What really is happiness? Many assume that it is a temporary feeling of pleasure or joy. Philosophers, on the other hand, tend to define it as a long-term sense of well-being, flourishing and serenity. Most link happiness with some variety of positive thinking or optimism. But I have come to doubt all the conventional views, including that of positive psychologists and philosophers.
Once long ago, in the blissful ignorance of early adulthood, I lived for a time in the land of the reputedly happiest people on Earth. Yet I was totally unaware of it. The place was not exotic nor sophisticated, nor powerful, not London nor New York nor Paris nor Beijing. Rather it was a small obscure town in a small obscure country. Helsingor, Denmark was—and is—a little port town a few miles off the coast of Sweden. Yet in study after study (including the UN World Happiness Report for both 2012 & 2013) Denmark surprisingly comes out at the very top of the list of countries. I say “surprisingly” because Danes have a reputation for being civil and civilized, but rather dour, even melancholy. Shakespeare’s Hamlet was called “the melancholy Dane.” And Denmark’s greatest philosopher, Kierkegaard, created his entire philosophy around a rejection of love and marriage together with an embrace of existential despair—from which the only escape is an irrational “leap of faith.” His major work is entitled Fear and Trembling. For him happiness is a delusionary state because it entails attachment to the material level of existence, a level whose impermanence eventually causes anguish and pain. Money, pleasure, marriage, art, church, and politics all devolve into conflict, harm, and frustration, leaving us with a deep sense of “dread,” emptiness, and meaninglessness. We are, according to Kierkegaard, at sea, drifting without a map or rational ultimate goal—unless we can make an inward leap of faith to embrace a personal God. Life is strife, not happiness.
Of course most Danes are probably not strict Kierkegaardians, but they are not naive optimists either. The UN cross-cultural studies of comparative happiness asked people from many countries to what extent they were satisfied with their lives overall, on a scale from one to ten. Why have the Danes come out regularly on top with an average of 7.7 (and Togo, the lowest with an average of 2.9)? Most Danes feel relatively secure and stable with a strong social democracy: high quality universal health care, generous family leave, good public schools cost-free through college, state supported day care and public transportation, and low crime rates. And bikes, not cars, rule the cities—cars are even banned from downtown Copenhagen, creating a permanent festival of music, produce stands, coffee bars, and clusters of people actually talking to each other. Such convivial social interaction is a major factor in happiness enhancement. I saw no homelessness or beggars or dire poverty. Nor did I see any striving for bigger houses, bigger cars, and bigger refrigerators: everything was modest in size. (Research shows that constant striving for more money and more expensive material goods is a major factor in discontent and hence unhappiness.)
Other Northern European countries have similar democratic socialist leanings: Iceland, Austria, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. And they too rank in the top ten in the World Happiness Report. These countries all have high income tax in order to pay for all their social benefits. Moreover, the tax system is so progressively calibrated that it is almost impossible to become a multi-millionaire, much less a billionaire. Big incomes pay big taxes. Hence they lack the dramatic and growing gap between rich and poor that plague the US, Brazil, and Russia. Less economic inequality results in less social stress and less fragmentation because the feeling is “we are all in this together and everyone is contributing heavily to the common good.” Highly taxed countries equal highly happy countries? If corruption is low—as it is in Scandinavian countries—and tax money is used to benefit everyone, then yes. Plato was largely correct: “justice brings oneness of mind…and the just will live well…”
However, there is the “paradise paradox”: happier countries tend to have higher rates of suicide! Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden all have higher than world average suicide rates. Is it because they keep meticulous records? Is it the long winters? Or do the few unhappy people feel even worse being around so many disgustingly happy people? Keep in mind that although Denmark’s suicide rate (on average 22 out of 100,000 people per year) is double that of the USA, the Danish homicide rate is only one-tenth that of the US. So which would you rather have, a small group of sad people who kill themselves, or a large group of people trying to kill you?
Happiness defined as overall satisfaction with one’s life is to some extent dependent on what you think is possible. If your expectations are sky-high, you may be headed for frustration and disappointment. Hence lowering your expectations to realistic levels can actually raise happiness levels. One Dane put it this way: “No one in my family died this year, or came down with cancer or heart disease; no wars here or famines or natural disasters in the regions, so it’s been a great year, a happy year!” Perhaps the “secret of happiness” is not so much “follow your dream” but rather “downsize your dream to realistic levels.” A Nazi death-camp survivor, Viktor Frankl (in Man’s Search for Meaning) calls this “tragic optimism”: guilt, pain and death are all inevitable parts of life, but if in the face of this you can still affirm the larger significance of love, work and even suffering, then life is worth living and you will find joy in the struggle. Ironically, this seems to express the positive power of negative thinking. By explicitly accepting that bad things do inevitably occur—suffering, failure, death—one is not shocked into despair when they do. It is close to the ancient Stoic and Buddhist wisdom that acceptance of the inevitable is healthier than denial—and more truthful. It can inoculate us against the seductive illusion of endless accumulation of money, power, fame and status. Small is beautiful.
The Danes seem to have gone a long way in this attitude by deeply enjoying the ordinary, small events of daily life—that morning cup of coffee, laughter, conversation, a song sung with friends and concern for neighbors close and far. A farmer I talked with put it this way: “I wake up every morning thinking “‘on a normal day, three or four bad things usually happen. Then if only one or two bad things actually happen, I’m so grateful, it’s a great day! I’m happy!’”
Thus speaks the positive power of negative thinking.
Of course there is much more to Danish happiness than this. Like the other Scandinavian countries, Denmark has a tiny military budget and a large humanitarian budget for international peace and relief. Wherever you go in poor and warring countries you will find small but dedicated Scandinavian relief and educational projects. They are strong supporters of the UN, Amnesty International, and international peace, justice, and environmental organizations, thus manifesting a widespread sense of global citizenship. This feeling of global interdependence and compassion helps redirect people’s focus from narrow self-concern to a larger vision of one humanity struggling toward world community. This higher state of consciousness takes people who are secure in basic necessities beyond the obsession with self-interest, thus giving lives a larger and self-transcendent sense of purpose. And this in turn promotes a deep embodiment of meaning which is at the core of life satisfaction. Is it any accident that compassionate humanitarians like Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi are so full of ebullience, serenity and loving joy? Or that the top ten happiest countries are also rated as among the most peaceful, socially just and internationally peace-making countries in the world?
Long ago philosophers like Aristotle argued that the deepest source of stable happiness (eudemonia) was commitment to a good or virtuous life. Just aiming at an endless increase in power, money, status, fame, or pleasure, whether on the part of individuals or nations, does not really lead to harmony and meaning but to the opposite.
Only the journey toward an ethically good life, permeated with a sense of tragic optimism, passes through the land of happiness.
The Prince Albert pipe smoke swirls up and away, merging with the cool air, up into the mystery of night, into oneness, giving no answers.
Other Articles By Vincent Kavaloski
"Only The River is Real: The Mississippi and the Flow of Time"
"A Teacher of Wisdom"