Happiness is in the news again – which is a pleasant change from news of natural disasters and wars of rebellion, although also integrally related. The first piece to catch my eye was a little interview in Take Part , with Lisa Napoli, a former public radio reporter from Los Angeles. In something of a reprisal of Eat, Pray, Love , Napoli meets a handsome stranger who offers her an opportunity to volunteer with a start-up radio station in Bhutan, internationally famed as “the happiest place on earth,” as well as having some of the most stellar scenery on the planet, which might have something to do with the national level of happiness.
Napoli chronicled her experience in her aptly titled memoir, Radio Shangri-La: What I learned in Bhutan, the Happiest Kingdom on Earth (Crown 2011). As Napoli explains in her interview, ” I got to this point in life that I think everybody gets to, when they’re like, “Why am I doing this? Is that all there is? What did I make this choice for? And how come I didn’t go down that road and make that choice?” I had a really nice job by all social currency accounts, working for this public radio show. I was on the air every day. But I just felt like I was on a treadmill. I couldn’t imagine, as I was entering midlife, that I would have to do this for the rest of my life. And I couldn’t imagine a way out.”
Like Gilbert, and others who have thought happiness elusive, Napoli came to same, rather predictable conclusions people have come to since Socrates: “You have to find a way to prioritize what’s good in life.”
Most people, of course, can’t hop on a plane and hope to find perspective in exotic locales as did Napoli and Elizabeth Gilbert. But according a recent Wall Street Journal piece (Happy? Statisticians aren’t Buying It) , the majority of people polled in a variety of surveys say they are satisfied with their lives, anyway.
But even positive results aren’t enough to make some people happy! According to the Journal, “Around the world, people tend to describe themselves as happy even when they express many specific complaints and doubts about their lives or their government. Some economists say that even if a reliable happiness test could be devised, it would be risky to craft policy based on a broad metric. “ Happiness, say these gloomy researchers, is more reliably reflected in objective measurements of income, health and living conditions, and some doubt whether it’s possible to measure how happiness is affected by public policy.
Those who see the research glass as half-full, point out that the most important things in life are, in fact, subjective, and believe it’s a worthwhile enterprise to try to gauge social progress by examining social levels of happiness. The “problem” some researchers see is that “People are, by and large, fairly happy, or at least say they are when surveyed.”
Each year, the CDC Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System telephone survey reports that over 90% of respondents say they are satisfied or very satisfied with their lives. While I believe there can be a significant difference between “satisfaction” and “happiness,” it might still be hard to see why largely satisfied people could be a problem. CDC researchers say that an overwhelmingly positive response to the question of life satisfaction isn’t very helpful with respect to finding what changes to public policy might improve people’s well being. “If so many people profess to be as happy as possible,’ there is little room for improvement,” researchers fear.
I’d suggest asking more specific questions of a wider demographic. Dichotomous though it may seem, it is completely feasible to be generally happy and content with your life even while being terrifically annoyed with taxes, health care, education and social issues. Especially when, presumably, the people being interviewed actually have phones to be interviewed on, and probably have shelter, family and some sort of employment. Compared to the people we see on the streets who lack these things, we’d be foolish to say we’re not happy.
To be truly valid, a happiness survey should take to the streets and include a good cross section of the homeless and jobless. I suspect that would temper the results a bit. But I also think pollsters might find that many people who have relatively less than others, would probably also express some higher than expected level of contentment with their lives.
Happiness is relative. People who have less, often learn to make do with what they have and to find enjoyment where they can. That’s human nature. It’s what makes us persevere in spite of difficulties – putting both Gilbert and Napoli’s existentially crisis-driven globe trotting in a more superficial light.
There’s a good chance all those ordinary people professing better-than-average happiness figured out what Napoli went across the world to learn: “No place is the happiest on Earth. Unless you’re happy where you are.”
That may not necessarily be good news for social progress, but it says a lot about human resiliency and our potential to find true happiness wherever we are.