The pursuit of happiness

August 06, 2006

With tales of the world's woes grabbing too many headlines this summer, it might be remedial to consider the subject of happiness. We might not agree on how to define it, but we want it. Even our Declaration of Independence asserts that pursuing happiness is an unalienable right. And so off we go, chasing that subjective and capricious state of being that teases us into thinking it can be ours through chance and circumstance.

Apparently, plenty of people have achieved a high level of happiness, if you believe studies that claim to have examined the subject closely. A recent compilation of happiness research by a British psychologist ranks 178 countries in order of their happiness quotient. Smaller countries such as Ireland rank high, supposedly because of a greater sense of national identity, but also because their residents often are well-educated and have longer life expectancies. Of the top 10 happiest countries on the list, more than half have cold climates. And none of the top 10 countries is currently at war or, except for Denmark, belongs to the Iraq coalition. So, does that mean peace is a part of the formula for happiness? Although Denmark has a few hundred troops in Iraq, that doesn't seem to have affected its happiness. The country is ranked No. 1.

The United States falls in at 23, a little higher than Australia but lower than New Zealand, Canada and even Malaysia, where the populace seems perpetually at the mercy of natural and manmade disasters. In a separate study of U.S. happiness levels released this year by the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Americans said they were either "pretty happy" or "very happy." Among the happiest respondents to Pew's questions were married people, members of families earning more than $150,000 a year, people who attend religious services each week and Republicans. Equally interesting are Pew's findings that among married couples, having children has no effect on happiness levels and that dog and cat owners seem to be equally pleased with their worlds.

Whatever true happiness is, these studies at least offer an idea of how to avoid unhappiness for a while in this August's insufferable climate: You and your spouse find a wealthy Republican couple, preferably without children living at home, who have a cliff-top cottage on the coast of northern Maine and who will let you house-sit their pets while they spend a month at a religious retreat.

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