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Happiness — It’s Complicated

Happiness — It’s Complicated

July 09, 2014

I wrote this blog about happiness a few weeks ago. Now, as I sit here in Israel, reviewing and editing it, I can hear missiles overhead.  The latest news is distressing and disheartening, yet the people around me continue to go about life with resolve. And they remain, overall, happy people.

What does happiness mean to you? How do you measure it? And what are the ways to achieve happiness?


By far, the biggest hit song of the first half of 2014 is Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” from the movie Despicable Me 2. The uplifting tune makes you want to dance and sing along. In fact, a French couple even created a website called We Are Happy to showcase all the takeoffs - from around the globe - on the music video. Seems like a lots of people really, really like this tune.

But is a catchy song really happiness?

Most business owners are so busy working, they don’t have the time to appreciate the fruits of their labors. When they are asked if they are happy, they have trouble answering “yes.”

Can happiness be quantified?

The UN tried to measure it, and un-world-happniess-report-573x620.jpgyou’ll be surprised at what they found.

Last year, the United Nations released their second global report on happiness, based on surveys of people in 156 different countries. The World Happiness Report identifies the countries with the highest levels of happiness:

  • Denmark
  • Norway
  • Switzerland
  • Netherlands
  • Sweden

Want to know how the United States ranked? *Go to the bottom of the page.

What did the top countries have in common? They were relatively rich by world standards, have no wars, and enjoy freedom.

Freedom & Generosity = Happiness 


Happiness is being able to make life choices — freedom to choose — which is something that so many people, especially here in the United States, take for granted.  Freedom is rarely appreciated until it is taken away or threatened.  Consider how so many of us felt in the aftermath of 9/11, when our freedom was assaulted.

Real, deep happiness is knowing you always have a choice within your own “playing field.” Meet the richest man in Jerusalem, for example. Now there’s someone with the most amazing “playing field” and completely happy within it. What struck me was the significance.

We are also not used to corruption as a part of our daily life. In some countries, it’s an assumption that you will need to bribe officials. In the United States, you’d risk going to jail by trying such tactics.

A friend of mine, whom we’ll call Mark, was coming back with his son from a trip to the Ukraine. Mark realized that his visa had expired, so he placed a $100 bill in his passport as he approached the passport officer. He was sweating as he handed the passport to the officer, who pocketed the money, stamped the passport, and sent Mark on his way.  It was something Mark wouldn’t have even thought of doing in the United States. But in countries with rampant corruption, it’s commonplace. When you can’t trust the organizations that are supposed to keep you safe, it’s hard to feel a sense of joy.

Generosity, also on the survey, is deeply tied to happiness. It’s a way of enriching the soul by giving to someone in need. But it also means not expecting that the person you give to will give back. For example, I have a friend named Wajed Roger Salam, who moved to the United States years ago. He got on a bus, not knowing that he had to pay for the ride; when he realized that he needed money, a kind gentleman stepped up and paid the bus fare for him. He never forgot that gesture of generosity.  While he was never able to pay that man back, he helped others by giving them money when they did not have it. In this way, he paid the money forward.  And that has made him happier in the process.

A Couple of Myths about Happiness

1. Does bicycle riding make you happy?

First is the myth that people who ride bicycles are happier. If you consider that bicycles are the primary means of transportation in China, you might anticipate that China would be a happy country. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. China rated 93rd among countries in the World Happiness Report. As one contestant on a Chinese game show put it, “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle.”  Apparently, riding bicycles by choice may lead to greater happiness, but since most of the Chinese bicycle riders use them because they can’t afford cars, it doesn’t bring them joy.

2. Ahh. The beach...

The other myth worth dispelling is that warm, sunny weather makes people happy. It sounds good… but once again, the survey disproves this idea. There is a high rate of depression amongst people living in the Caribbean, while the highest-ranked countries in terms of happiness include Switzerland, Sweden, Canada and Finland, all countries that are frequently blanketed with snow.  In fact, in a recent United States happiness survey, both Vermont and Minnesota landed in the top five happiest states.  So much for that one.


5 Secrets to Happiness

So what are the secrets to happiness?  Here are a few.

1.   Deeply accepting your situation.  Want to be rich? Start by embracing your life as it really is. But you can’t just stop here.  

2.   Accepting and responding to challenges.  My wife and I recently celebrated our 24th wedding anniversary.  When we reflected on the good times in the last 24 years, we realized that many of those times were tough and required extra effort on our part. Responding to the challenges were part of what made us a strong family and gave us happiness.  Drop your expectations of how things “should” be. Once you do, you can start really living and choosing.

3.   Failing and moving on.  We were taught that an “F” means “fail” and that failure is unacceptable. But it’s not true. Happy people fail a lot — and they are okay with that.  They get up and try again, or they simply move on. Life is a journey of growth and learning, and we can gain a lot from our mistakes and missteps. Anyone who hasn’t fallen in a challenge has never fully experienced life.  Fail forward. You were put on this planet to accomplish, and adversity is normal and healthy.

4.   Having good friends.  If you go out looking for good friends, you’ll have a hard time finding them.  But if you are a good friend, and look for opportunities to give to others you’ll have a life filled with good friends.  

5.   Living abundantly.  Zig Ziglar said “If you help enough people get what they need, you will for sure get what you need.” I have found that by living generously, you don’t go wrong.  Sure, some people will take advantage, but you never lose by giving.

Taking you from where you are to where you want to be,


* The United States ranked #17 in the world. Look at the countries that rated above the US and ask yourself: am I using the right metrics to measure and appreciate my own happiness?