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Finding the real meaning of happiness

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

 — Aristotle


There seems to be a lot of interest and discussion about happiness these days.  There is now a Gross National Happiness Index, the Happy Planet Index, MainStreet.com’s Happiness Index, a field of study called “The economy of happiness” and, of course, the upcoming third International Happiness Day in July of 2010.  

As I began looking into the research and discussions about happiness, I wondered more and more about happiness as it relates to where one lives and works.  I have been reading Danial Pink’s book, “Drive” – The surprising truth about what motivates us, and became particularly interested in his discussion about work.  He points out that there are essentially two kinds of job tasks: algorithmic and heuristic.  An algorithmic task is one in which you follow a set of established instructions down a single pathway to one conclusion.  A heuristic task involves trial and error and discovering the solution by yourself.  Algorithmic jobs, therefore, are ones where the same task is done over and over.  Heuristic jobs involve creativity and doing something new often.  People who are in algorithmic jobs are more motivated by external rewards, such as monetary incentives.  On the other hand, those in heuristic jobs are motivated by the act of doing the job itself.  

It seemed obvious that algorithmic jobs are becoming easier to replace with technology.  For example, consider the last time you called an airline or a travel agent to make a reservation.  Or perhaps you used the self-checkout at the grocery store.  If you have an algorithmic job, you may want to consider switching careers while you still have time.  Heuristic jobs, especially those that involve personal contact, are more difficult to replace with technology.  Consider such jobs as lobbyists, public relations professionals, athletes and beauticians.  Heuristic jobs then are considered more creative.

More creative?  That makes me think of Richard Florida and his books about where creative people live and where they might be moving to.  His latest book, “Who’s Your City,” has the intriguing subtitle, How the creative economy is making where to live the most important decision of your life. It is as if Pink’s and Florida’s books are crossing at an intersection and are deciding to travel together.

And what about relationships and happiness?  Most of the studies, as Florida points out in “Who’s Your City?,” say that true happiness comes from close relationships and from doing work that has a purpose or that one is passionate about.  

The more I research happiness surveys, the more I become suspicious of them.  Perhaps it is because we are so early in the happiness research arena.  Take, for example, the MainStreet.com Happiness Index.  If relationships, work and health contribute so much to happiness, I wonder about a survey that measures household income, mortgage debt, unemployment and foreclosures, and then issues a report entitled “The Happiness Index.”  While I respect the fact that it discloses the factors it chose to measure, I am dubious of a ranking depicting happy states.  Oh, in case you are wondering, the happiest state in the ranking is Nebraska, while the unhappiest is Oregon.  Mississippi comes in 17th on the Happiness Index.

The World Database of Happiness is a collection of studies about happiness.  It is maintained Ruut Veenhoven at Erasmus University Rotterdam, and purports to contain 5,976 publications in its Bibliography of Happiness, of which 947 report empirical investigations using accepted measures of happiness.  Its top five happiest nations are Costa Rica, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland and Canada.

The implications for communities seems to be that place does indeed matter, especially if that place is one where there is the opportunity for creative jobs, close relationships or a vibrant social life and good healthcare facilities.  In my own anecdotal research, I have found that the most successful communities are ones that welcome outsiders.  This is consistent with some of Richard Florida’s findings about cities that welcome artists and bohemians.

Probably the best way to conclude this commentary is to tell a story about someone moving to a new community.  It seems that one day a newcomer walked down a street and saw an old man sitting in a rocking chair on a porch.  

“Hey, mister,” the newcomer asked.  “Is this town a friendly, welcoming town?”

The old man considered the question and then asked, “What was it like in the town you moved here from?”

“It was terrible,” said the newcomer.  “People talked behind each others’ backs.  No one was friendly and welcoming.”

“Hmm,” said the old man.  “I’ve got bad news for you.  I’m afraid that you’re going to find that it’s the same way here.”

Later, another man came by and asked the old man the same question.  The old man replied with his same question.

“It was wonderful,” said the second newcomer.  “Everyone was friendly and helpful.  They would do anything for each other.  I hated to leave that town.”

“Hmm,” said the old man.  “I’ve got good news for you.  You’re going to find that it’s the same way here.”


Phil Hardwick is coordinator of capacity development at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government. Contact him at phil@philhardwick.com.


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