On any given day you can always find plenty to be depressed about if you pay attention to the news. But at certain times the misery index seems to reach a sort of peak, and the world seems so screwed up that it makes one wonder if we really are living in what some religiously inclined folks refer to as the "end times." It seems like we're in one of those periods right now.
At times it's enough to make you wonder if there is any place left on earth where a person can find contentment and happiness.
Thanks to the joint efforts of the British think tank the New Economics Foundation and the environmentalist group Friends of the Earth, you need wonder no more. The two groups joined forces to determine which of the 178 countries they surveyed represented the happiest place on earth, and they call the result of their survey the Happy Planet Index (www.happyplanetindex.org/index.htm).
Their conclusion? Paradise has been found, and its name is Vanuatu.
If you're like me, when you hear that piece of news you wonder where the heck this Vanuatu is, and why you've never heard of it if it's so darn great. The "where" question is easy to answer - it's a very small island nation in the South Pacific. But to understand why the survey awarded this obscure little country such a lofty title, you need to know more about the criteria they used to rank happiness.
Happiness is obviously a tough thing to quantify, but the folks behind this survey came up with a formula that balanced personal well-being (including overall satisfaction with life and life expectancy) with the impact of a person's activities on their environment. Using this formula, Vanuatu came out on top because they report a generally high degree of personal satisfaction, live to nearly 70 on average, and do very little damage to their environment.
As you might have already guessed, the United States didn't fare too well in the survey. We had pretty good scores in the life expectancy and personal satisfaction categories, but we sunk like a stone when our environmental impact was figured in. We checked in at number 150 on the list, well behind countries like Cuba (6), China (31), Palestine (45) and Lebanon (83).
It may seem a bit ridiculous to see us ranked so low on a survey that measures happiness when there are so many people from higher-ranked countries beating down our doors to get in on the American dream. And I realize that many Americans will write this whole business off as another publicity stunt by environmental whackos who want to make us feel guilty about how we live.
But I think this survey does raise an interesting point. It might be worthwhile if we stopped to consider whether or not our overarching obsession with technology and the amassing of material possessions is really the quickest road to happiness in this world.
I think that there is something to be said for the simple pleasures, for communing with nature, for living in harmony with your environment rather than constantly seeking to reshape it to appease your desire for comfort and amusement.
It might be worth remembering that when the book that many Americans believe to be the Word of God describes an earthly paradise, it describes a place where man lived a very natural life. There were no iPods, plasma TVs or Hummers in the Garden of Eden. Just a man and a woman and the world God made for them.
Somehow I think Vanuatu might be a bit closer to replicating that scenario than Los Angeles or New York City.
Maybe God knew what He was doing. Sometimes I'm pretty sure that we don't.