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The Toxicity of “Do What Makes You Happy”

“Do what makes you happy.”

We hear it said countless times in American society. The notion we deserve happiness and luxury has echoed in the words of well-intentioned advice since we were children. This message is evident in the lives of wealthy, successful celebrities and other icons.

Happiness is the ultimate goal.

According to Merriam-Webster, happiness is defined as “a state of well-being and contentment.” It seems like such a simple ideal, but what actually makes American society happy?

I would like to say the majority of Americans would say “family” or “friends,” but unfortunately, I think the vast majority prioritizes finances, material possessions, their bodies and their personal comfort––even if it is subconscious.

Each year, Gallup releases its “Global Happiness Index,” which ranks all 156 countries in order of the happiest to the least happy. Not surprisingly, the U.S. misses the top 10 time and time again. This year, it was ranked at 19––barely even making the top 20.

Typically, experts say a country’s happiness is rooted in factors such as healthy life expectancy, social support, GDP per capita, the happiness of a country’s children, social capital, the civil economy, the absence of corruptions and subjective well-being.

The U.S. ranking is odd when taking in the fact the U.S. does indeed fit most of the descriptions above. Not to mention, Americans have a tremendous amount of opportunities and freedoms.

According to Gallup, the top 10 include Nordic, or Scandinavian, countries, which continually beat the rest of the world in overall happiness. In the top three are Finland, Denmark and Norway, followed by Iceland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada and Austria.

Happiness is certainly not a very scientific subject, and therefore quantifying and effectively measuring it can be subjective. Gallup determines happiness by a ladder analogy: Imagine a ladder with ten rungs. The lowest rung symbolizes your worst possible life, and the highest rung symbolizes your best possible life. Which rung are you currently on?

Going by this measurement system, the U.S. averages at 6.8 on the ladder, whereas countries like Finland, Denmark and Norway hit 7.5 and higher.

Additionally, happiness has decreased significantly within the last ten years. The U.S. national happiness index is steadily dropping over time, but countries such as Benin, Nicaragua and Bulgaria have shown increases in their happiness.

So, what is the holdup?

The U.S. looks pretty happy. Looking around, there are plenty of wealthy people with big houses and fancy cars. While we still have homelessness and poverty, so much of it is overshadowed by frilly boutiques, the latest technology and a plethora of dining options.

Compared to the 1950s, Americans today own twice as many cars and eat out twice as often per person. But instead of increased happiness, we see accumulating credit card debt as well as a growing number of storage facilities to help us find a place for all of our stuff.

While our happiness is declining, our consumption only grows.

The phrase “money can’t buy you happiness,” while it is a cliché, is a truth we too often ignore.

Nordic countries surely are not exempt from the bug of materialism, but there are a few things we can learn from them. According to researchers, two of the most common human desires are to feel secure and have the support of a community––two things Nordic countries exceed at.

“The Scandinavian countries are very big on social support,” Dr. Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, one of the researchers, said. “The top countries, you can see, have societies which are not at each others’ throats.”

Along with social support, these countries are described as valuing work-life balance, family, generous social programs and being outdoors. These countries are not perfect, but perhaps we should be taking some notes.

Maybe the “do what makes you happy,” materialistic ideal we currently believe in is not as effective at creating true happiness as we thought. Money may be able to buy luxury, but it cannot buy the U.S. a spot in the top 10 happiest countries.

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