This article should have been easy enough for me to write. March 20th is International Day of Happiness, a globally recognized day devoted to the sustainable development of a statistically-sound and scientifically proven world of Happy People. What could be more fun to write about than a blissful day of people smiling and laughing and loving life all around the world?
But I've been sitting here for ages, and I've written nothing.
When I first read about this day of awareness, I'd barely finished a sentence before I started thinking of all the ways I could celebrate it. Working in event production, I visualized throwing a massive party with all of my friends, complete with yoga, dancing, haikus, body art, DJs, incredible food, maybe a potbelly pig or at least a bearded guy with a snake—you know, your standard Brooklyn scene. There would be a charity aspect, of course, with all the proceeds going towards one of the numerous nonprofits I've worked with. We'd raise lots of money and dance around and smile and laugh and look really really good, and we'd be all over Instagram and hashtagging the hell outta every word that we'd sing as we'd smoke hand rolled cigs by a perfectly blazing fire. There'd be so much happiness that the space would actually implode, caving in on itself and becoming a vortex of sparkly gravity shooting rainbows in every direction while sucking all the beautiful people into a warped galaxy of eternal euphoria—
Oh whoops! In my excitement, I'd smushed my keyboard and a new tab opened in Safari with my homepage up. Leave it to Al Jazeera to bring my daydreams to a screeching halt—the best International Day of Happiness Brooklyn has ever seen disappeared, and instead I was looking at a sobbing mother clutching her bloody baby in the midst of rubble and smoke. To the right, men in lab coats discussed the impending Zika doom, and even further to the right, refugees in Greece hang from tree limbs, having taken their lives out of desperation.
I know an unfortunate number of people who stay intentionally ignorant of global affairs because things are just far too depressing for them to think about. Understandable—cowardly, but understandable. There's the feeling that issues are just too big for one person to do anything about, so why worry about things that are out of one's control? How can I stop global climate change? How do I end wars fueled by centuries of religious conflict? How do I convince my country that Bernie Sanders is, in fact, the most electable Democratic candidate?
I prefer to start my day by listening to NPR's News Hour, a healthy, commercial-free dose of harsh reality; ignorance is bliss, but education is empowering, and I'd rather be in the know than in a bubble. When I first read about this International Day of Happiness, after my party plans dissolved, I felt rather skeptical: is this Hallmark's Valentine's Day version 2.0? Sounds like a buncha hullaballoo if you ask me, celebrating happiness while schools and hospitals are being blown to smithereens by warring nations, and while another faulty oil pipeline has decimated swaths of the Amazon, and while children are still starving in Africa!
But like I said: education is empowering. So I set out to find out just what this March 20th deal is all about.
The notion of promoting global happiness on a tangible and measurable scale has been around for over four decades, with the King of Bhutan introducing the Gross National Happiness (GNH) philosophy in 1972 (Bhutan, by the way, is the first and only country to date to have officially adopted gross national happiness instead of gross domestic product as the main development indicator). The index was based on four pillars, but they were revised and expanded upon in 2010 to distinguish eight overarching contributors to happiness: physical, mental and spiritual health; time-balance; social and community vitality; cultural vitality; education; living standards; good governance; and ecological vitality. In April of 2012, just before the first UN High Level Meeting on "Happiness and Well-Being: Defining a New Economic Paradigm," the World Happiness Report was released, which outlined the state of world happiness as determined by evaluating a set of indicators similar to those outlined by the GNH.
For several years, UN adviser Jayme Illien urged the General Assembly to step up the game: it needed to acknowledge the pursuit of happiness as a human right and a "fundamental human goal." In June of 2012, following Illien's efforts and the release of the premier World Happiness Report, the UN passed the Assembly Resolution A/RES/66/281, which “recognizes that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human goal, [and establishes a] more inclusive, equitable and balanced approach to economic growth that promotes sustainable development, poverty eradication, happiness and the wellbeing of all peoples.”
Since its inception, numerous organizations have sprouted around the world in an effort to raise awareness about the day. These groups provide an array of tips and tools: Happiness International offers an online Happiness Planner (for only $47 a month, I could get their Premium planner, complete with a “risk-free guarantee!”); the Secret Society for Happy People (not so secret I suppose) awards a Social Media Badge with membership, as well as a “31 Types of Happiness” poster; and Day of Happiness Project's “The Way of Happiness” guidebook is chock full of sage advice on how to create a happier world, from being nice to one another, to helping the poor, to just smiling! It's shocking I'd survived this long without this book. Even Pharrell Williams got in on the act: in 2015, he linked up with The UN Foundation to throw the “Happy Party,” and drove supporters to sign the Live Earth Petition to urge world leaders to commit to tackling climate change. It's the most well-intended publicity stunt I've ever seen, and I'm quietly cursing myself as “Happy” creeps into my head.
Pop songs and planners aside, I couldn't shake this feeling that something just wasn't clicking for me. This all sounded just lovely, but I wanted to hear about something tangible, verifiable, stamped and certifiable; I wanted cold hard Methods For Creating Happiness For Everyone Everywhere. Forever.
So I dug deeper, clicked more, and scrolled faster. There had to be something more substantial in this whole movement than simply reminding ourselves and each other to be happy. I noted the sub-notes, linked the links, and downloaded more uplifting material than I could handle. Then it hit me—I'd only merely glanced over two of the most important pieces of material: International Day of Happiness is built on the findings of the World Happiness Report and works to promote happiness as a human right through preserving the values of the Global Goals for Sustainable Development.
Perusing the Global Goals website, I kept my discerning guard up—I'm not convinced or impressed by great graphic design and photos of celebrities holding starving babies. But I was impressed by the organization's mission:
“A 17-point plan to end poverty, combat climate change and fight injustice and inequality . . . A plan that 193 governments have agreed, a plan that the world wants and needs. A plan backed by leading business and organisations. A to-do list for the planet that will only be achieved if everyone plays their part.”
And I was impressed by the number of organizations working tirelessly towards accomplishing these goals, and by their work producing results that are tangible, verifiable, stamped and certifiable.
The 2015 World Happiness Report took some time (and a cappuccino and a few Facebook breaks) to get through—but it was worth it. If nothing else, it's a fascinating read. The report and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are inextricably linked: governments and leading experts in an array of fields support the “inclusion of happiness indicators for the SDGs. The [WHR] once again underscores the fruitfulness of using happiness measurements for guiding policy making and for helping to assess the overall well-being in each society.” I'm not sure what I expected when I downloaded 2015's WHR, but I definitely didn't think I'd be scrolling through 167 pages of charts, equations, neuroscience, and philosophy. The result of Gallup World Poll's massive surveying efforts synthesizes six main variables, including real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, and freedom from corruption, to name a few.
And all of a sudden, there it was. I reached Chapter Eight of the report and that something finally clicked. There's a strong social theme that's woven throughout the report, and of the six variables considered as key indicators of happiness, two in particular stood out to me: having someone to count on, and generosity. In fact, differences in social support is actually considered one of the three most important variables. Chapter Eight is devoted entirely to illustrating the importance of investing in what's known as “social capital.” Social capital is “a measure of the quality of interpersonal relations, involving trust, honesty, and mutual support, and these in turn increase mental and physical wellbeing.” A strong social support system is essential for the foundation of a resilient community, both on a small scale and globally, and this is overlooked far too often.
This, to me, is what it's all about. At the root of the violence we see around us, the clashing of classes and races, power struggles, gender inequality, and even economic atrocities, is the lack of connection between one another. We've forgotten that man, as Aristotle said, is a social animal. We need each other, for happiness and, ultimately, for survival—we cannot exist in a social vacuum. Research shows that “when individuals are made to experience social isolation, many of the same brain regions become active that are active in the experience of physical pain.”
And that's what at the core of this International Day of Happiness. It's in the pictures of smiling kids and celebrities holding babies; it's in the bus of supporters that Pharrell took to his Publicity Stunt for the Planet; and it's in the middle of the dance floor of my Best International Day of Happiness Brooklyn Has Ever Seen party. Maybe throwing an event for all my friends isn't going to hold up hospital walls in Gaza. And carrying a bag of groceries for an elderly lady isn't going to improve smartphone factory conditions in China. But by dancing and laughing and being the best people we know how to be, we can set an example. We can form a social fabric so strong it could cradle the world, and we can show the powers that be that we can clean up our oceans and feed the hungry and fight climate change—but we can only do it together.
I needed to see the science and read the numbers to understand International Day of Happiness. But to feel it, all I have to do is reach out a hand.