What might happiness be in a time of universal anxiety?

In the midst of individual, family, community and country efforts to survive the Coronavirus pandemic, ‘happiness’ – that indefinable, often elusive but ever-desired state of being – might be furthest from your mind.

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence”. -Aristotle

Today is the International Day of Happiness, a day that has been recognised by all 193 UN member states since 2012.  

In the midst of individual, family, community and country efforts to survive the Coronavirus pandemic, ‘happiness’ – that indefinable, often elusive but ever-desired state of being – might be furthest from your mind. To have a day – and a blog – calling attention and seeking to inspire greater happiness and wellbeing might seem insensitive and gormless in the midst of the anxiety created by a rampant virus that is spreading faster than you can smile. To rub salt into the wound, the 2020 International Day of Happiness calls for a focus on being ‘happier together’, on celebrating our common humanity and shared experiences. We are, in direct contrast, living through a time where social withdrawal, social distancing and isolation are essential.

We, like everyone, are struggling to negotiate how to keep routes open, and how to ensure our stakeholders, especially the young people participating in our programmes, are able to remain connected to us, to their learning and to each other. For many communities, lack of access to online technology and learning platforms makes this much harder. Despite challenges, we have been impressed by the creativity, commitment and resilience evident in the ways they have found to stay connected and the ways they have found they can contribute. Overcoming difficult challenges, maintaining connection even in a time of distance, building resilience and finding ways to live with purpose all contribute to our happiness. There are many ways we can – and indeed must – hold strong and true to this fact. We must look for happiness in the small, simple things that will help us all to endure, survive and ultimately, hopefully, come out the other end with a new appreciation of what is possible, and of how we can thrive with less stuff and more connection – even at a distance.

Happiness can help us survive tough times. Indeed, evolutionary psychologies believe happiness was an adaptive advantage that first occurred as a genetic variation but persisted because it helped us stay alive. Spreading the message of happiness and hope in this moment of anxiety is important for resilience, compassion, kindness and consideration of what others may be going through beyond our experience. Now might therefore actually be a very good time to reflect on the International Day of Happiness, its origins and its purpose. 

As long ago as 1629, Bhutan’s legal code argued that “If government cannot create happiness for its people, then there is no purpose for government to exist”. This ethos was behind the King of Bhutan’s 1972 proposal that Gross Domestic Product, whilst perhaps providing a (controversial for many) measure of wealth of a country, was not a good measure of wellbeing or happiness. Given that the latter was the more important goal, Bhutan amended its constitution in 2008 to record that “The State shall strive to promote those conditions that will enable the pursuit of Gross National Happiness”.

To measure what mattered to its government, Bhutan developed the Gross National Happiness Index, a measure of the health, education and contentedness of its people, rather than economic or material indicators.  Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Index is a single number index developed from 33 indicators categorised under nine domains. The idea of natural, human, social and cultural wealth being as – if not more – important than manufactured and financial capital, provided a role model for the rest of the world

In 2006 these ideas were taken up by Jayme Illien, whose remarkable personal story has links with Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela and is certainly worth reading. Illien sought to promote “happytalism” as “a new economic system, theory, and philosophy” designed to achieve the UN’s global goals [then the MDGs] and the “happiness, wellbeing, and freedom of all life on earth”.  Undoubtedly inspired by the work of Bhutan, Illien pushed for the UN to celebrate the International Day of Happiness each year on 20th March, chosen for its alignment to the March equinox – an event shared by all.  In 2012 the UN, under Ban Ki Moon, hosted the first high-level meeting about happiness and wellbeing at which it stated:

“We need a new economic paradigm that recognizes the parity between the three pillars of sustainable development. Social, economic, and environmental well-being are indivisible. Together they define GROSS GLOBAL HAPPINESS.”— Former UN Secretary General Ban Ki moon, High Level Meeting on Happiness and Well-being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm (2012)

The UN also commenced the publication of an annual World Happiness Report, the most recent of which ranks 156 countries by the happiness levels of their citizens, and 117 countries by the happiness of their immigrants. The WEF graph below, taken from the 2015 World Happiness Report, reflects the various dimensions that contribute to the assessment of happiness by country.

There are, of course, many criticisms – methodological and philosophical – that ranking happiness, whether by country or otherwise, is too complex to do meaningfully. Arguments include that there is significant variation in propensity towards happiness amongst individuals, making the generalisation a false one, and that it remains too strongly weighted by financial indicators (which causes a strong correlation bet3ween happiness measures and GDP, an oft-cited concern). However, we believe there is significant value in considering the value, satisfaction and success of life in ways other than by financial wealth. As such, the Happiness Index as well as various other attempts to consider wellbeing are welcome efforts to extend our narrow focus on economic growth measures alone.

Humans are social creatures, even the introverts. Social isolation has been identified as a risk factor causing premature death. Being connected makes you happier. Being happier makes you healthier with a whole host of lifestyle, energy, sleep and health benefits. And both health and happiness can forge greater levels of solidarity: interconnectedness and interdependence between people from different walks of life can flourish in the face of a common threat. Social solidarity presents an abundance of opportunities for caring for others outside of ourselves; it reduces the risks and consequences of scarcity and calms the fear and panic caused by facing something unseen, unheard and overwhelming, because someone is sharing the dark with you.  

So, we invite you on this International Day of Happiness to find your way to express social solidarity in a time of social isolation; to connect with, care for and calm yourself and others and to find the small happinesses in your every day to remind you that this too shall pass.


Resources and readings of interest

Geographies of Human Wellbeing – exploring the topic with great student activities 

Measuring your happiness

The Economics of Wellbeing – why money and GDP aren’t everything

The ingredients of happiness 

The 3rd Gross National Happiness Questionnaire – a tool for you to check your family, community, organisation

The Happiness Project – 10 tips for staying calm in the face of coronavirus



One Response

  1. In light of COVID-19 UN have amended the theme from “Happy Together” to “Keep Calm, Stay Wise, Be Kind”. Do all those things in the spirit of togetherness – even if you are physically apart.

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