New runners in the race for happiness

We're sending our condolences to the Japanese this week. They've just discovered the idea of happiness, and, as any American can tell them, this is enough to make strong persons weep.

With the efficiency that has taught Detroit to tremble, Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone is proposing a ''net national satisfaction index'' to measure officially the exact state of public happiness.

We're not sure what the ''net national satisfaction index'' is about. We're not even sure we want to know. Such data as the divorce rate and the number of trips vacationers take abroad will be factored in - only Japanese sociologists know how!

One thing does seem clear. Now that the Japanese have successfully competed with Americans at the money game, they're ready to take a run at us as the top-rated pursuers of happiness as well.

A lot of us happiness hot-footers will gladly pull over to the side of the road and let the new contenders pass. However blissful happiness may prove to be when you catch up with it, chasing the bluebird is not necessarily a barrel of fun.

Indeed, constantly asking yourself, ''Am I happy - yet?'' can be an exhausting, if not depressing experience. In the first place, nothing is more difficult to define than happiness. As one happiness-researcher has correctly observed, ''It's not like measuring the temperature of sea water.''

The Japanese may be hard workers. But they won't know what hard work is until they expose themselves to the merciless ''mood'' or ''attitude'' polls required of a people who wish to declare themselves officially happy.

Just this month the editors of USA Today approached their happiness-pursuing readers with a poll bearing the headline: ''How down do you feel?'' Here we see another of the disadvantages of being obsessed with happiness. You tend to be obsessed with unhappiness too. Thus, in addition to being offered cheerful test statements like, ''My life is pretty full'' and ''I eat as much as I used to,'' USA Today guinea pigs were also invited to rate themselves on such confessions as: ''I have crying spells'' and ''I feel that others would be better off if I were dead.''

Checking yourself out on a ''mood'' or ''attitude'' poll really wipes the smile off your face, we can tell you that.

One other thing American veterans should warn Japanese novices about. As champs at gross national product - like us - the Japanese are going to have a hard time distinguishing between being rich and being happy, a perennial American confusion. The first item on the new index of ''net national satisfaction'' is consumer prices - a bad sign. We foresee Japanese satirists being driven to borrow the Bob and Ray quip: ''What good is happiness if it doesn't bring you money?''

At the least, trying to decide whether they're happy or not is bound to raise havoc with the productivity for which the Japanese are famous. Look at what introspection has done to American efficiency. Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, you can bet, never stared into the mirror and asked themselves, ''Who am I? Do I like myself? Am I happy?''

Effete questions like that, if we may say so, throw a monkey wrench in the works. Narcissus has no place on the assembly line - that's our motto.

But it's easier to start scrutiny than to stop it. After a while, life becomes as self-absorbed as a bad modern novel.

What can the Japanese do to avoid becoming a nation of runaway happiness-pursuers - hip-deep in self-help books?

Well, they could begin by giving up that ''net satisfaction index.'' Happiness is a shy thing that can't be seized by such a crude confrontation anyway. Of all people, the Japanese should know this. It was a Japanese poet, Tsuboi Shigeji, who wrote: I may be silent, but I'm thinking. I may not talk, but Don't mistake me for a wall.

If we're not misreading these subtle lines, these passionate lines, they are, in fact, about the pursuit of happiness - Japanese-style.

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