By Sam Wren-Lewis, author of The Happiness Problem: Rethinking Individual Success and Societal Progress.
You may not know it, but today is the International Day of Happiness. This celebration takes place on the 20th March every year, to coincide with the Spring Equinox, and is a modern day tradition that’s been going since 2013, after its official ratification by the UN in 2012. Each year has a different theme, with this year’s theme being “Happier Together”, encouraging people to focus on “what we have in common, rather than what divides us.”
All of which seems fair enough. After all, everyone wants to be happy, right? Happiness researchers and policymakers like to point out that many of the things that make us happy are universal and don’t cost the world – simple things such as spending time with friends and loved ones, getting outside into nature and being physically active. If only we spent more time doing these kinds of ‘happifying’ activities, and less time pursuing financial success and material goods, the world would be a better, greener, healthier and happier place.
Of course, advocates of happiness also recognise that things are not this simple. There are a number of serious factors that prevent people from doing the things that make them happy. The pressures and demands of daily life are significant. We are lucky if we can find a spare 10 minutes to do some exercise or simply sit still for a while. Busyness and productivity has become the new norm. In fact, even the suggestion that we should focus more on being happier, when we have so many other things we need to do, can seem patronising or offensive.
These concerns point towards a deeper problem with the rhetoric of happiness. Predominantly, the idea of happiness centres around getting things ‘right’ – having the perfect job, relationship, family life, body and mind. Proponents of happiness may be suggesting that we have some of our priorities wrong in this respect – it matters less how much money we have and more how are relationships are going. But they are still emphasising an ideal that is not be so easy to achieve for everyone. For those who live in genuinely threatening environments, for example, how safe is it to get outside more?
We may all want to be happy. But we do not all face the same conditions and challenges in life. By ignoring this fact, the ‘happiness agenda’ risks either being something trivial or something that is only relevant to the privileged few who can take on its recommendations.
This needn’t be the case, however. Instead of downplaying the different conditions and challenges we face in life, we can employ a notion of happiness that takes suffering much more seriously. The idea of happiness does not have to centre around things being just right.
Thinking about happiness can help us realise that we all face numerous challenges and difficulties, and will continue to do so. This is, ultimately, what we have in common. Things are never just right. No matter how much progress we make, we will still be insecure: vulnerable to disappointment, loss and suffering.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for individual achievement and societal progress – these are good things. And there’s nothing wrong with trying to be a bit happier, on today of all days. But if we really want to be “Happier Together”, as this year’s International Day of Happiness theme encourages us to, then we must recognise that our common humanity rests on our common vulnerability. The first step towards being happier together is paying more attention to the different conditions and challenges faced by people across the world.
Interestingly, this, somewhat more depressing, way of looking at things has happiness research on its side. We are beginning to understand the psychological benefits of attitudes such as curiosity and compassion. Even if our lives are not perfect, we can pay more attention towards ourselves and our circumstances, including the things we already have. The same goes for the lives of others. Instead of trying to control people’s behaviour, or find quick fixes for all their problems, we can show them compassion and gain a deeper understanding of what they need. Although this is far from living happily ever after, I believe it is what being happier together would actually look like.
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