The United Nations 2019 World Happiness Report is out and the happiest country in the world is Finland. The U.S. is all the way down in 19th place, its worst ranking ever. How can we be so affluent and at the same time so glum?
I don’t have the answer but a good place to start is to ask, what are we looking for? It may be we are approaching happiness the wrong way. We are constantly curating our lives, especially on the internet, to achieve ‘peak experiences.’
The Week wrote about this in December 2019. They noted that people living in Western cultures are about four to 10 times more likely to develop clinical depression than those living in Eastern cultures. In the East positive and negative feelings are essential and equal. Happiness happens but so does sadness. They are both part of the same whole.
We wrestle with this at every age. The Christian Science Monitor recently reported that more than 60% of college students had experienced “overwhelming anxiety” within the past year. Some argue it might be due to helicopter parents who have not allowed children to develop independently. Or it might be the debt load that many students are saddled with or it could be the anxiousness students feel about the post college job/career market.
A different explanation might be that college education has moved away from exploring the ‘meaning of a good life,’ studying the Great Books for instance, to a more transactional education emphasizing achievement, concrete results and how to be best prepared for a career and job. But many students are yearning to find meaning in their lives and confused as to how to discover their passion. This explains why some of the most popular college courses today have titles such as ‘Designing Your Life’ (Stanford) and ‘Psychology and the Good Life’ (Yale).
Arthur Brooks wrote an excellent piece on happiness and ageing in the July 2019 issue of The Atlantic. He notes that happiness for many tends to decline in their 30s and 40s and then starts to increase in their 50s and 60s. After age 70 many people stay steady in happiness but others backtrack. The reason for the upswing in happiness in middle age could be because people see better their earlier successes and failures and are able to make peace with the losses and focus more on the positives.
In their 70s, however, when many are in retirement, those who have measured their life solely by career accomplishments feel depressed as they see their life becoming irrelevant. In many fields award-winning work does come at an early age. Entrepreneurs peak and decline early as do poets and the most common age for producing Nobel Prize winning work is the early 30s.
So what is Brooks’ advice for happiness in later life? For him it is to focus on what older people do well. They synthesize well the information they have gained throughout life. So one option is to teach or write, either formally or informally. Crystallize what you have learned and impart it to others. College professors often get better with age not worse.
Decline is inevitable in life but this does not preclude happiness. Chasing ‘peak experience’ is not the answer. Probably better to understand that sadness and happiness are two sides to the same coin and make peace with this. The Yale course, ‘Psychology and the Good Life,’ has students perform random acts of kindness, thank people and practice gratitude. Sounds simple and, actually is simple. But not always easy. Go practice.