LONDON – As I put pen to paper, my wife threw out a seasonal challenge: “Christmas is approaching – the time for peace and joy and all that. Can’t you write about something that will make people happy?”
What sounds like a light-hearted request is actually a formidable task. Ebola is decimating lives and livelihoods in West Africa. A legion of Islamist thugs is terrorizing Syria and Iraq. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces have invaded Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Add to that a faltering global economy, and there seems to be little “holiday cheer” on offer.
But happiness is a complex phenomenon. People living poorly may feel happier more often than their more “fortunate” counterparts. It is this kind of contradiction that has fueled research in the social sciences and neurology devoted to answering the age-old question: What is the secret to happiness?
Of course, the tools that scientists are using – from advanced imaging to examine the brain’s pleasure centers to microeconomic happiness equations – are not proven in this area. Can an algorithm, however well researched and carefully crafted, ever really capture the relationship between happiness and factors like income, health, lifespan, and education?
In any case, it is clear that happiness is not dictated by one’s job title or bank balance. The British comedian Spike Milligan may have wanted the chance to prove that money couldn’t buy him happiness. But he undoubtedly would have conceded that other factors – like good health and close friends – did much to improve his state of mind.
Even seemingly mundane activities can – and should – bring considerable happiness, as they can represent significant progress. My visit to the dentist last week, for example, was far superior to my childhood visits. As a child, the mere sight of the dentist chair would cause me to break out in a cold sweat, as I anticipated my forthcoming encounter with the battery of gleaming instruments seemingly designed for the principal purpose of causing excruciating pain. My most recent experience, by contrast, was uncomplicated, even comfortable.
And I was not a child that long ago. Imagine a child’s experience a century ago or earlier. Some 5,000 years ago, the Chinese used acupuncture, not dental care, to treat toothaches. Aristotle was preoccupied with dental issues, writing about treatments of decayed teeth and gum disease, extractions conducted with forceps, and the use of wire to stabilize fractured jaws. The classical Sanskrit writer Vagbhata described 75 oral diseases. And Shakespeare noted that tooth decay was a cause of awful pain and unpleasant odor.
The pain affected rich and poor alike. Queen Elizabeth I of England used bits of cloth to plug the gaps in her teeth, in order to improve her appearance. Louis XIV of France had all of his upper teeth removed after a dentist fractured his jaw trying to extract a lower molar.
So many people lost their teeth that dead people’s teeth were recycled. The teeth of the 50,000 soldiers killed at Waterloo in 1815 were extracted and used until the 1860s as replacements for the toothless.
Even in my own lifetime, tooth loss was commonplace. My grandmother lost all of her teeth during her life, and my parents lost many of theirs. They used to pop their dentures into a mug of whitener every night.
Of course, dental maladies have not been eliminated. Today, 30% of those aged 65-75 worldwide are toothless, with poor and disadvantaged groups recording the highest rates. But the overall rate is falling. My friend’s young daughter, who recently asked if she would ever have “in and out” teeth like her grandparents, can be relatively confident that she will not.
Even if she did, however, she would not face the barriers that people with poor dental health confronted in the past. Potential army recruits were turned away if they had tooth decay or missing teeth, because they would be unable to bite open a powder cartridge for a musket or use their teeth to remove a grenade’s safety clip; they would also struggle to eat properly. During the Boer War, the British had to send mincing machines to South Africa, so that soldiers were not forced to choke down unmasticated lumps of meat.
It seems that the American writer and journalist P.J. O’Rourke had a point when he argued that the best thing about living in the twenty-first century, versus some “golden age” of the past, is modern dentistry. Why not take teeth – their relative cleanliness and health – as a mark of economic progress and human happiness?
It is, of course, unlikely that dental health will ever secure a place on the United Nations development agenda. But it does offer a straightforward indicator of relative wellbeing. And given how painful a dental condition can be, dentistry deserves a place of honor on next spring’s UN-sponsored International Day of Happiness.
Whatever political horrors may be afflicting the world, there is something for many of us to smile about: a clean, healthy, and pain-free set of pearly whites.