Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.


Aristotle also said, “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind,” so we know he had his head on straight. And if happiness is the point of it all, we must all be pretty happy. Except not so much.

Several agencies work to keep abreast of America’s happiness, and not just because they’re curious. Happy people are productive people. Happy people are acquisitive people. Happiness is good for the economy. As of 2019, about 33 percent of Americans described themselves as altogether happy. About 13 percent described themselves as unhappy. Everybody in between was either not as happy as they wanted to be, or not as unhappy as they felt they could be. While it’s known that the nation’s happiness quotient took a severe hit in 2020, it’s probably not fair to draw conclusions from that ill-starred year, so we’ll stick to pre-pandemic statistics.

Globally, the United States ranked 19th in happiness in 2019, well behind No. 1 Finland, but far ahead of last place South Sudan. Among the states, Hawaii consistently ranks happiest. In 2019, West Virginia earned the title of Least Happy, narrowly out-bumming Arkansas. Like its parent polity, Colorado came in 19th-happiest among its peers, although it did earn 2nd Place in the coveted Best Night’s Sleep category, right behind superbly somnolent South Dakota.

It’s natural to wonder why an affluent and well-organized country like ours should be less happy than, say, Costa Rica, whose natural splendors are surpassed only by its soaring crime rate and cascading corruption. By many accounts, barriers to a more perfect American happiness begin with health concerns, both directly as the population ages, and indirectly as health care prices skyrocket and health care systems become harder for the working Joe and Jolene to navigate. Our addiction to substance abuse is also cited as a major drag on our national happiness. But it’s just as likely that we’re not as happy as we could be because we’re doing it all wrong.

Give a man health and a course to steer, and he’ll never stop to trouble about whether he’s happy or not.

—George Bernard Shaw

We’re a material culture, raised on an empty diet of endless distraction and instant gratification. We mistake success for happiness, pleasure for happiness, bliss for happiness. Happiness is not New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day and the Fourth of July. It’s a clean CT scan and a patient spouse and a few dollars left over after the bills are all paid. Happiness is quiet, persistent and not at all interesting.

Could be a lot of Americans are just out of the habit of being happy and could benefit from knowing a few of the Habits of Highly Happy People. It might sound trite, but happy people tend to live in the moment. Spend too much time looking back and you risk blighting a perfectly acceptable now, either dwelling on past failures or comparing the present to the illusory glories of yore. Spend too much time looking ahead and you can ruin today by obsessing on tomorrow’s imagined obstacles or worse, set yourself up for disappointment by imagining an unrealistically rosy future. In both cases, you’ll miss out on many of the things that make this moment great, and more than likely there are more than a few.

Happy people gravitate toward other happy people. As a species, we humans are pretty soft clay, easily shaped by our emotional environment. Whether we’re chillin’ with pessimists, or goofin’ with optimists, they’ll leave a mark, whether we see it or not. Never underestimate the power of positive psychological reinforcement.

Be content with what you have, rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the world belongs to you.

—Lao Tzu

Happy people don’t mind waiting. The universe doesn’t work on your schedule, and if you insist on having all good things exactly when you want them, you’re in for a world of frustration. Happy people can take failure in stride. Most of us hit a lot more foul balls than home runs, and the sooner you get comfortable with that, the happier you’ll be.

Happy people give more than they take. There’s nothing like turning your thoughts to other people’s troubles to make you forget your own. And somewhere, way down deep, we instinctively know that increasing the happiness of someone else increases the happiness of everyone else, ourselves included.

Aristotle said “Happiness is activity,” and he was right again. There are plenty of things to worry about, but that doesn’t mean you have to sit around worrying about them. Busy hands don’t have time to play the blues, and gloom can’t settle on a body in motion.

Happy people don’t try to be happy. In fact, the surest way to miss out on happiness is to go looking for it. In seeking happiness, we obsess on the barriers we perceive as preventing us from achieving it, all of the things we don’t have that we’re sure would make us happy if we only did. In psychological terms, the desire to feel good is a bad feeling, while the acceptance of bad feelings feels good. It’s counterintuitive, but true. Happiness is not a thing to be attained, but the unconscious by-product of an accepting spirit focused outward. Happiness is what happens when you’re looking the other way.

If only we’d stop trying to be happy, we could have a pretty good time.

—Edith Wharton