Friday, March 18, 2016

Happy, Happy, Happy

Americans may be angry, but by global quality of life standards, they are fat and happy. “Each year, packs of sociologists and survey workers descend on different countries to ask people about their happiness. Surveys such as Pew’s ‘Ladder of Life,’ The World Values Survey and the United Nations' World Happiness Report measure and rank countries in terms of their well-being.
“One goal of these surveys is to figure out what ingredients make a happy society. Critics say the measure that most countries use to track progress — gross domestic product — excludes some of the most important parts of human life. GDP doesn't distinguish, for example, between $10 million earned cutting down a rainforest and $10 million earned delivering a new cancer drug. But by paying attention to wellness and happiness, researchers can help guide local and national governments in making policy and adopting the kind of economic development that benefits people most.
“Often, these surveys suggest that one of the most important components in happiness is actually wealth. Wealthier countries tend to have higher standards of living, better health care and education, cleaner environments, and more support for families than poorer ones do. The map [above], from the U.N.'s World Happiness Report, shows that many of the ‘happiest’ countries, marked in green, are more developed ones.”, February 4th. While it stands to reason that if you are sick, hungry, living without hope, facing pestilence, famine and plague or in the middle of a worn-torn battleground, you may be downright miserable, the generate assumption is these surveys is that money does in fact buy happiness.
But as Western companies or those who are products of Western-style educations formulate and conduct these surveys, the question remains as to how objective are those “happiness” criteria. Looking at various expressions of joy in other cultures suggests “just how much ideas of happiness can differ from country to country. And it suggests that creating a definition of happiness that holds true for people around the world — a central preoccupation of researchers who study well-being — is not as straightforward as it seems. Can Westerners, particularly Americans, even define a life without money as potentially fulfilling and happy.
Most of the world lives in rent-free dwellings – owned or squatted – with little cash, marginal healthcare, and no real reason to pay taxes for the incomes they do not have. Literacy varies for this subsistence movement. They often sing, dance, attend their festivals and work the land or ply a basic trade. They laugh, tell jokes, and live with an expectation that nothing much will change… as nothing much has changed for their families for generations. They find joy in their faith, their family and their friends and in little things that we take for granted, like a radio, television or refrigerator… maybe a bike, motor scooter or even a marginal car. Watches and clocks are not a really important part of what they do. Are they happy?
Even in the West, the terminology for happiness is at best confusing. “In English, for example, the word ‘happy’ can refer to different things. It might mean a fleeting mood you feel when someone surprises you with a gift or you think of friends and family. Or it could refer to a deeper and less malleable state of satisfaction with your life.
“But not all languages refer to happiness the same way. A paper published in the International Journal of Language and Culture notes that the question, ‘How happy are you?’ is difficult to ask in many languages, and couldn't even be properly posed in the English of Shakespeare or Chaucer's time.
“For example, Denmark is often ranked among the world's happiest countries — which is something of a mystery to those who have lived among the relatively solemn Danes. Some researchers say the reason is that happiness in Danish is often translated as lykke — a term that can describe a kind of everyday well-being that might be brought on by a nice cup of coffee or a slice of bread with cheese. Others argue that the Danish results might be due in part to a cultural reluctance to burden strangers with their troubles.”
Does our choice of criteria denigrate the values of so many other cultures? Can Westerners even contemplate a definition of happiness that does not embrace the materiality of the quality of life? Christian monastic orders tell you that their religious way of life is a bastion of contentment and happiness with a lifestyle most Americans would find miserable. What might make someone happy in one culture might easily provoke a feeling of misery in another.
Visit China, and the complexity of feelings, culture and vocabulary expand. “In Chinese, there are actually several different terms for happiness, each of which have a slightly different meaning… [Becky Hsu, an assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown] and her colleagues are carrying out their own happiness survey in China, with the hope of learning how to better measure happiness not just in China, but in other countries, as well. Their survey focuses on three dimensions of happiness — a good mood, a good life and a sense of whether one’s life has meaning.
“Hsu [illustrates that] the English words ‘happy’ and ‘happiness’ encompass just part of those definitions. [For example, s]he maps one of the Chinese words for happiness, xingfu. Unlike the English translation of happiness, xingfu refers not to a good mood, but a good life, as well as a life with meaning.
“In Chinese, each of these three kinds of happiness can actually be translated as a different word, says Hsu — xingfu for a good life, you yiyi for meaning and kuaile for a good mood. By using those three words to ask different questions, researchers may be able to measure dimensions of happiness in Chinese that are often brushed over in English.” Huh? A Chinese person may feel happy because of their participation in a social movement beyond themselves, while a Westerner might feel more likely to choose values that apply more to the individual. Who’s right?
Perhaps we need to feel that the life values we cherish are the only paths to happiness – which would draw a knowing smile of distance from any good Buddhist – and that makes us feel better about ourselves. But equally confounding may be our need to feel superior to others for whom our values seem strange. Obvious misery aside, there seems to be bigger need to respect and value cultural differences, to eliminate the misunderstandings that lead to distrust, mistrust and even conflict. And to challenge and doubt the significance of such surveys.
I’m Peter Dekom, and questioning how we look at the rest of the world teaches much about our own strengths and weaknesses.

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