Measuring happiness across the world

Last week the census came out, begetting the usual flurry of analysis. But I was more intrigued by an Ipsos worldwide survey on happiness, which they've been "tracking" since 2007. So I'll focus on that. To each his own stats.

Of 24 countries, the happiest, by far, were Indonesia (51 per cent), India and Mexico (both 43 per cent). Yet they're much poorer and less developed than sadder, richer places like Canada, the U.S. and the U.K., all in the 20s, or Russia, Hungary and South Korea, in single digits. Why this division? Could it be that:

- If you feel happiness is your right, you're bound to be unhappy. That's because, as Blake said, "Man is made for joy and woe/And when this we rightly know/ Through the world we safely go." Yet that obvious truth is hard to hang onto, for some reason, in societies like ours. It runs against the sense of entitlement in familiar phrases like, I have a right -- or I deserve -- to be happy. Even the U.S. Declaration of Independence doesn't declare a right to happiness; only the right to pursue it. Life and liberty, by contrast, get full rights status.

Consumerism and advertising play a role in constructing this sense of entitlement. If things can make you happy, maybe you just don't have enough of them yet. (I like things, by the way, and they make me happy. But man is still made for joy and woe.) You never see people's faces fall when they get that car or diamond in ads, though it might be socially hygienic if they did. There are countless ads in Delhi and Jakarta, too, but it's harder to maintain illusions about unalloyed happiness there. Even if you're doing fine, the sights you see as soon as you leave the house will remind you of the unavoidable mix.

I fear this sounds greeting-cardy but that's also a factor. The Blake quote is more in the category of wisdom than knowledge. Societies like ours are structured technologically to deal with knowledge -- it's what the Internet is great for, as TV, radio and print were before it. We're not as good at wisdom. It accrues where life slows down and circles around. It thrives in varieties of the Oral Tradition, of which there are remnants in less developed nations. You get information on the Internet. You find wisdom in calmer settings where village elders might still be revered: not because they're smarter but because the way they operate -- sitting, listening, pausing -- manoeuvres them in that direction.

- In teeming, impoverished societies, great drive and passion are often needed simply to survive. Otherwise you'd be swept away. With that comes some raw creativity. So those places feel energized and a byproduct of energy is a sense of vitality, which would be my preferred definition of happiness: You're alive, not deadened, and it's exhilarating. That's compatible with, and even sometimes depends on, the accompanying misery, poverty and stress. It's hard to disentangle the desperation from the vitality you feel in those places.

In Stan Rogers' great Song of the Candle, he finds a priest (who's nervous) and asks, Is some happiness my right? The priest replies, using the same term Blake did: Rather seek you joy -- you could think of joy as a highly transient form of happiness, akin to a surge of vitality, but always ready to make way for woe.

It's interesting that the Ipsos survey appears in the first issue ever of What Makes You Happy magazine. You find it exclusively in the Globe and Mail where it claims to reach "Canada's most educated, successful and engaged readers." It's "reverse engineered," says the website, to be "of interest and value to this demographic."

In other words, it's a marketing vehicle targeted to affluent, self-absorbed spenders, exactly the demographic unlikely to get happy big time because they'll never be able to own enough to fill the created need, because they don't quite get the inevitable Blakean mix, and unlike the folks sleeping on the medians in India or scrambling down from the hills around Mexico City to spend another day straining to survive, they find that surge of vitality elusive.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

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