Am I as happy as I could be? How can I become happier? These are questions we all ask ourselves from time to time. And for centuries, philosophers have tied themselves up in knots arguing about what happiness is and trying to define it.
Well, I’m delighted to say that we do, finally, have reliable ways of measuring happiness. There is also scientific proof of the things that make us happy, and those that don’t. They are a mixture of the obvious and the surprising.
I am particularly fired up about the subject at the moment because I have spent the past few days at the Happiness & Its Causes conference in Sydney.
Most of the intriguing news comes courtesy of the annual World Happiness Report, a landmark survey of 1.6 million citizens of 156 countries. This survey involves asking people questions about how happy they are with their life.
One of the big problems about doing such happiness research is working out how to measure it.
After a lot of thought and agonising, they settled on a very obvious solution and that is to ask people: ‘How happy are you with your current life?’
In fact, they ask people to imagine that they are looking at a ladder. The top of the ladder is ten, the bottom is zero.
You have to place yourself on that ladder, depending on how happy you feel at that moment.
Of all the countries involved, Finland is top of the happiness league, followed by Denmark, Norway and Iceland.
The UK comes in at number 15, ahead of most of our European neighbours. The United States trails in at 19th place.
Right at the bottom, as you might imagine, are South Sudan and Syria, countries that are plagued by war.
But what does the World Happiness Report tell us about the things that make us happy? Well, they say three factors are particularly important.
Even millionaires can be miserable
One of the things that are strongly associated with more happiness is money. Or as my dad used to say: ‘Money won’t make you happy, but it will buy you things that make you happy.’
All of the countries at the top of the list are wealthy, although they are not necessarily the wealthiest. In fact, the country with the highest income per head, Qatar, comes in at only 29th.
When it comes to income and happiness, there seems to be a minimum and a maximum.
According to one recent study, couples with a combined salary of £36,000 each year can afford the simple essentials needed for the most basic level of contentment.
Other research suggests that once an individual’s salary reaches above about £65,000, happiness levels begin to decline. For those who bring in £100,000, depression is far more likely to strike.
Researchers think that high earners begin to pursue money as an end in itself, or begin comparing themselves to their more affluent neighbours. While most people envy millionaires, millionaires envy billionaires.
One mindfulness teacher I met at the happiness conference helps the world’s rich and famous to meditate. Interestingly, she told me that her clients are among the most miserable people she knows. But it’s not just how much money you make – what you do with it matters too.
A wealth of research shows that giving at least a portion of your money to others, regardless of how much you earn, not only boosts their happiness but yours too.
As for what you should spend your money on, a giant television may not be as wasteful as you think. Those who struggle with cashflow are, in fact, far happier when their disposable income is spent on products that provide long-term enjoyment, rather than a brief holiday. So, yes, that new sofa really is worth it.
Feeling healthy keeps you smiling
Another key finding of the World Happiness Report was that, unsurprisingly, healthier people tend to be happier.
As someone who writes at length about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle, this made perfect sense to me. Particularly at risk of depressive symptoms are people who are very overweight and those with type 2 diabetes.
According to a 2018 study by researchers at Exeter University, women who are overweight or obese are 20 per cent more likely to experience depression.
Worse still, obese individuals who developed type 2 diabetes saw their risk increase threefold.
First of all, there’s the issue of stigma – those with bigger bodies often experience discrimination. But also carrying excess fat around the tummy area sparks bodily reactions that result in the production of inflammatory chemicals. Chronic inflammation not only increases the risk of heart disease and cancer but also triggers anxiety and depression.
Weight loss, and good sleep may counter this. Exercising regularly will also trigger the release of happy hormones in the brain, boosting mood and helping to shift excess pounds.
Get by with a little help from your friends
Topping the list of the elements that are crucial for a happy life is love and companionship. And not necessarily of the romantic kind.
As part of the World Happiness Report, researchers asked participants: ‘If you were in trouble, do you have relatives or friends you can count on to help you whenever you need them?’
The results showed that citizens of the happiest countries answered a resounding Yes. This trend was first observed in the 1930s during one of the longest human studies ever carried out – The Harvard Longitudinal Study. Researchers recruited 724 students, as well as young men from the Boston area, and followed them for decades, interviewing them each year.
Some became very rich (future US President John F. Kennedy was one participant), while others were regular, working men.
The main finding of the study was that, above all other factors, the men’s social relationships were the biggest predictor of happiness and health.
Those who had plenty of friends, siblings, partners and other family members were far more likely to stay happy – and healthy – well into old age.
But if your social circle is dwindling, there is one exercise you can practise that is scientifically proven to boost your mood.
Every day, write down three good things that happened to you in the past 24 hours. Jot down the time, the place and why it made you feel good. After a few days, you will notice a slight uplift in your mood. I’ve been noting down my ‘three good things’ for a year or so and it seems to be working.
Compiled by Olalekan Adeleye