Throughout human history, few things have been debated by philosophers so often and so deeply as the nature of happiness. Is it an illusion, or a state of feeling content, either through letting go of anxiety or through attaining a state of satisfaction with one’s life? Is it simply a feeling of pleasure? What does it mean, exactly, to be happy?
Over the past few decades, those who study happiness have favoured the ranking of one’s overall “life satisfaction” (through questions such as, “On a scale of one to ten, how satisfied with your life are you right now?”) as indicative of one’s relative happiness— a hypothesis which has formed the basis of many of the happiness studies you’ve likely read about. Happiness has therefore been treated as something of a judgment, an equation people process based on observations of their lives.
This view, logical as it may seem at first glance, may be somewhat reductive, however. Psychologists have discovered there is a curious aspect to human satisfaction that possibly makes it a poor indicator of that elusive quality we call happiness—almost everyone, even those living in the most miserable of conditions (such as the slums of Calcutta), claims to be fairly satisfied with their lives overall. In a recent study of impoverished Egyptians, for example, researchers asked the study’s participants to explain why they were satisfied, and generally received responses following a similar central theme: “One day is good and the other one is bad; whoever accepts the least lives.”
Of course, the above statement does not exactly dance with ebullient joy; instead, it seems as though the poor Egyptians had long ago accepted the fact that they likely could do little to improve their lot in life, so had decided to accept it and remain as content as possible regardless. Doing so was an act of resignation, but by now it has become so practiced for many of these people that they rank their overall satisfaction with life as being pretty good.