March 26, 2023

One of my favorite 3-year-olds recently asked his mother: “Are you happy, Mommy?” There is so much to like about this question: the child’s ability to initiate a conversation, his concern for his mother’s wellbeing and, especially, his familiarity with the concept of happiness. I’ve been thinking about this incident since I overheard it.
What is happiness? Is it an emotion, a state of being, or maybe some sort of psychological or neurological phenomenon? Could it be fundamentally genetic, environmental, demographic or perhaps a response to changing conditions? Is an individual’s happiness related to their level of income? Do you need other people in order to achieve happiness or can you acquire it on your own? 
So many big questions prompted by such a small child.
Happiness has been the subject of theological and philosophical speculation for millennia. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt (“The Happiness Hypothesis,” 2006) summarizes a basic idea derived from varied ancient sources. “Happiness,” these traditions say, “comes from within, and it cannot be found by making the world conform to your desires.”
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Empirical research has been conducted on many aspects of happiness. British labor economist Richard Layard — a scholar who has written extensively on happiness and its relationship to wellbeing and mental health — says happiness means “feeling good — enjoying life and wanting the feeling to be maintained” (“Happiness,” 2005) In contrast, unhappiness is “feeling bad and wishing things were different.” That seems right to me.
Lots of things can affect where we find ourselves at any given moment on that continuum between happiness and unhappiness. Different factors can land us in different places. I find that being with friends increases my happiness compared to most other things I do. Earlier this week, we spent time with old friends from away whom we don’t see very often. I had looked forward to this visit for weeks and every time I thought about it, I was happy. 
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Being with them was even better and reflecting back on it almost as good as anticipating it. 
Clearly, the wider world can affect people’s experience of happiness. We know from the annual survey of happiness (see “World Happiness Report,” 2022) that populations are not uniformly happy across the globe. “The experiences of balance, peace, and calm,” the Report states “are more prevalent in Western countries, which also experience the highest levels of satisfaction – and they are less prevalent in poorer countries…” 
The happiest countries in the world in recent years have been Finland, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland. Bringing up the rear is Afghanistan; is it any wonder? 
Ukraine was not surveyed this year, or it well might have been last. The United States ranked 16th (out of 145 countries).  
It is easy to imagine that COVID might have affected these recent rankings as did nations’ responses to it. The report says: “Countries where people trusted their governments and each other experienced lower COVID-19 death tolls and set the stage for maintaining or rebuilding a sense of common purpose to deliver happier, healthier and more sustainable lives.”
More broadly, in a world where infectious diseases are pandemic, where politics and public life are corrupted and corrosive, where war (or civil war) is playing out, happiness can be hard to come by. 
It is no simple thing to forget your troubles and just get happy. But I suspect that happiness bubbles to the surface most often when you are doing something other than pursuing it.  
This seems at odds with America’s current material culture; out of synch with a society where so much energy is spent on the hot pursuit of happiness. We act as if we can create happiness with our devices and possessions, our social media, our activities and our frantic amusements. We tend toward complexity when it is simplicity that is necessary for real happiness.
It turns out that looking at the face of a 3-year-old who is asking about his mother’s happiness, can be a source of happiness not only for the mother but for others as well. Most often, happiness just happens.
“Happiness is like a butterfly,” Thoreau is reported to have said. “The more you chase it, the more it will elude you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” The elusive butterfly of happiness image is a good one.
“Are you happy?” He asked. “How could I not be,” she said.
Ron McAllister is a sociologist and writer who lives in York. 


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