Where happiness lives

Maybe we're just looking for happiness in all the wrong places. Maybe it's much closer to us than we realise

Who'd've thunk a simple human emotion like happiness would get its very own day? And decreed by the United Nations General Assembly, no less!

All around the world, from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, 20 March is now officially recognised as the International Day of Happiness. The UN established this in 2012, with its Assembly Resolution stating that "the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal".

No arguments so far. Who doesn't want to be happy? It's ultimately why we strive for the things we strive for – a good, well-paying job, a nice home, vintage 1950s ceramic wall ducks, etc. It's all so that we can be happy.

But here's the rub – the more we get these things, the more elusive happiness seems to become.

Last year, TAFE Illawarra counsellor Monique Ziegelaar wrote about some of the many practical things each of us can do to help bring some more happiness into our lives, from keeping a "gratitude journal" right down to the simple act of smiling.

In Australia, current statistics around depression, anxiety and suicide are formidable. One million of us live with depression. Two million of us live with anxiety. And every year, almost 65,000 of us attempt suicide, 2,200 of us successfully. That's six every day. Five of whom are men.

Not only are these figures deeply tragic, but for a peaceful, relatively stable and wealthy country like Australia, they're also difficult to make sense of. Something is seriously wrong with our society and culture for happiness to be so elusive for so many people. What's going on here?

Perhaps we could take a hint from the Kingdom of Bhutan. This small Himalayan nation is often cited as "the happiest place on Earth". It's the only country that considers gross national happiness (GNH) to be more important than gross domestic product (GDP). Accordingly Bhutan schoolchildren are taught about the values of living in harmony, controlling anger, overcoming jealousy and selfishness and promoting tolerance and patience – values that are emphasised in day-to-day life throughout the country. And gross national happiness seems to have a flow-on effect into other areas that don't initially seem to be related. For example, Bhutan is also the world's only carbon negative country – soaking up more greenhouse gases than it emits.

It's possible that Bhutan is really onto something here. It seems common sense that progress should be about increasing human happiness and wellbeing, not just increasing the economy. After all, GDP isn't interested in happiness and wellbeing – just economic activity. And bad things like natural disasters, pandemics and crime waves can all increase a country's GDP.

There must be a better way of measuring happiness and wellbeing. But that's also part of the problem - happiness is an extremely subjective state, and something that's notoriously difficult to measure, to quantify. It means different things to different people. And it can't be measured in the same way as facts and figures.

So what's the solution? Maybe we're just looking for happiness in all the wrong places. Maybe it's much closer to us than we realise.

In the 2002 film The Hours, Meryl Streep plays Clarissa Vaughan, a materially successful yet deeply unhappy woman. She says to her daughter; "I remember one morning, getting up at dawn, and there was such a sense of possibility. And I remember thinking to myself; so this is the beginning of happiness. This is where it starts. And of course, there'll always be more… It never occurred to me, it wasn't the beginning – it was happiness. It was the moment. Right then."

This suggests that happiness doesn't live in a nostalgic past or a utopian future. It lives in the moment. If only we could learn to live there too.

Today is the International Day of Happiness. It's a day to connect, to inspire action for a happier world and to take a step back from the material side of life. And a day, perhaps, to start living in the moment.

(Still, I wouldn't mind getting my hands on those wall ducks…)