Comment: The British search for happiness

By Stefan Simanowitz

As the longest wettest summer in living memory was transformed this week by blue skies and back-to-back sunshine, the mood of the nation lifted dramatically. But despite this empirically observed but scientifically unproven connection, the weather is not one of the ten key indicators in the Office of National Statistics 'happiness index' published on Tuesday.

If sunshine were a factor in happiness that would help to explain why, according to last year's global barometer of hope and despair 2011, which polled 64,000 people in 53 countries, Nigeria is the happiest nation on the planet. Whilst polls like these are great fun – scrolling down to find where different nations sit in the happiness league and having a chuckle at the expense of the one at the bottom of the table (last year it was France!) – they also raise interesting philosophical and cultural questions. What is happiness? Is it an absolute or relative thing? Do different cultures have different understandings of happiness? And how does one go about measuring this most elusive and intractable of things?

The generally agreed definition of happiness is a state of mind characterised by contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy. However, human happiness is complex and varies from person to person. It cannot be explained purely in physical terms but has to take into account environmental and spiritual factors. Although happiness and pleasure may appear similar they are not the same since the satisfaction derived from gratifying a desire or appetite may give you pleasure but will not necessarily make you happy. Pleasure requires external stimulus whereas happiness originates from a different, less tangible source.

Different societies and different times will have different conceptions of happiness. In ancient times philosophers and religious thinkers defined happiness in terms of 'living a good life' whereas eastern philosophy tends to see happiness as the reduction of suffering. In modern western societies there has become something of an obsession with happiness and indeed, America's Declaration of Independence upon which the nation is founded demands "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

In Western societies there has been a tendency to link happiness and prosperity, and although most people will agree that "you can't buy happiness", they will persist in the belief that greater wealth will make them happier. Numerous studies have shown that an increase in income may indeed result in a short-term increase of happiness, but this increase will not last. These studies have revealed a paradox which suggests that rather than produce greater happiness increased wealth can have the opposite effect. This may seem baffling to most of us who are struggling to get increase profits or get that raise but it is something that Eastern tradition has acknowledged for centuries. It is summed up succinctly in a Buddhist proverb: "No food, one problem. Much money, many problems."

As well as sunshine another element in the Nigerian secret of happiness centres on family and community. In Nigeria the communal way of living is at the heart of daily life and family extends beyond the nuclear family to involve all relatives. In western societies families have become increasingly separated as people live more atomised lives, living in big cities and separated by greater physical distances and self-constructed barriers. Many westerners grow up without a large external family surrounding them and for many even occasional family gatherings such as Christmas, become an ordeal. As the comedian George Burns once quipped, "Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family… in another city."

The ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus claimed that the only path to happiness is to cease worrying about things which are beyond our power to change. This is not to say that people should not strive to make things better, but that they should not worry too much if they do not succeed.

Former US president Roosevelt once described happiness as "the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort" and in western societies people have become so focused on achievement that they sometimes lose sight of their limitations. A good example of different national psyches came in the 2010 World Cup. When their sides crashed out in the early rounds of the cup miserable English, French and Italian fans flocked to South African airports to catch early flights back home. Their countries went into a state of national mourning. In contrast, despite the being disappointed that the Super Eagles did not progress further, Nigerian fans quickly switched their allegiance to the Ghanaian team and carried on having the time of their lives.

Whilst the onset of hot weather and the start of the Olympic Games might give us a much needed boost of joy, we can rest assured that even if the rains return and Team GB fails to win a single medal, the stoical people of Britain will still be able to muster a smile at themselves and continue their elusive search for happiness.

Stefan Simanowitz is a writer, journalist and broadcaster. He has written for national and international newspapers and magazines including the Independent, Guardian, Financial Times, Washington Times, Lancet and the Economist.

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