March 5, 2018

EMEM ELEMENT | Why “Happiness” May be Making Us Unhappy

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Nyhavn in Copenhagen, Denmark at night; Shutterstock ID 258618815

According to the World Happiness Report, Denmark, after Norway took the crown, is listed as the second happiest place in the world. Hearing this, it is easy for one to flee to the Nordic countries in hopes of getting a taste of what this “happiness” feels like. What are the Nordic — specifically Danish — people so happy about? What makes them happy? But more so — what does happiness even mean?

Studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark, has given me the perfect opportunity to further analyze and understand the concept of happiness. I boarded the metro on my first day of class, eager not only to meet more Danes but also to learn firsthand what it is like to live in Denmark. I was caught by surprise when my smiles to strangers were met with utter confusion, and shocked to see how silent, serious and reserved many Danes were while on the metro, in the supermarket or on the streets. Is this what the second happiest nation in the world really looks like? I presumed Denmark was the epitome of some sort of utopian society. A society where everyone is smiling, talking, laughing and experiencing life at its best. A society of perfection.

Over time, I began to meet more and more Danes at coffee shops, shoe stores, classes and city events. It wasn’t the easiest thing in the world considering Danes don’t normally speak to strangers — but once the initial point of contact is established, Danes are some of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  I stopped equating “happiness” with smiling and openness at first glance and began to understand the vitality of authentic conversation and engagement. To ask someone “How are you?” in Denmark is seen as a very personal and intimate question, one that shouldn’t be said to just strangers. It requires a previously formed bond between individuals, since the question “How are you” is understood as an inquiry into someone else’s state of being — rather than a polite greeting or empty gesture that is thrown around in many conversations, especially in the U.S. By virtue of asking someone how they are in Denmark, you genuinely want to know how their life and life circumstances are in relation to their well-being. Small talk is not done in Denmark, eliminating the futile nature of talking just to talk, just to hear noise, to suffice the habituated social norm of speech over silence.

It was also interesting to ask Danes why talking to and smiling at strangers isn’t that common. I was told that it is a form of respect for someone’s space, so as to not infiltrate their mode of thought. There is this sense of bona fide engagement and socialization in Denmark, hinged on the importance of fruitful conversation and interaction. This basis of authenticity expanded my understanding of happiness once I started to understand that happiness was not all rainbows and butterflies and fireworks. It’s much more than that.

Happiness functions as a state of psychological, emotional and social well-being, though when we think of happiness, we picture ourselves at our most optimal experience. We think of the moment we won our basketball game, when we were promoted for our job, when we got that great internship or when we fell in love with our soulmate. Happiness, thus, has generally been understood as an emotion that we can obtain, that we can pursue, that we can experience if we search for it. In this way, happiness is a pursuit and a goal, rather than a state of psychological, emotional and social well-being.

Though happiness is subjective, this understanding of happiness as being a goal rather than a state of mind may be lessening the importance of what it means to be alive, to be content, to be in a constant flow of well-being. It has left people with this sense of longing for happiness, and when one isn’t experiencing this happiness at all times, he or she is left feeling empty. This “happiness” chase — this chase for positive effect and optimal experience — inadvertently may be causing us more unhappiness. Whilst chasing an emotion rather than living in a state of mind, we may be missing the importance of genuine engagement with others, with our circumstances, with our lives. This sense of contentment heavily prevalent in Denmark contributes to this strong sense of meaningful engagement rather than a consistent pursuit of instant gratification. Human beings are wired to act upon the “pleasure principle,” and when this pleasure is not fulfilled, we are left with distress and tension. Thus, in the chase for “happiness” we make ourselves more distressed in the long run.

The truth is happiness is and always will be subjective. That is not to say that Danes are just the happiest people in the world compared to other nations. It is to point out that equating happiness solely with optimal experience may be misguided and misleading. In life it is impossible to be at our optimal experience of positive effect all the time. While optimal experience is integral and great for us, a state of contentment and peace with our life circumstances is key to “happiness” or rather, a consistent flow of well-being. Considering how Denmark’s welfare system utilizes high taxes to offer free healthcare, education and social services for those in need, there is no question that many of the systems in place in Denmark contribute to this state of contentment. In relation to the U.S. — where the wage gap is continuously widening and education remains a commodity rather than a right — there is this sense of urgency to keep up with our fast-paced, consumer-driven society that is hinged on monetary acquisition.

By chasing happiness and treating it as a means to an end, we fail to holistically understand and experience each part of life, positive or negative, that enables us to grow. Negative affectivity and challenges are facts of life, parts of the human condition that cannot be escaped. They are what makes us human. In lieu of constantly chasing “happiness,” it may be worthwhile to establish a eudaimonic approach to well-being—a focus on meaning and self-realization in a world of various constants, challenges, joys and experiences. As the second happiest country in the world, Denmark maintains a strong sense of authentic meaning and contentment with life’s state of affairs. Contentment in an ever-changing, fast-paced world may bring us closer to understanding what it means to be “happy.”