Tag Archives: happiness

How To Be Happy

Almost every morning, this blog highlights problems. It’s usually a downer, I know. (I often tell friends that, sometimes, having the ability to vent regularly is all that keeps me from searching for a glass of hemlock.) But every so often, I’m reminded that we really don’t live in a dystopia, and that lots of folks–including yours truly–are pretty happy most of the time.

Granted, it’s a lot easier to be happy when you are a middle-class privileged person with a nice place to live, enough to eat, and perfect grandchildren. But we all know people who manage to be happy despite life circumstances that are anything but comfortable, raising the question: why? Why are some people seemingly hard-wired for happiness–or at least contentment–while others who appear incredibly fortunate, apparently enjoy being miserable?

Are misery and happiness basically genetic, or is there a role for public policy? Several countries seem to think that policy plays a part.

Several years ago, when my husband and I visited Bhutan, I remember being impressed with that country’s Gross National Happiness Index. So much more humane than the economic measures we favor in our “advanced” country! The United Nations also sponsors a Happiness Index (which usually finds Denmark’s citizens to be the world’s happiest). In 2016 the UAE installed a Minister of State for Happiness. In 2019, New Zealand introduced a wellbeing budget to ensure policies consider citizens’ quality of life.

Happiness has also become the focus of academic study. Some time back, the Guardian ran an article on the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. The Institute is an independent think tank, founded in 2013 to “look at happiness from a scientific perspective”, by analyzing data to figure out why some folks are happier than others and–more importantly– how societies can boost their citizens’ wellbeing.

The article questioned Meik Wiking (the “happiness guru”), who founded the Institute, about the impact of the pandemic on happiness.

What the pandemic has done is underscore the joy of simple pleasures. The link between happiness and money has been well-documented over the years and while, in general, rich people are happier than poor people, it’s not that money buys happiness but that “being without money” and unable to afford food and shelter causes unhappiness. Once you’ve passed a certain threshold, “if you’re already making good money, and you make £200 extra, you buy a more expensive bottle of wine but it doesn’t matter”….

Covid-19 has also diminished the possibility for social comparisons. “There’s an American saying that ‘A happy man is a man who makes $100 more than his wife’s sister’s husband,’ and that concept shows up a lot in the data,” says Wiking. We derive pleasure from being more successful than our neighbours or friends – but become anxious when we’re not. By purging our social media feeds of sparkling shots of Michelin-starred meals and island getaways, the pandemic has reduced angst, envy and fear of missing out.

Genetics clearly plays a role in happiness, as studies of identical twins have demonstrated, and researches have also documented what they call “the natural rhythms of life,” finding a “U curve” in which happiness tends to be highest when we’re young and again when we’re old–or at least, past middle age. Where we live is also important– least-happy countries include war-torn Syria, Burundi and the Central African Republic.

“I don’t think we can go to people in refugee camps and say, ‘Listen guys, happiness is a choice,’” says Wiking. “We need to acknowledge external and genetic conditions and not put the entire responsibility on the individual.”

The happiest 10 countries – the Nordics, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland – are all wealthy, so money matters. But so does policy. Countries with similar GDPs have very different levels of life satisfaction, and some poorer nations, such as Costa Rica, score high.

According to Wiking, a nation’s success at converting “wealth into wellbeing” mostly comes down to its ability to eliminate sources of unhappiness. Denmark’s widespread access to education and healthcare removes anxiety- inducing competitiveness. Wiking says that the Nordic countries are not the happiest in the world – they’re the least unhappy.

What I found when I was doing research for my book God and Country supports Wiking’s thesis. People in countries with strong social safety nets were not only happier than Americans, they were less violent. And of course, if happiness is undermined by comparisons with those who have more than we do, America’s current “gilded age” is a constant “in your face” source of discontent.

Public policies can’t change your DNA. They can’t turn pessimists into optimists or make grief over loss less wrenching. But–as Wiking says–good public policies can make you less unhappy.

And that’s not nothing.


Pursuit of Happiness

Last Sunday’s New York Times ran an op-ed by  Arthur Brooks in which he reported the current state of research into that elusive quality we call happiness.

About half of human happiness appears to be “hard-wired”–a genetic inheritance for which we can thank or blame our parents and other forebears. Another forty percent or so apparently comes from relatively evanescent events in our lives–a great new job, an inheritance, divorce ….the sorts of “stuff happens” for good or ill that people post to their Facebook pages.

The remaining 12 percent, Brooks tells us, comes down to four elements: faith, family, community and work.

Actually, while Brooks doesn’t cite it, there is also a fair amount of research suggesting that the first three of those–faith, family and community–are really just surrogates for an underlying data-point: the strength of an individual’s social support system. (It doesn’t matter, for example, what “faith” one cites–the value, and contributor to happiness/contentment, lies in the existence of a supportive congregational community. That need for connection can be met by avowedly secular communities as well as deeply devotional ones.)

It was when he discussed the importance of work that Brooks made a less-appreciated and important observation.

This shouldn’t shock us. Vocation is central to the American ideal, the root of the aphorism that we “live to work” while others “work to live.” Throughout our history, America’s flexible labor markets and dynamic society have given its citizens a unique say over our work — and made our work uniquely relevant to our happiness. When Frederick Douglass rhapsodized about “patient, enduring, honest, unremitting and indefatigable work, into which the whole heart is put,” he struck the bedrock of our culture and character.

Brooks uses the data about the importance of rewarding work to emphasize the role of the free market, and that’s fair enough. Certainly, the ability to choose the work we do is an important element in finding that work meaningful. But I took another, darker lesson from his data.

Americans do indeed measure our  self-worth in terms of our jobs. That means that people who are unemployed don’t just face financial challenges–they face the loss of self-respect. Despite “makers and takers” talking points and the deeply-seated scorn displayed by comfortable Americans who are sure that “those people” don’t really want to work, decades of research underscore the humiliation and deep despair of most unemployed workers–especially those who have lost their jobs in economic downturns.

Policymakers give great lip-service to job creation, but regularly ignore evidence that contradicts their pre-existing beliefs about which policies actually create those jobs.

Brooks has done us a service by reminding us that high unemployment doesn’t just run up the bill for unemployment insurance, food stamps, Medicaid and the like. It increases human misery, and makes a mockery of the American Dream.

Just Think How Happy They’d Be if the Weather Were Better….

Or maybe not. I had a Canadian colleague who insisted that cold weather encourages development of social cooperation and interdependence, and that’s why places like Canada develop better social safety nets.

Recently, Denmark–a cold country with high taxes and one of those “socialist, nanny-state” governments– was ranked the happiest nation on earth.

Of course, being prosperous (not to mention healthy and virtuous) didn’t hurt.

The six factors for a happy nation split evenly between concerns on a government- and on a human-scale. The happiest countries have in common a large GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy at birth and a lack of corruption in leadership. But also essential were three things over which individual citizens have a bit more control: A sense of social support, freedom to make life choices and a culture of generosity.

There’s a fair amount of evidence that strong social safety nets correlate with socially healthier societies–less gun violence, lower divorce rates, less discord, etc. (In all fairness, there’s also evidence suggesting that feelings of mutual obligation/collective responsibility also correlate with high levels of homogeneity. It’s easier to care about the elderly when they all look like grandma…)

The report notes that Danes have “a sense of stewardship” and are massively engaged in political and civil life. During the last election, in 2011,  87.7 voted. Over 40% volunteer in NGOs, social and political organizations, etc.

Denmark may not be everyone’s idea of the ideal society, but life there sure beats the “vision” espoused by Paul Ryan and the Tea Party–a dog eat dog society in which the privileged deny any obligation to the less fortunate, where basic health care is a consumer good available to those who can afford it, and social security is “charity.”

And if we’re talking about happiness, folks in states like Mississippi and Texas–where Tea Party principles are the order of the day and efforts to create a “culture of generosity” would bring catcalls and derision– don’t look all that happy to me.