We've even turned happiness into an international competition in which Canada, by the way, fares relatively well, usually placing in the top third in international comparisons -- often ahead of our wealthier neighbour to the south. What's more, many industrialized nations -- Canada very much among them -- are now exploring a concept first introduced in 1972 by the king of Bhutan: the GNH, or Gross National Happiness index. The Atkinson Charitable Foundation in Toronto has given $1.5 million to a high-profile group of academics and government officials to come up with a specific Canadian index of well-being that would measure such intangibles as the work-life balance. The group includes such luminaries as former health care commissioner Roy Romanow, economist Judith Maxwell and happiness guru Alex Michalos of the University of Northern B.C., and it asks: why measure a nation's well-being simply by what it produces or exports when you can also add in the contentment factor?
Despite all this activity -- maybe because of it -- don't you just want to give the sad sacks of the world a great big hug? To thank them for hanging in there, ignoring all the brouhaha, and carrying on with their moaning and groaning. Sure, some scientists suggest that happy people live longer, but it's the grumps among us who are doing their bit to perfect the species -- if it weren't for the unhappy, one influential evolutionary theory suggests, Homo sapiens could have gone the way of the dodo.
Alas, the makers and shakers of happiness are hard to keep down. Ever since the exuberant Martin Seligman took over the reins of the American Psychological Association in 1998, proclaiming it the Year of the Happy, this most positive, pervasive and elusive of emotions has moved to the front line of academic and clinical consideration.
Everywhere you look these days it seems science is taking happiness's measure. Researchers are examining people's state of mind through surveys, lifespan and other health statistics. High-tech keeners are using brain-imaging techniques like MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) to peer inside the minds of depressives, meditating monks, even tiny babies to chart what happens when their moms leave the room and then come back again. The most recent tools are hand-held computerized mood sensors and two-way devices like BlackBerries. John Zelenski is a young psychology prof at Carleton University in Ottawa who just received almost $200,000 from the Canada Foundation for Innovation to set up a "happiness lab" on campus. Until now, Zelenski has mostly gathered his information by having respondents fill out diaries detailing their activities and mood swings. In the future, he is hoping to lend out PDAs (personal digital assistants) to his survey group so he can email them in the midst of an unguarded moment and ask: "Are you happy now?"
The result of all this probing? Such truisms as: money can't buy happiness but doing good deeds lifts the spirit; vying for status and beauty boosts your happiness quotient only temporarily (except, it seems, for women who get breast implants -- they're likely to stay pretty happy -- according to one study); and maintaining a network of friends plants you firmly on the bright side of life.
Isn't it curious, though, that so much of what science has "discovered" we've heard before? If not from our rabbi, imam or pastor, then from a no-nonsense grandma. But say we stopped asking what we, as individuals, can do to be happy? What if, instead, we asked how does happiness work for us? That's something Gran probably didn't think much about. Rather than finding the path to feeling good, some of the more original research in this felicitous field is now grappling with the role the pursuit of happiness plays in our survival as a species.
The irony is, in stepping back from the therapy model and declining to play Dr. Feel-Good, these researchers may be laying the groundwork for a greater overall sense of well-being. The key to individual happiness, in other words, could be in understanding precisely what we can't expect from it.
I can't get no satisfaction
'Cause I try and I try and I try and I try
I can't get no, I can't get no . . .
From an evolutionary point of view, Mick Jagger's thwarted ambitions shouldn't bother us too much. According to psychologist Daniel Nettle from the University of Newcastle, frustration -- not satisfaction -- is the modus operandi of our Darwinian struggle, making us the fools on the great stage of evolution. Humans are designed, insists Nettle, to strive for things that won't necessarily make us happy, in the poignant belief that they will. "We come to the world believing that there is such a thing as achievable happiness, that it is desirable and important, and that the things that we desire will bring it about," he writes in Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile (Oxford University Press). "It is not self-evident that any of these are actually true."
Nettle unpacks the concept of happiness by identifying what he calls its three levels: visceral sensations of joy; feelings of satisfaction; and judgments about the overall quality of life. The first two, the subjects of his book, are by nature transitory (the latter, he argues, is less a matter of psychology than ethics and politics). Intense pleasure, in fact, is biologically fleeting -- and needs to be so we can turn our attention back to the things that matter such as the rent cheque, the crying baby or, in ancient times when emotions were forged, the imminent attack of a sabre-toothed tiger. Worry is what colonizes the mind.
Even a boost to our general sense of well-being, says Nettle, fades away in relatively short order. He cites a study in which Americans were asked to indicate which major consumer goods -- house, car, TVs, travel, swimming pool and so on -- they already owned -- and then to draw up a list of those they would include in their ideal of the good life. When the survey was repeated 16 years later, respondents went from owning, on average, 1.7 to 3.1 of the listed items. But as their wealth expanded, so did their desires. At the end of the study, "they were still," he writes, "two items short of where they wanted to be, just as they had been at the beginning."
Like the song says, we try and we try and we try but, for the most part, we don't get any happier. It's as if we are on a hedonic treadmill, as some researchers have called it. So the bigger house? The second car? That long-awaited vacation abroad? Sure, life will probably get a little easier, more comfortable, more fascinating or exciting. But will you be happier? Not for long, it seems -- six months, maybe a year. "You just get used to it," Nettle says in an interview. People "readjust to the baseline and forget what it was like before. Then they start cursing that they don't have that second garage, or whatever."
This process, which experts call adaptation, goes a long way to explaining why, despite the growth in income and possessions, happiness levels, as measured by the U.S. National Opinion Research Center, haven't budged in 50 years (a third of Americans were "very happy" in 1955 and are so now). At the same time, international comparisons suggest that the wealthy West doesn't have a monopoly on good cheer. According to the World Values Survey, devised by an international network of social scientists, Canadians and Americans register 8.5 and 9 respectively on a 10-point scale. But poorer and violence-prone countries such as Colombia and Puerto Rico are neck-and-neck with us. They are even a bit ahead of prosperous nations such as Japan, Italy and Spain. Eastern Europe, meanwhile, dominates the other end of the scale, with Moldova, the Ukraine and Belarus pulling up the grumpy rear.
On the evolutionary front, it may well be the unhappy we have to thank. Survival of the fittest meant that the successful reproducers among our ancestors learned to envy their even more successful neighbours. This is not to say people are inherently greedy or avaricious, Nettle argues: in some societies generosity was valued above all, in others it was cunning or bravery. In our advanced capitalist society, wealth and possessions are the most obvious status symbols. What's more, everything today is magnified. "All cultures have been concerned about increasing personal happiness, but there have been harsh constraints on how much you could really do that," says Nettle. "We're so affluent now and exposed to so many media, that what would be normally a minor drive is worked up into a frenzy."
Yet we should not and cannot, in Nettle's view, give up the search for happiness. Our personalities -- whether sunny or sad -- may be largely set at birth. Scientists are now discovering personality may even correspond to distinct types of brain activity. To oversimplify, neurotics tend to be unhappy, and show greater blood flow in the right part of the brain (the intuitive, sensory side); extroverts tend to be happy, with more blood flowing through the left hemisphere (the logical, analytical side).
Recent research in Canada and elsewhere emphasizes the importance of volunteering, spending time with friends (especially those of the opposite sex), being physically active and keeping a diary. These things are more likely to bring about a felicitous state than education, youth, beauty or money on their own. Marriage and children, incidentally, are a roller-coaster ride, temporarily boosting mood only to deflate it as the stresses of family life accumulate.
Cognitive behavioural therapy, drugs, spirituality, meditation and "pleasant activities training" (a clinical term for, you guessed it, doing things you enjoy), can all be productive treatments for feeling depressed, Nettle says in his new book. None of these compare, however, to forgetting about our bid to be happy, and connecting with things that are larger than ourselves -- nature, art, literature, faith, meditation or hobbies. This is because we're caught in what Nettle calls the "hedonic paradox." In "pursuing happiness itself, one makes it more distant," he argues. "Whereas by pursuing something else, one can inadvertently bring it closer." Didn't Gran have something to say about that as well?
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