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The Secret to Happiness

Plainly, a lot of people these days are interested in happiness — how to get happy, why some people are happier than others, etc. For example, there’s Dan Gilbert’s best-seller Stumbling on Happiness and, currently at No. 1 on the N.Y. Times‘s list of most e-mailed articles, a piece by Dan Max about university happiness studies.

Among the most intriguing happiness theories I’ve come across is this one, put forth in a recent issue of BMJ. It asserts that the citizens of Denmark are happier than their European counterparts, even though they rank high in the kind of things that are typically affiliated with a low happiness rank, like bad weather, bad food, and high alcohol consumption.

So what’s their secret?

Low expectations. “It’s a David and Goliath thing,” says Kaare Christensen, one of the study’s authors, in a brief article in today’s N.Y. Times. “If you’re a big guy, you expect to be on the top all the time and you’re disappointed when things don’t go well. But when you’re down at the bottom like us, you hang on, you don’t expect much, and once in a while you win, and it’s that much better.”

This theory makes sense to me, just as it makes sense that people who earn a few thousand dollars more than their colleagues say they are happier than if they were earning more money but less than their colleagues. As with many things in life, relative happiness may be far more important, or at least measurable, than absolute happiness.