The International Day of Happiness is a quirky celebration. Most international days celebrate groups of people – women, children, journalists, refugees etc. Or they point to quite specific qualities that we need in order to flourish: mental and physical health, peace, asylum etc. They encourage us to be attentive to particular groups of people who are impeded from flourishing as human beings, and to act to ensure that society provides for their needs.
In contrast the International Day of Happiness, celebrated on March 20, does not focus on any particular group. Though it certainly celebrates a quality that everyone wants but many lack, it is impossible to think of a program that would guarantee to make unhappy people happy. We can wish that other people will be happy but we cannot make them so.
Happiness Day reminds us that happiness is a gift. We long for it and are grateful when we receive it. But as is the case with all gifts, we cannot buy it. Nor can we lock it away in a safe to ensure that we do not lose it, or successfully sue people if they make us unhappy. It is not an entitlement.
But our desire for happiness is itself a gift. The longing makes us restless with what we have, makes us want more, while knowing that nothing can ever fully satisfy us. It encourages us to reflect on our lives and to ask what are the better gifts we should hunger for. When we realise that nothing can ever make us perfectly happy we are free to be thankful for the gifts we do have, especially our close relationships, and to be thankful for them.
That explains the surprising fact that many poor people are happy. Material poverty is not a good thing. But it does help us to focus on the surprising blessings that each day brings us and to be thankful for them. And thankfulness has a great deal to do with happiness.
Although we cannot make people happy, we can certainly create conditions under which they are likely to be unhappy. Dump people on Nauru and Manus Island and deprive them of freedom and they will be unhappy. Abuse and beat your partner and children and they will almost certainly be unhappy. We are often responsible for other people’s unhappiness.
Although we cannot make people happy, we can also certainly create the conditions under which they may be happy. In Catholic ministries where we accompany vulnerable young people whose lives have often been marked by neglect, violence, mental illness and addiction, we can offer them the respect and constancy that can help them to make connections, gradually to respect themselves and to appreciate the gift they are in themselves and can be to others. They must recognise the gift and accept it, of course, but it is a privilege to be part of their dawning of possibility.
Ultimately happiness comes from good relationships – to ourselves, to others and to the world in which we live. It is a gift worth desiring and a privilege to encourage.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ is an editorial consultant at Jesuit Communications.