Happiness defies explanation but is a critical condition

Probably everybody will agree that the more happiness in the world, the better. But can it be measured? This is the question Peter Singer, philosopher and professor of bioethics at Princeton, asks in a recent article reprinted on the opinion page of a recent Sunday edition of La Nacion The answer to his question in title of his article, “Can We Increase Gross National Happiness?” appears to be not at the moment. The world seems to be a pretty unhappy place today, mainly because of economics, but also wars and natural disasters exacerbated by corrupt governments and archaic beliefs.

But in the tiny country of Bhutan, nestled between Bangladesh and Tibet, the government (a monarchy) is interested in making its people happy and trying to figure out what makes for happiness. They seem to be doing all the wrong things to achieve their goal, like making visas difficult for foreigners so outsiders cannot influence them, nor are they part of the global trade network, and they have just banned the sale of tobacco in the entire country. Non smokers will be happy, but . . . .

Ever since they headed west, Americans in the United States have valued rugged individualism so a lot of thinking and writing about happiness stresses that it is a person’s attitude (i.e. positive) that makes one happy, not outside conditions. In short, you make your own happiness, just like you make your own way in the world. Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, “Bright-sided,” makes it clear she is not a fan of positivism and points out that it has been co-opted by companies that have laid off people and want their workers to do more for less and be happy about it. Rugged individualism, combined with positive thinking and religious fervor has become a panacea for many in the U.S.

Elsewhere happiness is measured by what are considered objective criteria, like health and income, and job satisfaction, participation in cultural and other activities. The more affluent countries that are social democracies generally rate high when these factors are considered. Some researchers try to measure it by adding up the good things that have happened to a person in his lifetime and subtracting the bad.

Literature has not been enamored with the subject of happiness, except as an ending or final reward (unless it’s an opera and then death is the favored outcome). There are many quotes to be found in Bartlett’s on the subject of happiness. They often don’t agree.

Philosopher Singer makes the argument that happiness cannot be measured scientifically or statistically, maybe not even subjectively. But the Bhutan government is serious about the subject, because he adds, “last July, the U.N. General Assembly passed, without dissent, a Bhutanese-initiated resolution recognizing the pursuit of happiness as a fundamental human goal, noting that this goal is not reflected in GDP.” He ends hoping that more governments will direct their policies toward enhancing well-being and happiness and Bhutan’s idea will become global.

The concept is not new. Thomas Jefferson included the pursuit of happiness as an unalienable right in his Declaration of Independence. It is in the constitution of Massachusetts, and Franklin Roosevelt mentioned it when he was comparing liberals with conservatives. I am sure it can be found in other government proclamations.

Personally, I think happiness is the absence of fear. Like recently, my Internet has been down for days, and I felt helpless and greatly fear that one of these days not far in the future, humans will become the robots trained to push the proper buttons so computers can run the world. Other times in my life I have decided that happiness was the absence of pain.

My favorite take on the subject is “The Happy Prince,” a short story by Oscar Wilde. It deals not only with happiness but with other emotions common to humans and even swallows. Some may think it is a childish fairy tale, but I think Wilde encapsulates the foibles of people in his stories and plays. No matter how many times I have read “The Happy Prince,” I cannot do so without shedding a tear, although I might leave out the ending.

I recommend it to fellow skeptics. You can find it by clicking www.online-literature.com/wilde.

Meanwhile, Pura Vida, as they say in this usually happy little country.

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