Traveling among different forms of happiness

The neighbor complained and landlord called. Our dinner was too loud. How could four people be that loud, our neighbor thought. They must be breaking the lockdown rules. In fact, we had four people, three of whom were Italians, around a dinner table, with wine, food, a little music, and a lot of laughter. We made the noise of a small sports team.

Happiness is other people. Let’s get dinner, catch the last ray of sunshine in the park. I’ll see you in 20 minutes.

I study happiness, was born, raised, and generally steeped in the US. I’ve learned a lot of living in this strange place, Luxembourg, over the last few years, and owe a great debt to the Italians and Mediterranean culture. I’m surrounded by Italians, not by accident, at work, among friends, but also spent some time in Turkey and Spain. One of my best friends is from Lebanon, and my Greek friends advise me socially. To me, these represent lands of shared meals. You won’t see Spanish people eating and walking down the street (contrast with New York). Course after homemade course in Beirut, I couldn’t say no, nor yes. The French do this too. Just when I think it’s over, they bring another course. I, in my American fashion, have made my individual dinners so efficient as to not even require multiple dishes to prepare. No shop talk, or business lunches now. Or if so, they’re really about the lunch, and a long lunch, wine included, not business, just an excuse to socialize during business hours. 

We’re not trying to network, learn something or show off, but to make our friends’ hearts expand and bodies fill with laughter. I, we, just want to have fun, and it’s better with you here. 

(I’m enjoying my time with all of my fellow immigrants in Luxembourg, of course the Luxembourgish too. You don’t have to go far to meet people from different places and cultures.) 

These are not among the happiest countries in the world, neither is the US. There is however something special going on. The Latin American countries are happier than we would expect them to be. I believe it’s the priority placed on the family and positive attitude towards life. The sun also doesn’t hurt. Perhaps surprisingly, the Nordic countries are happiest. Their governments work well. People have few concerns and trust their neighbors. You know what to expect, which provides for a feeling of acceptance and the opportunity to fail and try something else. The Nordic governments prioritize inclusion and security for their citizens (income equality and positive freedom more generally). Much of the same was offered in the Mediterranean and Latin countries but provided through families, which have their limitations. 

What would the world look like if we took up these priorities? Inclusion, freedom to fail, opportunities to experiment with different paths to flourish, and levity, levity around the dinner table, in the home, schools, and workplaces. Fun makes difficult things feasible. What’s more, we need less when having fun with friends and family. 

I came to these views through research and traveling. Thankfully not all travel requires covering great distances. 

Kelsey O’Connor

Picture: Dinner preparation after a successful day of mushroom hunting in Luxembourg, 2020. Photo courtesy of Massimo Trifilio

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