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Social Issues
5 Different Ways of Looking At Happiness
March 20, 2014
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The Kingdom of Bhutan first adopted Gross National Happiness in the 1970s (Photo: ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

Today marks the second-ever International Day of Happiness, a UN-sponsored occasion to reflect on the things that make us truly happy — and recognize the many impediments to spreading happiness across the globe.

"Happiness may have different meanings for different people," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in his message for the day. "But we can all agree that it means working to end conflict, poverty and other unfortunate conditions in which so many of our fellow human beings live."

In recognition of the idea that happiness can mean different things around the world, here are five different ways of thinking of the concept.

1. Gross National Happiness

One of the inspirations behind the International Day of Happiness came from the Kingdom of Bhutan in South Asia, which famously adopted the goal of maximizing something it called Gross National Happiness as the central goal of its policy-making in the 1970s. The data behind the GNH index is drawn from regular national surveys, and focuses on a wide range of measures of individual and collective well-being, accounting for 124 variables. As one Bhutanese guide explains it, "in the GNH Index, unlike certain concepts of happiness in current western literature, happiness is itself multidimensional... Different people can be happy in spite of their disparate circumstances and the options for diversity must be wide."

2. World Happiness Report

So far, Bhutan is the only country to adopt the GNH wholesale, but many other countries, like the UK, are collecting systematic data on the well-being of their citizens. The World Happiness Report is an attempt by the UN's Sustainable Development Solutions Network to catalog and assess those efforts around the world. In the most recent report, Canada came in at an enviable sixth place, with northern Europeans countries like Denmark, Norway and Switzerland taking the top spots. Some of the factors that weighed heavily in Canada's favour: long life expectancy, high average income and strong social supports. Last year's report concluded that the world is indeed slowly getting happier on average, although this improvement is not spread equally — in conflict-ridden parts of the Middle East and north Africa, for example, happiness has dropped 11.7 percentage points since 2007.

3. What Makes Us Happy

This story, published in the Atlantic in 2009, is fascinating: the author, Joshua Wolf Shenk, got unprecedented journalistic access to an archive at Harvard where the results of a 72-year-long study on happiness are kept. The study followed 268 men from the time they entered college in the mid-1930s until their death, tracking all of the things that affected their overall happiness over their lifetimes. It was the most comprehensive such study in history. The piece is a sprawling read that's emotional and poignant, especially on a day dedicated to celebrating the different things in life that make individuals happy.

4. The Surprising Science of Happiness

Dan Gilbert is a psychologist and the author of the book Stumbling on Happiness. His TED Talk from 2004 has been viewed more than eight million times — and for good reason. He offers a convincing theory that there is a science to happiness; specifically, he argues that humans have a "happiness immune system" that allows them to unconsciously change their views of the world in order to synthesize happiness, and that synthetic happiness (the things we tell ourselves to make us feel good) is just as good as any other kind of happiness. 

5. The Happiness Project

In 2009, Charles Spearin from the band Do Make Say Think released an unusual album. For The Happiness Project, Spearin invited various members of his diverse Toronto neighbourhood over to his house to talk about what made them happy. After they left, he listened to each recording for the little melodies in their speech, and used those melodies as the basis for his tunes. The pieces that emerged range from "Mrs. Morris," who tells Spearin that "happiness is love," to the moving story of "Vanessa," who talks about being born deaf and hearing sound for the first time after receiving a cochlear implant. In this video, Spearin explains how he went about making the album.

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Finally, if you just need a dose of happiness in your day, check out this joyous video of people dancing to Pharrell Williams's "Happy," shot in the city of Tacloban, which was hit hard by Typhoon Haiyan last November:


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