Try this experiment. Ask the next person you see what they most want out of life, and no matter what their answer you can guarantee they will have to think about it.

A pause. Then they will probably to say happiness. The pause is to allow their brain to flick through money, more sex and a big house before saying what they know they are supposed to.

This happens because we struggle to know what really makes us happy. Hence the wheels of the happiness industry continue to turn relentlessly, with any number of businesses dedicated to providing us with more happiness and their owners with more money, more sex and a bigger house.

Happiness is a matter of national pride - turn that frown upside down or risk being called unpatriotic. We all want to be like the Scandinavian countries that consistently rank near the top of world happiness league tables. In the most recent World Happiness Report "we" came eighth, but Denmark, Norway and honorary Scandies Iceland and Finland all preceded us.


But just as we find that many of the most admired societies of ancient times, such as the Greeks, only did all that developing because their economy depended on slaves, there is a darker side to the world's happiest countries. Iceland has the world's highest rate of anti-depressant consumption.

Denmark is second. Well, you're bound to be a little chirpier than the next bloke if you're popping all those pills aren't you?

But such are the lengths to which people - whole nations of them - will go to be able to describe themselves as happy.

Partly, this is to keep the economy moving. Where happiness used to be defined as having nothing to do with filthy lucre, it is now exploited to make us more productive and willing to spend on all manner of items that promise to make us happy.

You'd be hard put to find a company of any size that doesn't mandate some kind of compulsory fun for its employees. They just want everyone to be happy at work; it's a coincidence this translates directly into dollars, if only by eliminating the costs involved in replacing unhappy staff who leave.

At your office, it might be Friday night drinks; at some companies it's mindfulness breaks. Just about anywhere it is the enforced fun of the themed Christmas party.

Think you can't buy happiness? Don't tell Trade Me - last time I checked, typing that word into the search box yielded 9468 listings.

Sorted by highest price and excluding real estate, the priciest piece of happiness to be had was the licence plate Chow 18, for $50,000.

Cheapest? You can get a sign saying "Happiness is not a destination it's a way of life" for $1.

The US Declaration of Independence tellingly speaks of rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" because it's easier to guarantee lives and liberty than happiness. All it promises is that you can go chasing that bright elusive butterfly, but as for catching it, good luck to you.

Happiness used to be something one sorted for oneself, often with the help of family, and best of all by having a family. But with nuclear families becoming rarer - one quarter of New Zealand households have only one inhabitant - happiness is increasingly sought elsewhere.

Books promising the key to happiness are still pouring off the presses. Their purpose is not to achieve that aim but to give unhappy people something to take their minds off their misery.

If just one of those books worked the others wouldn't need to exist. And that would be a happy ending.