March 18, 2021

On Happiness by Yasmin Nooreddin

For World Happiness Day that falls on March 20th of each year, our Jordanian Alumna - Ms. Yasmin Nooreddin writes this insightful and timely article discussing mental health and wellbeing, and how we can reflect on the word "Happiness" amidst this ongoing global pandemic.

How are you feeling today? Are you happy? Well, I hope you are. As this current pandemic continues to hit the world hard, some countries have reported higher than usual rates of anxiety and depression (KFF, 2021), bringing the topic of happiness and well-being back to the forefront. According to June Silny at Happify, happy people get sick less often and experience fewer symptoms when they do get sick.They are healthier and more likely to be healthy in the future, they also live longer than those who are not as happy. They are more successful, productive and creative, in addition to being more likely to volunteer and donate more to charity. In other words, there is a compelling case to have more happy people in society! So let’s explore aspects of happiness with a smile. 

Happiness & Policy Makers

According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, happiness is a state of well-being and contentment. Its pursuit was considered among the unalienable rights in Jefferson’s US Declaration of Independence in the late 1800s. The UN declared March 20th International Happiness Day back in 2012, highlighting the relevance of happiness as a universal goal for humanity and promoting its recognition in public policies. In fact, the country of Bhutan, on the eastern ridges of the Himalayas, had introduced the gross national happiness index, GNH, back in 1998 recognizing various forms of capital a country has, beyond the usual GDP, gross domestic product (NPR, 2018).  While the UAE appointed a Minister of State for Happiness back in 2016 and launched the National Program for Happiness and Positivity (UAE Government, 2016). 

However, according to the World Happiness Report (WHR), it is the five Nordic countries that have made it to the top 10 ‘happiest’ countries since 2013. Known for their long dark winters, one may be surprised at such findings, however, weather satisfaction has only a small effect on overall life satisfaction rating, according to WHR. The most significant explanations include "factors related to the quality of institutions, such as reliable and extensive welfare benefits, low corruption, and well-functioning democracy and state institutions [in addition to] a high sense of autonomy and freedom, and high levels of social trust towards each other”. All these factors are correlated and thus difficult to differentiate cause from effect (Martela et al., 2020). That being said, the study of happiness and positive feelings is not a postmodern phenomenon, nor is it restricted to disciplines of sustainable development or neuroscience, it actually goes even further back than Maslow, who coined the term 'positive psychology' back in 1954 (, 2020).

Happiness in Earlier Traditions 

Philosophers preceded psychologists in exploring this important topic. Aristotle maintains that “by living our life to the full, according to our essential nature as rational beings, we are bound to become happy regardless” (Burton, 2020). Compassion meditation also contributes to an increased capacity to happiness, according to a neuroscience study at the University of Wisconsin by Richard Davidson. He identifies Ricard, a French Tibetan Buddhist monk, as 'the world's happiest man'. Ricard's tips towards a happier life are altruism and benevolence, “to stop thinking me, me, me” (Shontell, 2016); a call to discipline the ego and aspire for virtue, shared by many premodern traditions. In fact, Ghazali, the prominent Muslim theologian and mystic, who wrote the Alchemy of Happiness, posits that happiness can be achieved through a process of purification of the soul, tazkiyah, where ultimately the appetitive self becomes under the control of reason, leading to happiness (Şenturk, 2021). It is a journey of detaching the spiritual heart from physical material things and attaching it to the Divine, the ultimate metaphysical Reality, contributing to intrinsic intransient happiness. Perhaps one can presume, it leads to eudaimonic happiness that is based on pursuing life purpose and meaning, resulting in reaching one’s full potential (AIPC, 2011), and making one “happy for no reason”, as someone put it. 

Such notions might be largely absent from our postmodern consumeristic lives, where  the general default means to happiness is mainly achieved through extrinsic hedonistic pleasures, or hedonic happiness. For example, some may think that going on a shopping spree or getting that new car will make them happier, only to end up on the ‘hedonic treadmill’, reverting back to the same level of satisfaction (, 2020), i.e. transient happiness. According to research, happiness does not result from pursuing pleasure, but rather by working towards value-driven goals (Kesebir & Diener, 2008).

What contributes to our happiness

Notwithstanding, there are many factors impacting our overall happiness, such as physical health, family, social relationships, moral values, experience of positive emotions, individual income, labor market, and status (AIPC, 2011). However, having good relationships, especially those important to us, are a key element (Waldinger & Schulz, 2010). In addition, according to researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, in her The How of Happiness book, 50% of our happiness is determined by our genetic predisposition to it, while our thoughts, actions and attitudes account for 40%, and only 10% of our happiness is determined by external circumstances,. 

Therefore, “the very good news is there is quite a number of internal circumstances . . . under your voluntary control. If you decide to change them (none of these changes come without real effort), your level of happiness is likely to increase lastingly.” – Martin Seligman - father of Positive Psychology

So today, let's consciously think of concrete actions, thoughts, and attitudes that we can adopt to contribute to a more fulfilling level of happiness, regardless of external circumstances (lockdown or otherwise). Remember, emotions are contagious, and as someone put it, let’s make happiness more contagious than the coronavirus! 

Happy Happiness Day :) 

This article was written by our Jordanian Alumna, Ms. Yasmin Nooreddin for World Happiness Day. She was awarded the Fulbright Foreign Student Scholarship for the 2012-2014 academic cycle, and went on to obtain her Masters in Social-Organizational Psychology from the prestigious Teachers College at Columbia University in New York.

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