The word 'geluk' has two meanings in Dutch. One is 'fortunate, lucky' and implies a sense of fate, the other is 'feeling, showing or expressing joy, satisfaction'. They do not always go hand in hand. People born with a golden spoon in their mouth are certainly not always happy, nor are people constantly dogged by bad luck always unhappy. This article is about happiness in the sense of satisfaction with life. It is about valuing one's own life as a whole.
happy are we?
In the press and in novels we read primarily about unhappiness. In scientific publications too we more often read about sorrow than about joy. Is unhappiness really the rule? Not in Holland in any case where sample surveys invariably show that an overwhelming majority of the population think of themselves as happy.
Unhappiness is often associated with illness and disadvantage, happiness with social success. People who hold this viewpoint plea for investment in health care, social security and schooling. Some believe, however, that happiness is mainly in your head. People holding this viewpoint recommend all sorts of different therapies. There is also an age-old belief that attributes all unhappiness to a depraved society and believes that happiness can be found by withdrawing from the world. Is one of these beliefs better than another?
Research shows that happiness depends, to a considerable extent, on the quality of life of a society. The more prosperous and secure (safe) a society, the happier the people are who live in it. Once a society provides the basic needs, freedom plays an important role. Evidently, the more freedom people have to choose how they want to live their life, the happier they are if, that is, that freedom includes the freedom of choice. A strong welfare state is then less necessary.
In wealthy western societies we do not see much difference between the rich and the poor. Evidently, our level of prosperity is already so high that a little more or less does not make much difference. High incomes have to be earned and work does not always breed happiness. A wealth of human contacts is more important for happiness. People who live alone are in general less happy than people who do not, and people with no friends have less pleasure in life than people with friends. Having children does not make a difference here. Childlessness seems to be compensated for by contacts with adults. Only the very elderly who never had children are worse off, probably because their close friends are no longer around.
The biggest differences in happiness can be attributed to physical and mental health. That physical health is important will surprise nobody. What is surprising is that the effect of serious disorders is quite small. Psychological disorders have more of an effect, even lesser disorders such as mood changes and neurotic behaviour. A lack of social skills also seems to eat away at happiness. The idea that people are happier if they withdraw from society has not been proven to be a generality. Rather, it seems that at all levels people are in general happier the more they do participate.
happiness be fostered?
Together with all the advice over the years for a happier life comes the warning that happiness cannot be changed much. Some religions preach that people cannot escape their fate and some philosophers believe that happiness is relative and that chasing after it will get you as far as a mouse in a treadmill. While others say that happiness is a fixed trait and as such is practically unchangeable Research shows, however, that happiness can indeed be fostered. On one level by improving society and on another by strengthening the personal qualities that are needed to function in that society. Humanistic organisations have something to offer at both levels. To improve the quality of life in a society, social security must first be addressed. For third world countries this means addressing economic growth and human rights first. Wealthy countries profit more by promoting individualism. In all cases citizens should be encouraged to take destiny into their own hands. Patiently waiting for Big Brother is usually not very profitable. These views play a role in humanistic development work.
In our wealthy country (Holland), unhappiness is not often a matter of a material shortfall. Aid in the form of a cup of soup has lost its meaning. Our shortfalls are found in the social/emotional sphere where need is less easily alleviated by subsidies and professional advice. Aid is here more a question of organised solidarity, one of the pillars of humanistic welfare work.
The social skills needed to be happy differ somewhat from society to society. In an individualist society like ours it is very important that you stand up for yourself and that you forge intimate relationships and keep them. This can, to a certain extent, be learnt. Taking this into account, humanistic welfare work focuses primarily on fostering the ability to manage for oneself. In this area as well, the humanistic organisations contribute their mite. The art of living is important too. You must also know how to make something beautiful of life. To do this you have to know how to find the right models, not only personal interests and goals in life, but models to help you experience wholeness. Quite a task, because the standard models no longer pertain to the individualised people of today. Humanistic organisations are also helpful in this quest. The humanistic media helps us learn about one another, humanistic socio-cultural education helps people broaden their interests and humanistic observance offers modern forms of expression.
happiness really have to be fostered?
For some, happiness is the greatest good and the value of all actions should be measured by the degree in which it contributes to the most happiness to the greatest number of people. Many religions see this differently and place more value on human suffering. The critical philosophies regard happiness as unattainable in any case and, thus, need not be aspired to.
In this case research can only give a limited answer. Research into facts cannot determine whether enjoying life is morally better than suffering from it. Research statistics do offer some insight into the consequences of some viewpoints and show to what extent seeking happiness meshes with other values. In this connection research was carried out into the extent to which happiness brings out the good or, precisely, the bad in people. Research shows that happiness does not make blinkered individuals of people. Quite the reverse, it broadens a person's outlook. It has been found that happy people function better in relationships with friends and family; they are more open, and more independent as well. One striking result found is that happiness is good for your health. Happy people live longer.
Happy citizens are shown to be beneficial to society. There is for example a clear relationship between happiness and tolerance. Happy people need fewer scapegoats, give more of themselves for social organisations and are, perhaps, more sensible voters.
In short, fostering happiness gives you more than just a more pleasant life. In a number of ways, happiness can make life 'better' as well. Reason enough to give happiness a helping hand.