Americans are reasonably happy people. This is one of the findings of a recently published survey of self-reported happiness worldwide (see Scientific American November 2002). Interestingly, however, they are not the most happy people on earth. That distinction goes to the populations of northern Europe, despite the harsh winters and lack of sunshine. The rest of Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand report levels of happiness similar to that of the United States. Intermediate happiness can be found in most Asian countries (including China), while lower levels are typical of South American countries, and lower still is the self-appraised happiness of most Africans (though the absolute minimum is found in Russia and in some of its former satellites).
Philosophers have discussed what makes humans happy or unhappy at least since Aristotle wrote his Ethics, but it seems most obvious to ask the people themselves (Aristotle was famous for not thinking of such simple solutions to complex problems: he once claimed that women have a different number of teeth than men, but it didn't occur to him to open Mrs. Aristotle's mouth and count them!). As you might imagine, financial security is crucial to happiness. Astoundingly, however, the level of income above which more money doesn't seem to matter for most people is low: only about $13,000 / year, or circa half of the median American income! Above that, more importance is carried by factors like health, attitude, professional occupation, and relationships (married or divorced people are happier than single ones), which explains why people living in countries with lower income but better social health indicators (such as Scandinavian nations) report that they are significantly happier than the highly capitalistic US.
Aristotle, however, seems to have gotten much right in his analysis of happiness and how to achieve it. First off, he realized that we are constantly trying to overcome an innate "weakness of the will" (the Greek word is akrasia), a natural tendency we seem to have to simply satisfy our basic instincts (food, sex, and power). Modern biology gives us important clues as to where akrasia comes from: for most of our evolutionary history, we lived in environments in which it was difficult to procure food, hard to find a mate (and especially to have offspring), and where getting to be the alpha male was the best way to insure both. Natural selection has therefore built into us powerful instincts that drive us to constantly seek such things even today. The difference, of course, is that, in our modern environment, food is usually plentiful (at least in Western societies); you can find dates on the Internet or scanning a newspaper, and neither of these requires you to be the President of the United States to be successful.
Aristotle realized (and the modern survey confirms) that true happiness
Joined: May 2002 Posts: 237
Thanks: 0 Thanked: 1 time in 1 post
Re: Jan. 2003 "Human Instincts and Virtue Ethics"
Interesting article. But I'm left wondering why it is that Northern Europeans are happier in general than Americans. Is the article suggesting that they have found a balance in life that allows them more enjoyment and overall satisfaction than the rest of the world?
Yes, I guess I was suggesting that Scandinavians have found a better balance between economic prosperity and social net than Americans have. There is a book that dramatically explores this imbalance for the US society, it's called "Fear of Falling."
Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 8 guests
You cannot post new topics in this forum You cannot reply to topics in this forum You cannot edit your posts in this forum You cannot delete your posts in this forum You cannot post attachments in this forum
BookTalk.org is a thriving book discussion forum, online reading group or book club. We read and talk about both fiction and non-fiction books as a community. Our forums are open to anyone in the world. While discussing books is our passion we also have active forums for talking about poetry, short stories, writing and authors. Our general discussion forum section includes forums for discussing science, religion, philosophy, politics, history, current events, arts, entertainment and more. We hope you join us!