The November issue of National Geographic arrived in our mailbox at home a few days ago and I was immediately intrigued by the headline on the magazine cover. “The Search For Happiness,” it read. Along with the subtitle, “What we can learn from Costa Rica, Denmark, and Singapore—the most joyful places on the planet.”
I consider myself a pretty happy person and I think I’m in some version of the happiness business, but I immediately figured why not see if National Geographic was in on a secret I didn’t know about or didn’t realize. Besides, I’m a preacher and people like me are always looking for inspiration in new places. As a result, I opened the magazine and immersed myself in the lead article.
Well it turns out that every year since 2012, save 2014 for some reason, the United Nations has published The World Happiness Report. Based on thousands of survey responses to various quality of life questions posed by the World Gallup Poll, people around the world have had a chance for the last five years to indicate their level of personal happiness. And that survey information has been compiled and analyzed and made available online and in print for anyone who might be interested. Fascinating stuff if you have time to take a look.
Of course, National Geographic isn’t in the social science and statistic business. They are in the human interest and storytelling business. So they chose three average citizens from Costa Rica, Denmark, and Singapore to illustrate what makes a person happy. And I was particularly struck by the story of Alejandro Zuniga, a fifty-seven year old produce vendor and father who lives just east of San Jose, the capitol city of Costa Rica.
It turns out one night a few years ago, Zuniga got a phone call from a friend with exciting news. “You’ve won the lottery!
Playing the same number over and over for years, Zuniga had indeed purchased the winning ticket and was eligible to receive the grand prize of 50 million “colones” or a little under $100,000 American dollars. But Alejandro didn’t believe his friend on the phone because his friend was a notorious practical joker. Plus, Alejandro was down to his last eight dollars and he wasn’t in the mood. So he hung up on his friend.
The next morning, however, all the produce vendors greeted Alejandro Zuniga with applause as he arrived at work. And as soon as he realized his good fortune, Zuniga proceeded to stride past the produce stalls high-fiving his friends and colleagues. After growing up in a shantytown, quitting school at age 12, struggling with alcohol, and losing the love of his life at age 20, Zuniga had finally struck it rich. And his fellow produce vendors assumed they would soon lose Zuniga to a more affluent lifestyle.
Much to their surprise though, Zuniga kept on showing up to work in subsequent weeks, selling avocados and playing practical jokes on his friends. Meanwhile behind the scenes, unbeknownst to most people, Alejandro Zuniga quietly set about giving away his newfound treasure.
Alejandro gave a million colones to the man who sold him the winning ticket. A million colones to a food stall owner who had fed him in lean times. A million colones to a man who often begged at the produce market. And the rest he gave to his own mother and to the four mothers of his seven children. He gave away so much money, in fact, that within a year Alejandro Zuniga was broke again.
And yet, he insisted when asked, “I couldn’t be happier.” Although he has no car, no expensive jewelry, no fine clothes and no fancy electronics, Alejandro Zuniga doesn’t need any material things to provide happiness or self-esteem…
I’ve never been there myself, but the World Gallup poll indicates there is something special about living in Costa Rica. Since 1970, Costa Rica has seen life expectancy jump from 66 years to 80 years while infant mortality rates have dropped sevenfold. The death rate from heart disease in Costa Rica is about a third less than it is here in this country and Costa Rica spends one tenth as much per capita on health care as the United States.
Overall as a country, Costa Rica features a powerful blend of family bonds, universal health care, faith, lasting peace, equality, and the one thing Alejandro Zuniga possesses in abundance…generosity. Costa Ricans consistently measure high on many of the categories associated with happiness and well-being. Actually, Costa Rica ranks number twelve in the 2017 World Happiness Report. Meanwhile for some perspective, the United States ranks number fourteen.
Over the course of five recent years, World Happiness Report researchers have boiled down to six the factors that drive human happiness. In no particular order they are strong economic growth, healthy life expectancy, quality social relationships, generosity, faith or trust and the freedom to live the life that’s right for you.
By the time I finished reading the National Geographic article, I had a sense of what those six happiness factors mean for people living in Costa Rica, Denmark and Singapore. But I decided to do a little more research to find out what those six factors mean for people like you and me in the United States.
Here’s what I discovered about our country as noted in the 2017 report. Despite the fact that income in America has increased three times since 1960, our collective measured happiness has not risen. Actually the opposite is true…our overall happiness is declining.
If one of the factors in defining happiness is “strong economic growth” as I mentioned earlier, one would think that our level of happiness would rise as our personal income rises. Instead, researchers believe that our declining happiness in this country is the result of a social crisis rather than an economic crisis. Specifically, researchers point to the increasing disparity between the wealthiest and the poorest Americans, perceived and real corruption in various institutions, isolation from one another, and distrust among one another as the major problems.
We may be generating more money in the United States, but generally speaking we feel less sense of personal freedom. The stock market may be hitting record highs, but public health indicators like opioid addiction are also hitting record highs while too many people feel less connected to family and friends and neighbors and community. The richest corporate executives in this country keep multiplying their fortunes, but many Americans feel far more wary of corporations than they did a few decades ago.
Not to mention generosity. Studies show Americans donate less money than we used to. The fact that Alejandro Zuniga remained happy in Costa Rica even when he gave away all his newfound wealth runs contrary to so much of what we preach and practice in this nation.
On top of that, Americans go to church and support churches less than we used to. To be sure, the church has had its share of corruption and some of the scrutiny the church has faced as an institution has been justified. Meanwhile many people in this country claim to live faithful and spiritual lives without any connection to a place of worship. Yet the church is one of the main and one of the few places in most lives where people learn and practice our faith while focusing on things larger and more important than our own well being. Perhaps a revitalization in our churchgoing habits would make Americans a little happier…
In any case, if the World Happiness Report is correct about the United States and if the changes needed to increase our happiness are primarily social rather than economic or political or institutional, then I wonder what needs to be done. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder whether we are looking too hard to try and find the answers. Maybe part of the answer lies just under our noses and we aren’t paying enough attention to it.
You and I as Christians have been given the blueprint for happiness. Which isn’t to say we have the only blueprint. Undoubtedly, people of other faiths have their own valid blueprints.
What it means is that God has given us an instruction manual related to happiness. In order to live good and righteous and compassionate and loving and fulfilling lives, we have this book available to us. A Bible which tells the story of God’s incredible love for God’s people poured out down through history. And a Bible which offers each of us clear direction and a set of keys that enable us to live hopeful and happy lives…even in the midst of fearful, violent, anxious, uneasy times.
We revealed one small portion of that blueprint in this morning’s Scripture lesson from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. It was only four verses long. But as clues go, the passage couldn’t be much simpler or more straightforward.
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
Maybe it’s just me being a preacher. But if you ask me, the Apostle Paul lays out a pretty convincing recipe for happiness. Fill your heart with love and joy. Practice patience and kindness. Live generously and faithfully. Don’t forget to be gentle and full of self-control. Be guided by the Holy Spirit in all we say and do.
I don’t even need a poll or a researcher or a magazine to tell me about these recipes. All I need to do is pick up a Bible and read about happiness myself.
And then follow the instructions. Amen.