There were two good reasons to be happy this week. First, spring is officially here.
Yes, I know. We will probably get another few dumps of snow before it is over but I saw sidewalks this week, which is a real sign of hope.
Second, it was the United Nations International Day of Happiness on Thursday which reminds us to be happy and to try to make other people happy too.
For most of my life, the re-emergence of sidewalks after a long Canadian winter has made me happy. When I was a kid, I knew that it wouldn’t be long before we could take off the heavy burden of winter clothes — coats, scarves, mitts, hats and boots and grab skateboards and bikes with which you could speedily put distance between you and the parental unit of home. Real liberation!
It was also time for a new outfit. My mother believed that you had to have a new outfit for church on Easter Sunday. Getting to the goal was a battle of wills with my mom trying to buy stuff that made me look like a little kid and me aspiring to look like an alluring woman. We would usually meet in the middle — exhausted — but with a nice outfit that we could both live with.
With respect to International Happiness Day, the UN has identified one day annually to recognize the importance of being happy in a non-trivializing way. Many people dismiss the importance of happiness as if were merely unnecessary fluff. The Canadian constitution guarantees security of the person, or the right to life, but it doesn’t say that it has to be a happy life. ‘Who cares about happiness?’ seems a prevailing attitude among a number of people.
You realize very quickly how important happiness is not only to individuals but for the economy when you think about the inverse — unhappiness.
Stress-related diseases have become a 21st-century epidemic. Across industrialized democracies, including Canada, the majority of workers off work on either short-term or long-term disability are absent because of stress related illness. These individuals are not happy and are literally sick from working.
This phenomenon has been so costly that Canada released a workplace framework in 2013 through the Canadian Standards Association to address and seek remedies to improve psychological health in the workplace. Many organizations across Canada are using the framework to try to improve psychological workplace well-being, the lack of which costs billions of dollars every year in lost workplace productivity.
Many philosophers, from ancient to modern times, have speculated on the meaning of life for human beings. One brand of political philosophy articulated the principle which is frequently referred to as the happiness principle.
The principle basically affirms that a nation state is well organized when the greatest good for the greatest number can be achieved. Such a philosophy has been criticized because happiness is seen as mere pleasure-seeking, as if somehow that was a less admirable goal than the noble state of suffering. It is also often objected to on the grounds that not only is it difficult to figure out what makes people happy, but it also assumes that being happy is a good thing and some folks would prefer to be miserable.
Others argue that it is impossible to achieve happiness when there are so many real and objective injustices in the world. Positive psychologists and existential philosophers — folks who take seriously the voluntary nature of at least some of our choices — disagree. While some conditions in our lives are beyond our control, a number of our attitudes toward life can be changed and managed.
To the extent that we can do this, we do have a sphere of freedom where we can choose to be happy.
So, as I place my boot-free feet on the sidewalk today and think of International Happiness Day, I will try to be happy myself for the spring that has arrived and try to be kind to the folks that I see to make their day a little happier.
» Deborah C. Poff, PhD, is president and vice-chancellor of Brandon University. She is also editor of the Journal of Business Ethics, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Academic Ethics. Her column appears monthly.