What’s It Take To Be Happy?


I’m not into completing surveys and questionnaires. When they appear on my screen, I usually bin-them. For some reason, however, I decided to respond to one from the World Values Survey. Now, I know that there is debate about the methodologies of international surveys of happiness, but given that this seemed like a reputable research project and all I was being asked was to identify the world’s happiest country, I oped to give it a go.

Amazing! Even allowing for the fact that the data being used was from 2010, my selection was way-off. According to World Values Survey, the country that came in first was Nigeria. I had to double-check, Nigeria was considered to be the world’s happiest country.

I don’t consider myself a sore-loser, but I decided to check-out further this selection. I found that approximately 92% of the population of Nigeria live on less than $2-a-day. I also learned that, according to mental health researchers, anxiety disorders and depression are far less common in so-called poorer countries, for which Nigeria would certainly qualify.

Enough, already! How could this finding in relation to Nigeria be justified?

Perhaps the people’s expectations are lower? Or maybe happiness is relative: when people aren’t surrounded by examples of more pleasant lifestyles, they don’t rank their own situation so poorly? The problem with questions like these is that they seem to imply that people doing it tough don’t know any better. There are many examples that show this interpretation is definitely not the case.

I remember one of the realisations made by Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl when he claimed that you can only comment on something, in his case motivation, when you are stripped of everything, including life itself (death might have been a better alternative to eking out an existence in a death camp). Whether it’s forced interment, poverty, hunger, or whatever, facing the reality of one’s own vulnerability can have unexpected benefits.

I don’t know if increased feelings of vulnerability necessarily leads to happiness. We do know, however, that ageing is usually involves a shift from feeling bulletproof to being aware of one’s own vulnerability. And this shift seems to happen in the blink of an eye. There’s also an increasing amount of data to show that feelings of happiness increases with ageing. As people age, there is generally a decrease in importance of ‘badges’ such as wearing the right brands, job titles, and other status symbols. It seems that, when there’s less to latch onto, there are choices you don’t have to make, and this changes things whether you’re living in Nigeria or New York.


Back in the fifth and sixth centuries BCE, Heraclitus assured us that the only thing that is constant is change. No doubt that applies to our views on happiness, too.

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Dr Neil Flanagan


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