The United Arab Emirates recently appointed a Minister of Happiness—a move which has provoked mixed responses. A Human Rights Watch researcher, Nicholas McGeehan, called the appointment “Orwellian.” But so far, UAE Prime Minister Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum has seemed optimistic and proactive about the appointment over Twitter. He expressed hope that Minister Ohood Al Roumi “will align and drive government policy to create social good and satisfaction.” Whether the Prime Minister’s hopes are genuine remain to be seen.
The last United Nations World Happiness Report ranked the UAE as the twentieth happiest country in the world. The United States fell at fifteenth, and Switzerland led the pack in first place.
This bit of news raises questions about the nature of happiness itself. What are the Swiss doing that others aren’t? How much can a Minister of Happiness really affect in the UAE? And what does the United States need to do to rise above its fifteenth spot? Maybe the answer lies in Switzerland, or perhaps it can be found in the texts of a famous easterner we know by the name Buddha—someone whose wisdom the Boston College Buddhism Club will help us uncover.
The Happy Swiss
First things first, how does The World Happiness Report go about ranking the countries? Can you really evaluate something as intangible as happiness?
Jeffrey Sachs of The World Happiness Report summarized the complexity of defining happiness: “Being rich? That’s good, but it’s only a modest part of the story. Trusting society, having a government that ranks low in corruption, a society where people are generous and volunteering—all of these are important for happiness.” The analysis also included factors such as psychology, health, public policy, and social support. So how do these factors manifest themselves in the day-to-day life of citizens?
BC student Isabelle Daellenbach, CSOM '19, dialed up her father, a Swiss native with a singsongy German accent, to gather some insight into what makes Switzerland a joyful place for the average citizen.
The first influence he named was equality in the governmental power structures. The uniquely balanced, directly democratic government in Switzerland is a prominent difference between the two countries. With the absence of one main leader (like a president) and a lack of polarization due to the ten plus different political parties, Switzerland has one of the lowest governmental corruption rates. This instills a feeling of safety and trust in the citizens of Switzerland, which contributes to their overall sense of happiness.
Their system of direct democracy (as opposed to the representative democracy of the U.S.) also allows for a feeling of control over the future of the country. Citizens not only feel as though they have a say in government, but truly do get to give their input. They have the power to voice their opinions on issues they care about through a system that regularly polls cantons, and a guaranteed-vote process: upon getting 50,000 signatures on a petition for an issue, the government must put it to a vote at a referendum.
Aside from the heavy citizen participation, the Swiss government also provides many social programs and provides first rate medical care. These factors boost their happiness rating in the categories of health and social support, and freedom to chose what you do with your life.
The second factor: stress level. High stress is an obvious enemy of happiness. Often times work can be a source of stress—it is more often a place where people wither away in misery than find true fulfillment. Switzerland focuses on finding the latter and creating a relaxed work environment.
The apprenticeship program—the path of education that guides students to careers—is something you don’t often find in the United States. These apprenticeships, what we Americans would understand as an “extended” summer internship, take the place of a traditional undergraduate education.
This system provides more career guidance for students and leads to strong relationships between firms and employees; many Swiss people spend their whole lives working for a company. Undeniably, the slower-paced working world in Switzerland is night and day from the hectic frenzy of the United States.
Still, short of jetting off to Switzerland to find respite high in the Alps, there are ways to find a new level of happiness right here in the U.S. With a shift in mindset, you can redefine happiness and find relaxation no matter where you live.
Mindfulness and the Search for Happiness
The Asian Caucus Cabinet, which is composed of the nine Asian cultural organizations on campus, is holding its Silver Week this week. Silver Week was created to address issues of mental health in the Asian American community. On Tuesday, the Taiwanese Cultural Organization and Japan Club of Boston College teamed up with the Buddhism Club to host an inter-club meditation and discussion on mindfulness and mental health.
The study break was only an hour long and the discussion on meditation and mental health was only a brief part of that. But the event raised questions about how students approach happiness and hopefully helped some understand their struggles with it.
There are various studies that demonstrate the health benefits of meditation. Mo Yee Lin of The Ohio State University, Amy Zaharlick of Miami University, and Deborah Akers, an independent researcher, found that female trauma survivors “made significant changes in mental health symptoms and trauma symptoms” in a six-week meditation program which “was influenced by Tibetan meditation tradition and focused on breathing, loving kindness, and compassion.”
A 2011 study led by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found sound evidence of “meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s gray matter.” Peace of mind, according to these studies and many others like them, is as physical as it is psychological. Meditation even produces strong cardiovascular changes, according to cardiologist Herbert Benson. Meditation, he says, “helps decrease metabolism, lowers blood pressure, and improves heart rate, [and] breathing.”
As more and more research is done on meditation, the dichotomy between mind and body—between mental health and physical health—continues to fade.
But why do contemplative practices produce such profound changes within our minds and bodies? What does meditation really accomplish and how does it change the way we live?
The Boston College Buddhism Club practices what is commonly called mindfulness meditation. Many practitioners of mindfulness meditation practice to overcome, what they feel, is a cultural norm of happiness as happenstance.
Happiness is often seen as something produced by material wealth or social status. And prevalent among many college students is the belief that happiness is a reward for years of hard work and voluntary mental strain. When contemplatives practice mindfulness meditation, they choose to turn inward for their own fulfillment.
Psychology Today concisely explains mindfulness as “not [being] directed toward getting us to be different from how we already are. Instead, it helps us become aware of what is already true moment by moment. We could say that it teaches us how to be unconditionally present.”
Let us return to the United State’s fifteenth place in the most recent UN World Happiness Report. GDP per capita was taken into consideration but it is not the only criteria for happiness. If it were, the United States would have come out on top. Mental health, rather, is the most important factor (according to chapter 3 of the 2013 World Happiness Report), and it is not something guaranteed by material comfort.
Buddhism Club president Lucas Perry, MCAS '16, had this wisdom to share on the westerner’s struggle for happiness:
“Happiness as traditionally understood in western culture is derived from the universe aligning just such that your wishes and dispositions agree with the current affairs of the world. But, such happiness is fleeting and laced with the inevitable suffering caused by the end of that happiness. If there is a deeper form of happiness that exists, one which is not contingent upon the universe being just so, then such happiness should be available to the person who examines the contents of her own mind and purifies her mind of the causes of suffering.”
In short, perhaps we are not looking in the right places for our happiness. Regular attendees of Buddhism Club will attest that meditation can be a mentally rigorous endeavor. But it is a practice that produces greater agency and wholeness in the practitioner.
We often find what we are looking for in the last place we think of searching. Despite the risk of sounding kitsch, that number one spot in the next World Happiness Report may lie within ourselves.