Going Beyond Happiness and Meaning in Life
Two recent surveys suggest that Americans are becoming more unhappy with each passing year. The 2019 World Happiness Report says that the U.S. is ranked 19th in happiness, a decline from previous surveys. A General Social Survey ranks public opinion by country from “1” (not too happy) to “3” (very happy). Americans on average give themselves a 2.18 – just slightly above “pretty happy”, a decline from the peak of the early 1990s. Should we be concerned about the decline of happiness? What are the root causes of unhappiness? What, if anything, can be done about the low ranking?
Before I tackle these issues, it’s worth noting that people in Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and Sweden are the happiest. Why are citizens of the Nordic countries so happy? It appears the answer lies in the ability of each country to provide resources to those in need making all happier; the attention paid to social-welfare issues in these countries; and caring about the environment.
Americans are less happy for many reasons. Here are a few:
- Pressure placed on high school students to get good grades, take advanced placement courses to get into prestigious universities, being active in school government to show commitment, and being involved in team sports to show the ability to get along with others..
- Turning to drugs to enhance one’s memory, increase focus, and be more successful in college – things done by high schoolers and college students who are high achievers.
- Using drugs that cause addiction and dependence including amphetamines that stimulate the central nervous system by releasing dopamine that produces a sense of well-being but can lead to psychological problems.
- Dependence on opioids like Vicodin and Oxycontin that can cause addiction and the need for more and more to get the same fleeting effects of well-being.
- Bullying and cyberbullying that harm one’s sense of self-worth and can lead to suicidal ideation.
- Social media interactions where some people make offensive comments and criticize another person thereby harming their self-esteem.
- Thinking others on social media are happier than oneself because of the image others portray in daily posts.
- A decline in happiness of those who say they are poor in part because of inadequate health care.
Economists have become more interested in happiness because of the growing realization that traditional economic measures – such as unemployment or gross domestic product – are incapable of accurately reflecting well-being. Some suggest that happiness should be a top government priority to enhance the state of human welfare.
I take issue with the notion that the government is responsible for our happiness. It implies the government should take steps to provide happiness for a diverse population, which makes no sense because most people have different beliefs about what makes them happy. Moreover, the way in which each individual pursues happiness depends on their circumstances. After all, shouldn’t we be talking about the importance of personal responsibility and being accountable for one’s actions?
My suggestions to enhance individual happiness are as follows:
- Practice being kind to others and others will be kind in return. This can be done by engaging in random acts of kindness and paying it forward.
- Think about how your actions might affect others before making decisions that may cause unhappiness for the individual and/or those directly affected by the decisions.
- Avoid the “ethical slippery slope” where telling one lie leads to another and the inevitable coverup of bad behavior.
- Volunteer in your community by helping others to achieve a greater level of well-being, which will lead to them holding you in high regard.
- Seek out a meaningful work experience by working for a purpose-driven organization with values similar to yours.
- Follow The Golden Rule: Treat others the way you wish they would treat you.
There’s a lot more I could say about happiness but let me finish up with a quote from Abraham Lincoln: “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”
If you’d like to read more about my thoughts on happiness and meaning in life please consider purchasing my new book Beyond Happiness and Meaning: Transforming Your Life Through Ethical Behavior.