Watching nature documentaries makes people happy. Norway is the happiest country in the world. Ghent University sets up a special programme to study health and happiness. Spring starts: get ready for the happy home challenge. Being vegan is the key to being happy. These are just a few headlines I have seen items that deal with happiness. Once you notice it, you cannot stop noticing it: if it is not about terror, tragedy or sports, the news is strikingly often about happiness. Are we too obsessed with it?
Politics of happiness
Happiness not only features prominently in the newspapers, it is also omnipresent in many academic fields. Psychology, philosophy, sociology, neuroscience; there is hardly a discipline of the mind in which happiness is not a key research topic. In politics too there seems to be a growing interest in studying happiness and the ways to promote it. Last year, the Quality of Life Flash Eurobarometer was published, a large-scale research project conducted at the request of the European Commission, to measure the levels of satisfaction in major European cities. In order to do so, thousands of people were asked to which extent they were happy about the infrastructure, facilities, public transport, job market, environment, health care, etc. of the cities they live in.
Scandinavian cities (including Aalborg, Copenhagen and Malmö) dominate the top-10. Antwerp is the only Belgian city that made the top-20, whereas Brussels performs quite average, or even below average. When you ask the inhabitants of the 28 capitals of the European Union member states whether they are happy to live in the city they live in, Brussels ends up 22nd. When you ask them whether they are satisfied with their life in general, Brussels ends up 15th. Brussels only made the top three when inquired about people’s levels of satisfaction about personal work situation and health care, but apparently having a good job and good health care are not sufficient conditions to guarantee the overall happiness of our lives.
It’s no exaggeration to say that our culture is quite obsessed by it and nothing seems more important to us than being happy. Obsessions however are rarely helpful in achieving the things we long for. Though I am often sceptical about the conclusions of psychological and neuroscientific research, I fully subscribe to the outcome of several recent research studies that show we shouldn’t try too hard to be happy in order to be so. Being grateful for what you have is more conducive to your happiness than constantly pursuing things you (think you) want to have. Ceaselessly trying to be happy is counterproductive to your happiness.
Obliged to be (un)happy
It is striking how people often expect philosophers to show them the way on the path to happiness. When people come to me to tell me they are unhappy in their lives and ask for advice, I answer them with a quote from Mark Twain: “Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.” How can one be happy, knowing that so much is going wrong in this world, when there is so much suffering and evil around us? But at the same time: don’t we – people who don’t have to endure many hardships and who have been treated relatively kind by life, and which we mainly owe to the coincidental time and place of our birth – have a moral obligation to be happy? Wouldn’t we be tremendously ungrateful by not being happy about the lives we live?
Somehow we seem to have become convinced that happiness is the ultimate purpose of our existence, but it is not. Life is not meant to be fun, and happiness is too volatile a condition to qualify as the meaning of life. It is much more important to do things that are meaningful than to do things that make you feel happy, and very often doing the things that are meaningful requires you to fully confront the fact that life is very often anything but a fairytale. It requires you to confront the misery and pain in the world, the things one cannot possibly be happy about.
Happy through helping
That might sound a bit sombre, all that focusing on the pain of others and the misery of the world. But the comforting thing is that helping others makes you happier. If you try to contribute to the well-being of others, you will also contribute to your own well-being. Hence, if you want to be happy, focus on others and not on yourself. You’ll have more chances of achieving happiness when it is the by-product and not the purpose of your actions.