What is happiness?

Headlines, News, Taking issue — By on May 25, 2017 4:31 pm

The recently-published World Happiness Report shows New Zealand ranks eighth in the world for happiness, behind Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Finland, the Netherlands and Canada. Six key variables help predict levels of happiness – GDP per capita, healthy years of life expectancy, social support, perceived lack of corruption, freedom to make life decisions, and generosity, as measured by donation levels. Helen Borne asked two of our academics for their response to the report. 

Why we should not be happy about feeling so happy

The recent World Happiness Report makes for interesting but somewhat complacent reading. It is all too easy to miss the fact that in all of the top countries, high levels of happiness are supported by high levels of long-term ecological recklessness and a widespread blindness to the inherent inequities of the global order.

The World Happiness Report would be better read alongside two related reports – the Living Planet Report and the Happy Planet Report. The first of these analyses the ecological footprint of a nation’s lifestyle and finds that all of those deemed to be happiest are enjoying life well beyond the pale of sustainable living. The second integrates each nation’s ecological footprint as a moderating factor to rank countries according to the relative efficiency with which happiness is achieved. Thus, if a country manages to produce high levels of the feeling of thriving with few resources and little pollution, it rises in the ranking. In New Zealand’s case, we fall from 8th to 38th place as the environmental price of our happiness is taken into account.

As with ignoring the ethical requirements to generate happiness in ecologically responsible ways, the World Happiness Report similarly ignores the ethical requirements of justice and equity. It is important to remember that most New Zealanders belong to the global elite in terms of our material lifestyles and that the miserable conditions endured by the billions who live in the world’s slums are maintained by our (and other happily advantaged nations) continuing to hold onto the lion’s share of the world’s bounty. Just as our happiness is bought at the expense of future generations, it is also bought at the cost of those we are willing to exclude from the benefits of an advantaged lifestyle.

In the end then, it is not only how happy a nation might be that matters but also how happy we should be with how our relative felicity is secured.

How happy ought we to be to live in a country where the major industries (both tourism and dairying) add to dangerous levels of greenhouse gases – and how happy should we be to live a nation that corners wealth in a world crying out to be included in a more humane global order?

Dr Ross McDonald is a national awardwinning teacher working in the areas of well-being, ethics and sustainability. He is a Senior Lecturer in Management and International Business at the Business School.

Is it really measuring happiness?

New Zealand being ranked as one of the top 10 nations in terms of the World Happiness Report makes me “happy”. The situation in New Zealand is very different from my country of birth, the Philippines, which tops world lists for corruption, human rights violations, journalists murdered and cataclysmic disasters. Digging deeper though, I have doubts as to how accurate this “Happiness Report” is. Is it really measuring happiness?

The World Happiness Report uses variables which are important in living a materially comfortable and safe life, but not a genuinely happy life, characterized by self-acceptance, meaning and contentment.

I know many people who are physically healthy, not wanting in comfort, material possessions and external safety but suffering internally from self-doubt, disconnection, anxiety and lack of meaning. On the other hand, I have met materially deprived people living in huts, unsure of where their next meal will come from, who are content, at peace and have a deep sense of purpose in their lives.

Last year, while travelling in Myanmar, I had a casual chat with a 14-year-old Buddhist novice. He was practising his English while I was being a nosy psychiatrist. I asked him about details of his life, his worries as well as his dreams. Throughout the chat, he exuded this aura of warmth, peace and openness. He said that he was very content and thankful for what he has (two sets of robes, toiletries, jandals, study materials and a cracked cell phone). I pushed him to tell me if he wanted anything else in his life. I even asked if he wants sex (Buddhist monks choose to be celibate), normal clothes or a faster internet. He kept on saying, with a smile, “Not really. I am happy”. I insisted that surely there is something else he wants in his life. Finally he gave in. I felt that I won. He said, “Oh yes, there’s one thing. I wish I can wake up earlier so that I am not late for our morning meditation”.

I would probably get a different response from a 14-year-old from Norway, Denmark, Switzerland or New Zealand.

Dr Tony Fernando is a senior lecturer in Psychological Medicine, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, and “a perpetual student”. You can listen to his meditation on gratitude through the University’s CALM (Computer Assisted Learning for the Mind) website: www.calm.auckland.ac.nz

What do you think makes you happy?

Everyone has an opinion on what happiness is and how we can be happier. The views of our academics are intended as the beginning of a discussion, which our readers can then respond to. Please visit our Ingenio website www.ingenio-magazine.com or write a letter to the editor to continue the conversation.

You can also comment on “Taking Issue” topics from previous issues, including gender inequality in the world of work and New Zealand’s response to the refugee crisis. Letters to the editor are also welcome. Please email to ingenio@auckland.ac.nz or post to Ingenio, Communications and Marketing, Private Bag 92019, Auckland Mail Centre, Auckland 1142. The views expressed above reflect personal opinions and are not those of the University of Auckland.

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