Each year the UN rates the happiest places in the world, based on such factors as freedom, generosity, lack of corruption, healthy life expectancy, and social support. Scandinavian countries usually score high: Finland currently ranks as the happiest country, followed by Norway, Denmark, and Iceland. Very poor countries and war zones such as Yemen and Syria score the lowest.
The United States, which ranks 18th of the 156 countries surveyed, has been trending downward for a decade. Although the “pursuit of happiness” is enshrined in our founding documents, there’s no guarantee that we’ll achieve the goal. The report mentions obesity, the opioid crisis, and persistent poverty as reasons for the recent decline in U.S. happiness.
A few years ago I was asked to speak on happiness in South Korea and in Hong Kong. Despite their high standard of living, both places fall toward the middle on the Happiness Index, dragged down by high rates of depression and suicide. As I explored the topic, I began to see happiness as a surprisingly elusive goal. Here are some of my observations:
True happiness must be rooted in reality. Advertisements promise that a Rolex watch will get me instant status, the right deodorant will make me irresistible, and a no-effort diet plan will transform my life. A mecca for entertainment, the U.S. offers an endless supply of video games, amusement parks, and around-the-clock streaming of music, television, and movies. For a vacation I can visit Disney World, a paradise with no litter and no graffiti, where costumed characters greet everyone with smiles and waves. Sooner or later, though, I must return to the real world of weedy lawns, potholed streets, and cranky neighbors. Artificial happiness doesn’t prepare us for the realities of life, and may even sow seeds of discontent.
Happiness may involve struggle, and even pain. You need only watch the euphoria of an Olympic marathoner, or a triathlete, to realize that peaks of happiness sometimes follow agonizing hours of exertion. As I look back on my years in Colorado, I remember many happy moments standing atop its 14,000-foot mountains. On the summits I forgot all about the hailstorms, snow fields, and scary ledges, those memories now swallowed up by the joy of a successful ascent. You can get a similar view from a chairlift ride—but, oh, what a difference.
Lin Yutang, a convert from Buddhism to Christianity, reflected on an ancient Chinese formula of thirty supreme pleasures. One by one, he went through the list: “To be dry and thirsty in a hot and dusty land and to feel great drops of rain on my bare skin—ah, is this not happiness! To have an itch in a private part of my body and finally to escape from my friends and go to a hiding place where I can scratch—ah, is this not happiness!” In each of the supreme pleasures he found pain and ecstasy inescapably mixed. Augustine said something similar: “Everywhere a greater joy is preceded by a greater suffering.”
Happiness is fleeting. “Happiness is like a cat,” wrote William Bennett. “If you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap.” We persist in thinking that fame, success, and money will guarantee happiness, even though we have many proofs to the contrary: Tiger Woods, Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Robin Williams. Happiness often recedes from those who pursue it; it comes instead as a by-product.
Loneliness fosters unhappiness. Conversely, true happiness tends to emerge as we’re involved with others. A Chinese proverb: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help someone else.”
Numerous studies have shown that people who volunteer—for example, in rescue missions, prison ministry, or tutoring programs—have better overall health and an improved sense of well-being. “Happy are the merciful…and the peacemakers,” said Jesus in the Beatitudes. The good that we do for others redounds to our own benefit.
Happiness flows from inner health, regardless of outer circumstances. Many who go on mission trips return from deeply impoverished countries amazed at the comparative happiness of the people they have come to “help.” There, social support and strong family ties help raise the level of happiness despite economic challenges.
A competitive society, the U.S. holds out the mythical promise that any child can become President, every poor person can pull themselves up by the bootstraps, any athlete can make it to the NFL or NBA. And when that dream founders, discontent or even despair sets in. High expectations lead to deep disappointment.
The New Testament sets forth another way, of inner strength. “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” The apostle Paul wrote those words, in his most joyful letter, from a prison cell.
Some of my most important lessons about inner contentment come from another prisoner, Viktor Frankl, who spent three years in a Nazi concentration camp. “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness,” he wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl concluded that the difference between those who lived and those who died reduced to one thing: meaning. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing,” he said: “the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
The Library of Congress named Man’s Search for Meaning as one of the ten most influential books of recent times. Its core message, emphasizing a commitment to something greater than the self, seems strangely at odds with our culture’s frantic pursuit of happiness. Frankl admitted as much: “it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’”
Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 40 percent of Americans do not believe their lives have a clear sense of purpose or a strong sense of what makes their lives meaningful. Frankl gives this charge: “Being human always points, and is directed, to something or someone, other than oneself—be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself—by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love—the more human he is.”
The pursuit of happiness may have been one of the motivations for founding our country. But the pursuit of meaning may guarantee its future.