Happiness is an end. It’s the culmination of a journey. It’s the sum of many pursuits. Outside forces do not pursue; actions are up to the individual. Such forces may influence pursuits, but only if one lets them. The “World Happiness Report” is an interesting compilation of data and conclusions published each year. The authors compare countries throughout the world with the “central purpose. . .to measure and use subjective well-being to track and explain the quality of lives all over the globe.” There are two flaws in the approach which demonstrate that the report really tells us nothing about happiness.
The first flaw is that the study really does not assess happiness at all. Happiness comes from within. Therefore, to study “subjective” happiness of individuals seems on point initially. However, the authors acknowledge that they really measured “well-being” which is not synonymous with happiness. Asking individuals subjective questions about well-being, trust of others and perceived security during a snapshot moment in time has almost no bearing on happiness. While some current outside influences like COVID may crush “well-being” during a fleeting moment in time for some, the same events may very well become a boon for another. One person’s inability to work is another’s opportunity to create new income streams. Further, the next extrinsic influence may come along and change everything. Happiness is not a snapshot in time, nor is it determined by extrinsic events, big or small. Happiness is a culmination of one’s actions throughout all of life’s experiences—the journey begins within.
The second flaw is a presumption that a country’s relative happiness may be presumed from subjective responses to a few categorical questions. It cannot be. There are infinite pursuits that individuals choose and infinite reasons such choices are made. Those pursuits come from foundational life choices and not temporal reactions to external influences. Only foundational and internal life influences create happiness over time. Happiness is a sum of innumerable actions. Perhaps freedom, safety, peace, wealth and other qualities of a country may be assessed by such questions. However, happiness encompasses all of these concepts and can never be quantified collectively no matter how it is studied or the manner in which surveys are performed. Happiness will always be the elusive end that it is—and thank God for that—because it keeps the unhappy from learning how to take it away!
If happiness could be determined through “subjective well-being” and “quality of life” in response to extrinsic factors like COVID, then responses in countries should be relatively homogeneous, but that is just not true. Two people from any given country, in the macro, have the same extrinsic influences—a level of freedom, ability to earn, travel, obtain food & other things, and so on. They also have infinite thoughts and innumerable reactions to events. The fact is, there will always be many “happy” people and many miserable people, even within the same city, on the same block, or in the same family. Grouping them together masks the real foundation of happiness—individual choice. Making choices based in goodness is the path to happiness over time.
The truth is that happiness cannot really be measured, but the ability to pursue it can. Pursuit is action and it requires a choice. There is only one place in the world that was founded upon, and has vowed to protect, the pursuit. America. Any time America falls below #1 on a “happiness” list, the study is not about happiness, but other things like “subjective well-being” or “quality of life.” These concepts are not happiness, they are just others’ opinions. Happiness is an end state that Aristotle essentially described as a culmination of life’s choices advancing goodness. Happiness = (action + virtue) x time. This is the equation of the pursuit. Keep pursuing, keep adding to your end sum, and when you’re done, you will have been happy.