A Pattern for Happiness

There’s no point in being unhappy about things you can’t change, and no point being unhappy about things you can.

-Dan Harris, 10% Happier

I have a thing for “happiness”. I’m forever curious about what makes people happy, about how people define happiness, etc. Not because – as some might assume – I feel sad, but because I’m keen to have more happiness in my own life. Seems I’m not alone. A recent search for books matching the word ‘happiness’ on Amazon.com revealed 96,523 titles. By comparison, a search for weight-loss yielded only 64,381.

Happiness has been an important topic for some time; the “…pursuit of Happiness” is written next to Life and Liberty as an “unalienable Rights” in the United States’ Declaration of Independence. Today, March 20, is International Day of Happiness, a day which coincides with the first day of spring and the release of the United Nations’ World Happiness Report – a list of 155 countries ranked by a country’s level of happiness. The 2017 list places Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and Finland at the top.

Two questions most people ask at this point. First, what factors are used to determine a country’s happiness, and secondly, why Norway?

Well, according to the report…

Norway has jumped from 4th place in 2016 to 1st place this year, followed by Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland in a tightly packed bunch. All of the top four countries rank highly on all the main factors found to support happiness: caring, freedom, generosity, honesty, health, income and good governance. Their averages are so close that small changes can re-order the rankings from year to year. Norway moves to the top of the ranking despite weaker oil prices. It is sometimes said that Norway achieves and maintains its high happiness not because of its oil wealth, but in spite of it. By choosing to produce its oil slowly, and investing the proceeds for the future rather than spending them in the present, Norway has insulated itself from the boom and bust cycle of many other resource-rich economies. To do this successfully requires high levels of mutual trust, shared purpose, generosity and good governance, all factors that help to keep Norway and other top countries where they are in the happiness rankings.

Admittedly, ranking “Happiness” is a fantastically subjective undertaking. While the top of the UN list is dominated by Nordic countries, the latest World Database of Happiness (“…an archive of research findings on subjective enjoyment of life”) ranks Costa Rica #1 and Mexico #3, with Denmark #2.

The United States, for reference, ranks 19th and 22nd respectively in the latest polls.

One happiness-related title I read some years ago is called “The Geography of Bliss“. The author, Eric Weiner, a self-described “grump”, traveled to countries listed in the World Database of Happiness looking for evidence of what makes a country either happy or unhappy. As you can imagine, attempts to quantify the reasons behind a country’s expressed happiness paint a murky picture.

During Weiner’s journey, war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq and famine-stricken Ethiopia rank near the bottom of the happiness scale for obvious reasons; without which people would most certainly express more joy. Another country, however, despite relative peace and lacking environmental threats, ranks consistently near the bottom.

Of this country, the former Soviet republic of Moldova, Eric says, “While I did meet some people I liked, Moldova is the least happy country on the planet; people go to great lengths to see their neighbors fail. Completely seriously, it is a very morose place. I’ve never been so glad to leave a country.”

A study of individual happiness revealed that 50% is a result of genetics, 10% due to our circumstances, with the remaining 40% a matter of choices; of intentional activity. This study led researchers to test various theories on how a person’s level of happiness could be raised and maintained above one’s genetic predisposition. They discovered, for example, that performing varying acts of kindness increased a person’s happiness more than those that repeatedly performed the same act of kindness. Another study revealed that those that kept a daily gratitude journal ended up less happy than those that counted their blessings only weekly.

So what does it mean? What can you and I conclude? How can I get more happiness in my life?

Well, if the research is to be believed, I could reasonably conclude that I should move to Norway or Costa Rica, be more caring, generous, and honest while supporting the causes of freedom, health, income and good governance. Furthermore, I would perform varying – not repetitive – acts of kindness, take note of my blessings weekly, but not daily, and I should avoid even thinking about Moldova.

As I think about it, however, I’m struck by a feeling that says it’s not that easy, that taking the above steps would merely replicate happiness, not create it. In order to have more happiness, I need a pattern.

Jeffery R. Holland described the difference between a replica and a pattern. He described how his mother, an accomplished seamstress, could review a picture of a shirt, for example, and then go about replicating the design. This replica, however, was never quite as good as the original. In the process of copying the design, flaws were magnified and details inevitably missed. What his mother needed, he suggests, was a pattern. A pattern would have provided details about sizing, design and assembly that are just not possible by replicating.

What is your pattern for happiness? How do you not only replicate it, but pattern it in your life. I’d love to hear what you think.

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