Happiness for the Elite. Reflections from the World Happiness Summit 2017

By Dr  Salvatore Di Martino, Research Assistant- Centre for Health Promotion Research

I chose this video because I believe it truly captures the essence of the World Happiness Summit (2017) (WOHASU). “Happiness is a choice!” or, as I think it should have been better stated “Happiness is YOUR choice!”. The WOHASU was an opportunity to show at an international event what the scientific community, the media, and politics are doing to promote happiness around the world. Its outreach has been quite extensive. Spiritual leaders, renowned academics, policy-makers and lay people all gathered in Miami for three days in March 2017, to talk about happiness.

The message sent by the WOHASU has been quite clear. If people want to be happy, they need to:

Nurture social relationships

Express generosity, gratitude, and compassion

Pursuing life goals

Commit to a healthy diet, physical activity, and spiritual practices (i.e. meditation, yoga, etc.)

Work in a good environment or quit an unsatisfying job (if you do not believe me, visit http://www.internationalquityourcrappyjobday.com), and ultimately,

Change their behaviour and take control of their own life

In principle, these and other strategies suggested are all good things. However, all the time I could not help but feel that something was missing from what it appeared to me as a ‘happiness prescription’. And then, on my second day at the WOHASU, while I was listening to the umpteenth speaker extolling the virtues of being happy and the benefits that it brings about (including making him and his wife find their dream house in the centre of New York), a colleagues of mine gently whispered into my ear: “This is just happiness for the elite!”. All of a sudden, that feeling of uneasiness and discomfort that I had felt until that moment had been put into words. I am quite sure that by referring to the ‘elite’, my colleague was not necessary talking about a superclass of wealthy and powerful people (although when a member of the staff came on stage calling for the owner of the Porsche parked outside to move it, I had a hint that such a description might be fairly accurate for some attendees).

This does not mean that well-off people have no right to be happy. What I am trying to say is that the way happiness and its pursuit was advertised at the WOHASU was very much in line with the American dream and the concept of the self-made man. By the same token, the WOHASU attendees and the spoke people on the stage, embodied the credo of what I call the ‘happiness dream’. By ‘happiness dream’ I refer to the belief that if you work hard enough (in this case on yourself), and decide to follow the ‘happiness prescription’, you will be eventually rewarded with long-lasting happiness.

What it is not advertised, is that the happiness dream, just like the American dream, comes true only for a few fortunate people. Perhaps, it is no accident that, the USA is one of the countries with the highest level of inequality in the world (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2010). As Richard Wilkinson once said “If you want to pursue the American dream, move to Denmark”. Given the difference in life satisfaction between these two countries (see Helliwell, Layard, & Sachs, 2017), I believe we could easily change ‘American’ with ‘happiness’ and Wilkinson’s statement would still hold true.

The ‘happiness for the elite’ is sadly blind to those who are not in the position to pursue the ‘happiness dream’, not because of lack of will, but because they are deprived of the means and the opportunities to commit themselves to following the happiness prescription.

Needless to remind ourselves that there are millions of people around the world who are subjected everyday to discrimination and abuse due to their sexual orientation, gender, social and economic status, age, physical and psychological impairments, etc. Others struggle to make ends meet, pay off debts, live in the fear of falling ill because they are not covered by a health insurance. Others live under the sway of oppressive regimes where their freedom of speech, thought, and expression is constantly denied, repressed, and punished. Without resorting to too extreme cases, we all know (I do hope), people who have no time, or resources, to commit themselves to meditating and doing physical exercise, that cannot afford to quit their job, no matter how unsatisfying it might be and therefore find little contentment in reminding themselves that they should be doing more to be happy.

Most important of all, all the unheard, voiceless, oppressed, powerless, disenfranchised, victimised, exploited people who have little or no opportunity to pursue the ‘happiness dream’ or simply the ones that work hard everyday just o live a decent life are not a minority. On the contrary, most of the people (if not all of them) that were at WOHASU, including me, form indeed a minority of privileged few who hopefully have never found themselves in any of the above predicaments, hence they are an elite. Do they deserve to be happy? Certainly yes! Can they attain long-lasting happiness and a fulfilling life if they they abide by the ‘happiness prescription’? The answer is again “probably yes”. Do they believe that the happiness dream is available for everyone, including those who are not part of the elite? I think they do and, most of all, I believe they are wrong.

There are at least three reasons why I believe so. These are actually three shortcomings in the concept of the “happiness dream”, which I more extensively described in one of my latest works (Di Martino, Eiroa-Orosa, & Arcidiacono, 2017).

  • Context

The pursuit of happiness is extremely individualised. The choice hence the responsibility of being happy lies within the the power and capacity for self-improvement of the individual. Social happiness is seen as an aggregate of individual happiness. Although contextual variables (i.e. work, family, social life) are taken into account, their effect is a) instrumental to the individual’s happiness and b) filtered through the individual’s subjective experience.

  • Social Justice

As a consequence, external circumstances are relegated to a secondary position. What it comes first is people’s subjective attitude towards life, not the objective conditions of life itself. It follows that, if people are unhappy is probably because they have not done enough to be happy. This attitude is extremely risky, most of all because it lends itself to blaming the victim.

  • Morals

Little attention is also devoted to the moral consequences that an unduly person-centred pursuit of happiness can have on both the others and the environment. The Aristotelean principle of eudemonia (happiness as virtuous life) does not extend beyond the boundaries of the elite and above all, it does not question the idea that we have a moral duty to forgo our own privileges to make others happy.

A prime example of how much the happiness dream falls short of a contextual perspective, social justice, and morals, can be found in the work of Sonja Lyubomirsky (2007), where the author states that only 10% of people’s happiness is determined by life circumstance, that is, I quote “… whether we are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, etc… Thus the key to happiness lies not in changing our genetic makeup (which is impossible) and not in changing our circumstances (i.e., seeking wealth or attractiveness or better colleagues, which is usually impractical), but in our daily intentional activities.” (p. 21-22).” (see this video for more).

I like to reply to Lyubomirsky’s quote with another one: “… What if an individual’s unhappiness stems not from any biological or psychological ‘fault’ but from the wider socioeconomic conditions in which they find themselves living—in an area with extreme deprivation and inequality, say, or a faltering economy?” (Thompson, 2013, p. 428). In that sense, it is quite telling that all the studies cited by the Lyubomirsky in support of her model, have never included any variable accountable for people’s socio-political condition. Conversely, those who have included them, have consistently debunked the idea that our genetic make-up is a key determinant to achieve happiness and that external and objective circumstances account for more than a mere 10% of people’s life satisfaction. For instance, aspects of social justice such as democracy and sense of freedom (Inglehart, Foa, Peterson, & Welzel, 2008; Inglehart & Klingemann, 2000) as well as wealth, human rights, political freedom, job security, political stability, and gender equality (Diener, Lucas, & Scollon, 2006) have been found to have a strong influence on people’s subjective well-being well beyond a biological pre-determined set point.

On the other hand, someone could also quote that “Happiness is not, except in very rare cases, something that drops into the mouth, like a ripe fruit, by the mere operation of fortunate circumstance” as Bertrand Russell stated in his book aptly titled “The Conquest of Happiness”. I do not deny that happiness is indeed a conquest and a certain degree of commitment and even sacrifice is necessary to attain a happy life. However, this should not rule out that people need to be put in the right conditions to thrive.

To explain my point, when I did my presentation, on the 3rd day of WOHASU, I showed the audience this video.

And then I asked the question: Do you think that if Paula were unhappy or, let us say less happy than Paul, is because she has not expressed enough gratitude for what she has got? Do you think she should be meditating more? Or perhaps she should take more care of her social relationships? Or maybe she should quit her job and find a more fulfilling one?

My answer is that first she should be granted the same opportunities as everybody else, and then perhaps she could be accountable for the degree of happiness she manages to attain.

In other words, Paula should be entitled – If not to the same status as Paul (because let’s face it, and ideal world is far from being attainable) – to a minimum standard, that is a set of resources and opportunities (read capabilities) that could allow her to pursue happiness without living a life that is, by all means, appears as a constant struggle for survival.

Conversely, telling Paula that she has access to the happiness dream as much as Paul and she is failing to reach out for it, in spite of her blatant hardships, would be unjust, deceiving, and ultimately utterly unreasonable.

Alas, many of those who I met at the WOHASU genuinely assumed that everyone is already above that minimum standard, that all people start from the same point in life and therefore they are all perfectly capable to pursue the happiness dream.  I received the most striking proof of this after I completed my presentation, when I was approached by a very nice lady who warmly thanked me for giving such an inspirational speech, just to add straight after “So, my question for you is: How do we make all those people aware that their unhappiness is all in their mind, that what they think is injustice can be changed if they change their attitude towards life, and that you can find happiness even in the most difficult circumstances?

I travelled 4350 miles to be in Miami at the World Happiness Summit, just to see first-hand that what I have been analysing from a critical stance for several years is real, that it is happening right now and is affecting people’s life.

I am glad I was given this opportunity, and as much as I had to accept that my work is a constant swim against the tide and that it will be hard to make my voice heard among a crowd that has embraced the credo of the ‘happiness dream’, I do believe that my message was worth being delivered and that there is always someone willing to listen to it.



Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Scollon, C. N. (2006). Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill: Revising the Adaptation Theory of Well-being. American Psychologist, 61(4), 305–314.

Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2017). World Happiness Report 2017. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Retrieved from http://worldhappiness.report/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2017/03/HR17.pdf.

Inglehart, R., & Klingemann, H. D. (2000). Genes, Culture, Democracy, and Happiness. In E. Diener & E. M. Suh (Eds.), Culture and Subjective Well-being (pp. 165-183). London: MIT Press.

Inglehart, R., Foa, R., Peterson, C., & Welzel, C. (2008). Development, freedom, and rising happiness: A global perspective (1981–2007). Perspectives on psychological science, 3(4), 264-285.

Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. New York: The Penguin Press.

Thompson, S. (2013). Introduction to happiness and society. In S.A. David, I. Boniwell & A.C. Ayers (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Happiness. (pp. 427-430). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The Spirit Level: Why Equality Is Better for Everyone. London: Penguin Books.

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