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Something to Smile About

P.J. O’Rourke had a point when he argued that the best thing about living in the twenty-first century, rather than in some “golden age” of the past, is modern dentistry. At a time when the world is plagued by conflict and tragedy, healthy teeth are a reminder, however mundane, of economic progress and human happiness.

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?

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