Do You Feel Happy? How About Now?

Smile! It's Contagious by Daniel Y. Go via Flickr.

Smile! It’s Contagious by Daniel Y. Go via Flickr.

Well, here you have it!  The definitive list of the world’s happiest countries!  Spoiler alert: the United States didn’t make the list. (Come to think of it, we do seem to be in a cranky mood of late, just coming out of an election year and all.) Though to be fair, Disneyland isn’t on the list either, which is pretty surprising for the Happiest Place on Earth.  Our neighbor to the north, Canada, made the list.  Except for the weather, I’ve often thought I’d like to be Canadian–it’s like you get to both be American and have a figurehead monarch on your money.  Talk about prosperity!

Actually, that’s what the authors of the study used as a measure of happiness: prosperity.  It’s kind of like “happiness” is really a measure of some kind of return on investment, or ratio of effort to actualized results: “Happiness means having opportunity – to get an education, to be an entrepreneur. What’s more satisfying than having a big idea and turning it into a thriving business, knowing all the way that the harder you work, the more reward you can expect?”

The folks at the Legatum Institute compiled the list so the people in the less happy countries (read: the less prosperous) might have a benchmark to aim for.  If everyone could be like Western nations, the world would be a lot happier.  On the surface, that doesn’t look so bad, right?  If you ask me, the countries on that list have a lot going for them.

Except not everyone agrees that prosperity automatically equals true happiness (surprise, surprise!).  Reflecting on Viktor Frankl’s observation that “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness,” Emily Esfahani Smith considers recent research on the psychology of happiness over at the Atlantic. This research finds that, “Happiness…is about feeling good. Specifically, the researchers found that people who are happy tend to think that life is easy, they are in good physical health, and they are able to buy the things that they need and want.”  But this kind of happiness is fluid, and can be lost when the return is diminished.

Humanity, though, distinguishes itself not by the pursuit of happiness, but by the pursuit of meaning – something Frankl understood well.  Meaning is about the pursuit of something larger than oneself, something that transcends immediate needs and desires.  Meaning is about giving, rather than taking.  Meaning endures, because it’s not just interested in the here and now, but the past and the future as well.  The pursuit of meaning might even reduce happiness, but “Happiness without meaning characterizes a relatively shallow, self-absorbed or even selfish life.”

And though it won’t keep me from aspiring to be Chaplain at the Happiest Place on Earth, all this means that meaning, happiness, and prosperity probably don’t intersect in front of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle. Or, for that matter, in Norway.