By Nash Naam

Guest Columnist

What is happiness?

This is a frequently asked question with no single, all agreed upon, answer. If you would ask 100 people to define happiness, you may get 100 different answers. For many, there is even no need to define happiness.

We know it when we feel it. Happiness is not only one passive emotion. It is a mix of several emotions that may include joy, contentment, pride, gratitude, cheerfulness and even euphoria.

Researchers, for years, tried to define happiness in order to study it. Some summarize that feeling as a “subjective well-being.”

In her 2007 book, The How of Happiness, psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky describes happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”

I like this definition since it combines the subjective sense of well-being with how one’s life is meaningful and worthwhile. It is not easy to give a simple answer to that question, but sometimes it needs to be divided into its essential components to better define the different emotions associated with the sense of happiness.

Ms. Lyubomirsky’s definition captures the positive emotions that come with happiness, along with a deeper sense of meaning and purpose in life — and suggests how these emotions and sense of meaning reinforce one another.

The Declaration of Independence states: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

It is genius to phrase it this way. So, happiness is not a right, but the pursuit of happiness is. This also means that we are the ones who should pursue our own happiness. We have the right, but also the responsibility and duty to pursue that hefty goal.

It is somewhat difficult to put a scale to define the degree of happiness among people in different countries. The definition of happiness may vary from one person to another, and it may have a different context in different cultures. So, imagine the difficulty to compare the degree of happiness in different countries.

In spite of the challenges in reporting on world happiness according to each country, a group of researchers have been comparing happiness in different parts of the world. This year’s “World Happiness Report” was published last week.

It is a long document that is worth reading. This report compares happiness in 156 countries. If defining the level of happiness among different people is difficult, imagine trying to compare happiness among this huge number of countries from different cultures.

People from those different countries were asked to rate the quality of their lives on a scale of 0-10. Countries were compared based on six factors — GDP per capita, life expectancy, social context, generosity, freedom and corruption. The authors added a seventh parameter they called “Dystopia.”

The top happy country this year is Finland. It jumped from fifth place last year to first this year. But the first five countries — Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland — are the same ones that held the top five positions last year.

This year, the United States dropped from the 15th to the 18th position. Canada is in 7th position. The last five countries — Burundi, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Tanzania and Yemen — are all in Sub Sahara Africa and the Middle East.

An amazing phenomenon was also identified in this study. When the immigrant population of each country was also surveyed, the level of happiness in that group was almost identical to those of the natives of that country.

In studying the United States, the authors identified something called the Easterlin Paradox. Income per capita has more than doubled since 1972, while happiness or subjective well-being has remained roughly unchanged or has even declined. The authors attribute this to the undermining of America’s subjective well-being by three interrelated epidemic diseases — obesity, opioid abuse and depression.

Obesity is a well-known factor associated with lower sense of happiness as many studies show that obese individuals have significantly poorer health and lower subjective well-being.

The opioid epidemic has had a significant impact on the population in the US. For the first time ever, the U.S. life expectancy actually dropped by 0.1 years from 2014 to 2015, and then by another 0.1 years from 2015 to 2016. This reversal in the upward trend of life expectancy is shocking and almost unprecedented for a rich country in recent decades.

The CDC counted 63,000 deaths from drug overdoses in 2016, marking an increase in the age-specific mortality rate from 6.1 per 100,000 in 1999 to 19.8 per 100,000 in 2016.  This is a huge difference especially in the more vulnerable group of population — the young.

All these factors have influenced the perception of happiness among U.S. citizens. It remains to be seen if this trend will be corrected for this year or if it will continue to have an impact on the life expectancy and the actual collective happiness of the people of our country.