People generally rate happiness as important. In a recent study, Australians ranked happiness, not money, as the top measure of success. Happiness is linked to well-being, so much so, that the United Nations conducts a survey every five years to track happiness across countries. The latest findings can be viewed in the 2017 World Happiness Report (see http://worldhappiness.report).
Happiness at a National Level The 2017 World Happiness Report ranked the main factors supporting happiness at a national level as caring and social support, freedom, generosity, honesty, healthy life expectancy, income and good governance (i.e. the absence of corruption). In 2017 Australia ranked no.9, behind Switzerland and the Nordic countries. The USA ranked no.16, dropping from no.3 position in 2007, despite an increase in income levels.
The main reasons for the decrease were declining social support and increased corruption. In other words, falling American happiness is due primarily to social rather than to economic causes.
In Western societies, mental illness is more important than income, employment or physical illness. In every country, physical health is also important, yet in no country is it more important than mental health.
Personal Happiness So, if happiness is so important, what is happiness and what makes a person happy? Do life circumstances determine happiness? Can less happy people learn to be happy? Scientific research has examined these questions, finding that happy people are more creative and productive at work; are better leaders and negotiators; have more friends and social support; have stronger immune systems, are physically healthier and live longer; are more helpful and philanthropic; and cope better with stress and trauma.
A wide-ranging study by Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky examined the factors most responsible for enduring happiness, versus fleeting experiences. The study found that genes and personality play a significant role, accounting for about 50% of the happiness pie. Circumstances account for only 10%. One element, called intentional activity, accounts for the remaining 40% of total happiness. To get a sense of the significance of this, any drug that has a treatment effect of 40% is regarded as potent.
Intentional Activity – the How of Happiness Intentional activity refers to a wide variety of things that people think and do in everyday life. These are discrete practices that people can deliberately engage in on a regular basis. They don’t happen on their own but take effort. These could be regarded as the how of happiness:
Expressing gratitude: for example, making a habit of writing down up to five things you are grateful for in the past week.
Being kind: acts of kindness keep us connected to something bigger than ourselves.
Mentally replaying happy life experiences: the practice of repetitively replaying your happiest life events serves to prolong and reinforce positive emotions, whereas systematically analysing your happiest life events has the reverse effect.
Pursuing meaningful goals: setting and pursuing realistic, meaningful goals helps build our sense of mastery and resilience.
Practising contentment: Happy people are relatively more likely to be satisfied with an option that is merely ‘good enough’. Unhappy people, by contrast, are more likely to try to make the absolute best choice.
Learning from the past: viewing mistakes and setbacks as an opportunity to learn rather than dwelling on them.
Avoiding comparison: happy and unhappy people experience similar events but interpret them differently. Happy people are not preoccupied with comparing themselves to others.
Avoiding overthinking: over-analysing sustains or worsens sadness, fosters negative thinking, impairs your ability to solve problems, saps motivation, and interferes with concentration and initiative.
Why does intentional activity sustain happiness? The research found that human beings tend to adapt to their circumstances. Increases in income and pursuit of pleasure only lead to increased satisfaction up to a point. After this, a process called hedonic adaptation kicks in, causing a sense of boredom or that “is that all there is?” feeling.
So, if we think of happiness purely in terms of pleasure, or what others can do for us, we will miss opportunities around us, including tapping into a free resource for sustaining well-being.