“If merely feeling good could decide the state of well-being, then mild drunkenness would be the supreme valid human experience,”—William James.
There is a story about Harold Macmillan, the former British Prime Minister, who was on an official visit to France. He happened to find himself alone with Madame de Gaulle, wife of President Charles de Gaulle, and took the opportunity to ask her what she was most looking forward to on the imminent retirement of de Gaulle.
He was somewhat startled and shocked when she eagerly replied, “A penis.”
It was only later, on reflection, that Macmillan realised that what she was trying to say, under a heavy French accent, was “happiness.”
We are officially the fifth happiest country in the world. One wonders whether the interviews were conducted by foreigners with heavy accents.
After the age of 60 or so, when some of life’s desires have either been satisfied or are not as urgent as they once were, one does start wondering about happiness. How important is it? How does one get there? How long can a body be happy? Are there different types of happiness? What is more important for happiness—money or your health? Security? Friends? Family? A caring Government? A bottle of what the New York Times called the best rum in the world, something with the unlikely name of 10 Cane Trinidad Light and which is not available in T&T for vulgar Trinis?
There seem to be two different kinds of happiness. Both equal. Both needed.
Level 1 happiness is the kind of pleasure you get from coming first in test, eating a piping-hot shrimp roti or sipping a good rum.
That’s a pleasurable state that tends to be intense, but temporary. It generally lasts around 15 minutes.
There is another kind of happiness, though, called Level 2 happiness. This is a more cognitive, intellectual type of happiness, and it is the kind of satisfaction and contentment you feel when you look at your life and think about past achievements and think about the general direction that your life is heading in. That form of happiness is less intense than Level 1 happiness but is longer-lasting.
Interestingly, the two forms of happiness are in some conflict with each other. Too much of one may lessen the other. Yet both are needed and complement each other.
What are the social or personal conditions that are needed to make people happier?
Research points to five main factors: money, mental health, a secure and loving private life, a secure community and moral values.
It’s pretty clear that provided you’ve got at least a reasonable income, money by itself does not make you happier.
Over the past 50 years, most people, including Trinis, have got better homes, prettier clothes, more cars and, despite the setbacks, better healthcare. Yet happiness has not increased anywhere, far less in T&T.
Things which make us want more income make us less happy. Advertising, particularly television advertising, makes people less and less satisfied with what they’ve got and the effect is particularly detrimental where children are concerned.
Comparisons also influence your state of mind: No matter how much or how little you make, doing better than your neighbour makes you feel better. Keeping up with the Joneses has reached Trinidad.
Mental illness in T&T is a scandal. Roughly 25 per cent of us experience serious mental illness during our lives, and about 15 per cent experience major depression. Sales of anti-depressants are at an all-time high. Yet no one talks about it as a cause of unhappiness.
For most people, valued personal relationships with family, colleagues, friends and neighbours are the best guarantee of happiness.
People are happier and better able to function when they feel they can trust other people.
In a recent WHO survey, 11-15-year-olds were asked,“Do you agree with the statement that most of the students in my classes are kind and helpful?” The answers by country were: Sweden, 77 per cent said yes; Germany, 76 per cent; Denmark, 73 per cent; USA, 53 per cent; Russia, 46 per cent; and England, 43 per cent.
It’s interesting that the figures for happiness in these very same countries are quite similar.
Throughout the world, and we are now seeing this in T&T for the first time, the proportion of people who say “Yes!” when asked “Can most people be trusted?” has fallen dramatically.
Crime is directly related to the level of mutual trust in a community. Insecure communities make for unhappy people.
The philosophy of individualism, also know as entitlement—the idea that you are entitled to the good things in life and that your main duty in life is to make the most of yourself and get the most that you can from society and to hell with the other guy—seems to have taken over our all segments of our society, from poor to rich.
Remarkably, friendship, dancing and voluntary work generate more joy in humans than anything else.