann said, although happy now, there were 27 years of needs not met and tenuous, sporadic happiness with loved ones. Fortunately, the worst didn’t happen and my bridge to the future made it to the other side. Now if only I can make art on this side.

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