During my travels over the last few years and to prepare for my project, ‘Buying Happiness Around the World’, I have been asking people from different parts of the world what happiness means to them and what made them happy. I wanted to learn if there was a consistency across the globe in what happiness was and if we all found happiness in the same things.
And what I learned surprised me.
In answer to my question, “what is happiness?” most people, regardless of nationality, begin by listing what makes them happy; friends, good health, great job, traveling etc. But what is happiness? This is where we differ.
Having lived largely in North America most of my adult life, I had gathered a particular interpretation of what happiness is. Happiness is something to be pursued. It’s a feeling of elation when you get what you want. According to countless self-help gurus, happiness is an elevated state of being.
What Does The Rest of The World Think?
When I asked a group of German women what happiness was, the first response was, “You Americans are obsessed with happiness. In Germany, no one thinks about happiness, let alone ask questions about it.”
The Germans were not unique. One thing I have learned about happiness is that most people around the world rarely discussed it or consciously pursued it.
The Global Happiness Index
I posed the same question to a group of Danish friends: what is happiness? The response I got was, “Happiness is feeling good.”
When I asked them why The Global Happiness Index listed them as one of the happiest countries in the world, one lady insightfully responded with, “our expectations on what makes us happy differs from Americans.”
“And what is that?” I asked. She said that in Denmark, feeling content is happiness. And what made them happy? Having a job, and access to health care, education, and equality.
The Pursuit of Happiness
In North America, we appear to actively pursue happiness and have different expectations on what we need to make us happy. The large house, two cars, high income, and freedom, of course. Happiness is getting what we want. And living the life we want.
What do the Brits think about happiness? The refrain I heard was “Happiness is a choice.” I posed the question to philosophical Greeks whom I have spent my last five summers with, and the answer I consistently got was, “happiness is just being.”
What Makes You Happy?
And what makes Greeks happy? It was a resounding, “Family and community.” I posed the same questions to Singaporeans, and they looked at me like I was from another planet. “Happiness? What happiness? Whose got time to think about this?” The response was consistent with the Gallup Poll findings in 2012 rating Singaporeans as “the most stoic society.”
Lessons About Happiness From My Travels:
- It is much easier to know how happiness feels, than it is to describe it.
- Happiness is about managing expectations. The fewer wants, the happier we are.
- Happiness is sharing our time and resources with family, friends, and our community.
- Happiness is in the small things. Discovering great coffee in a new city or stumbling upon kindness shown by strangers.
- Happiness is a sense of belonging – connecting with people.
- Happiness is adventure. Science has shown that novelty increases our feelings of happiness.
Happiness is Flow
What is happiness? In my interviews with people from around the world, the one response that resonated with me was from an Austrian message therapist who said, “happiness is about flow. As far as I was concerned, she nailed it. Happiness is about feeling a sense of flow. And what is flow? Flow is an allowing of life to unfold without resistance. And resting in the unfolding. I think of a river flowing down a stream.
The river is not without rocks, but it appears to flow around the rocks. Happiness is not the absence of difficult or negative emotions. Happiness is an inside job. Everything else is pure ‘gravy.’ Is happiness conditional? Are you happy only when things appear to be working out for you? What makes you happy?
I have to admit; I did not travel to poor countries around the world to look for answers on happiness. Which leads me to my next question, can money buy happiness?
Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun
Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany one rainy afternoon in the unlikeliest of places: a city bus. “The days are long, but the years are short,” she realized. “Time is passing, and I’m not focusing enough on the things that really matter.” In that moment, she decided to dedicate a year to her happiness project.
In this lively and compelling account of that year, Rubin carves out her place alongside the authors of best-selling memoirs such as Julie and Julia, The Year of Living Biblically, and Eat, Pray, Love. With humor and insight, she chronicles her adventures during the 12 months she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific research, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier.