Pursuit of happiness

Happiness, according to Americans, Scots, Canadians, Japanese, Costa Ricans, Italians, etc. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

Hey, are you happy? Do you think the answer to that question has anything to do with where you live?

Yesterday’s newsletter was a long one, so let’s do something a bit more focused today.

It’s inspired by one of my daily video calls with my Understandably collaborator, Kate Sullivan (she’s based in Scotland for those who don’t know; also, I’ve nicknamed her KAOS, based on initials, pronounced, “chaos”), in which I talked about maximizing happiness when I really meant maximizing productivity.

MURPH: I wonder why those two concepts, happiness and productivity, are so closely linked in my mind.

KAOS: My supervisor here is always on my case about being a ‘productive American.’ One of these days, she says, she’s going to turn me into a happy Scot.

BOTH: “Hmmmm.”

(Then, contemplative silence on both sides of the Atlantic.)

Not long ago, I read a column by George Will, the resident neocon columnist at The Washington Post, in which he theorized:

“For Americans, the pursuit of happiness is happiness.”

It’s a line that’s stuck with me, and I’ve gone back and forth on whether it’s pithy or profound.

It’s also the second time recently that a Washington Post columnist in his 70s has written about work as a path to happiness, while conceding that he’d lucked into his job, gotten rich, and felt as if he’d never worked a day in his life.

OK Boomers. Check it out:

Richard Cohen, who retired last year: “What fools the Grahams [owners of The Washington Post during most of his tenure] were. I would have done it for nothing.”

Will, who isn’t quite retiring but sounds like it: “Under sensible pricing of labor, people should be paid the amount necessary to elicit their work. I, however, am paid to do what I would do without pay.”

That got me thinking: am I happy when I’m productive because I’m American and trained to think of work as the path to joy, or am I just plain happy when I’m productive (because I’m getting to do something I enjoy, or feeling accomplished, or whatever reason)?

I turned to The Atlas of Happiness: The Global Secrets of How to Be Happy by British-born, Danish-bred author Helen Russell, who set out to explain how 29 cultures around the world define or experience happiness.

Here’s her thoughts on several of those national cultures, from both her book and an article on Afar.com:

Canada (where the model of happiness, she says, is, “joie de vivre”)

Russell describes Canadians as being better at “joie de vivre” (“joy in life”) than the French, even though the French coined the phrase.

“It doesn’t matter how much snow is on the ground, how far they have to drive, or how packed their jazz festivals get. Their particular brand of joie de vivre says, we’re open to anything, anyone, and any weather—we’ll try it all, and we’ll make it good.” (Canadian readers, please weigh in.)

Costa Rica: Pura vida (“pure life”).

“When a Costa Rican meets you for the first time, they’ll be friendly. The second time you meet, they’re hugging you, and the third time you’re friends for life. … [Y]ou’ve got a pretty decent chance of being invited to meet someone’s grandmother.”

Italy: Dolce far niente (“the sweetness of doing nothing”).

It’s about “savoring the moment. Rather than fretting about big issues, Italians laugh at the chaos of the world and say, ‘Who cares?’ They let it wash over them and focus instead on creating moments of bliss that are within their control.”

Japan: Wabi sabi (“Simplicity” and “the beauty of age and wear.”)

“They convey the idea that happiness is achieved by accepting—and celebrating—imperfection and transience. The idea is epitomized by kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with a special lacquer dusted with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. The lacquer doesn’t hide the cracks; it calls attention to them, because the scars are what make something beautiful and valuable.”

Russia: “Azart”

“Russia is a tough, cold place, so Russians grab at happiness with both hands. There’s also a hint of suffering involved,” she adds, “the idea that you will suffer for your pleasure.”

Australia: “Fair go.”

“A phrase used to mean that everyone and everything is deserving of a reasonable chance. … Today, the right to a ‘fair go’ has been found to be Australians’ highest rated value in a survey published in Victoria’s state newspaper, The Age. A consequence of this is that Australian society aspires to be anti-hierarchical.”

Bhutan: “Gross national happiness.”

GNH is the philosophy that guides the government and people of Bhutan whereby collective happiness and well-being is measured and prioritized ahead of financial gain. Although practiced informally through Bhutanese history, the term was coined in 1972 when King Jigme Singye Wangchuck told a journalist … ‘Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product.”

At the end of the day, I could go for some more joie de vivre, and I’m all about fair go, but dolce far niente might be a bridge too far.

Wabi sabi sounds wonderful, but also the exact opposite of how American society views aging.

Still, I can look back and on any given day, like today, and say that I spent time thinking through interesting things (often with Collaborator KAOS), and that I’m blessed to say I wrote something interesting, and that I hope others might find it useful, too.

I was productive, and I’m happy about it.


Call for comments: What makes you happy? What other cultures’ definitions of happiness have made emotional sense to you? And if you’re American, what do you think? Is our happiness linked so closely to the pursuit?

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Thanks for reading, as always. Photo credits: Well, me. Hi! Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.