Happiness is the elusive El Dorado, both for those seeking it and for those who are merely trying to make sense of it. Definitions of happiness shift over time, and chasing happiness, as a Buddhist would say, can quickly prove a wild goose chase. In 2013 alone, Americans spent 11 billion dollars on products like books, lectures, and motivational programs meant to spur happiness.
But, what, exactly, were Americans hoping to buy? And what does happiness mean to everyone else? According to the latest research, happiness has multiple facets: satisfaction with your life, the meaningfulness of your life, or your happiness in the moment. How sure are you that you are actually happy? And if yes, you’re sure--well then, how happy you are, exactly?
Jon Hall has been researching and measuring happiness for over 10 years now and says that it is quite easy to define what makes people happy across cultures and nations. Jon set up the "Measures of Australia's progress", and once the results of his “smartest social project” were recognized and noticed by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development office, he moved to Paris, France. Started as a “pet” idea, the project has become a successful path he believes is changing the world for the better. And he never could have dreamed that his “off-duty” hobby would morph into a mission in human development with the United Nations in NYC.
“There are different kinds of happiness,’ - explains Jon:
“There is day-to-day happiness: how happy I am now, how happier I am today, and then there is overall life satisfaction - which is much more constant. It is measurable and you can compare cultures, you can then look at the factors and understand what links to happiness. And happiness is made up of those things you guessed at when you were a kid:
- time spent with family and friends,
- trust in the community,
- it’s money for sure, but not just that,
- it’s health and education.
Happier people live longer. So if you spend some time making people happier than we can save some money on medical bills.”
“I think this research is going to change the world,” - confesses Jon, “It’s not political. Left-wing politicians like it, right-wing like it, everyone gets this, but it’s about getting people to make better decisions. How do we make decisions at the moment? Because adverts tells us it must be important I buy that Plasma TV, and that’s going to make me happy, and money must be important because everybody is talking about it. And if we actually had some evidence: that pay rise which would make you work more, rather go see your kids and friends, don’t buy a big house outside of a city, because that commute every day will make you really miserable, buy an apartment, live somewhere smaller and walk to work. All those things that we know from the data, which we don’t know from TV, and it’s challenging people to think about it.”
Jon seems to be appalled by how little people are really aware of what makes them happy: “I’m really frustrated at how people are short-sighted, they just think about money and they don’t see the bigger picture.”
People need evidence, proof of what is important, for something they know with their heart, he thinks, and real world examples can be persuasive.
An Australian nurse for many years working in a palliative care recorded the most common regrets of the dying patients, including:
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.
A recent Stanford research project has added even more depth to understanding what makes for a happy life: it’s meaningfulness. Researchers asked people if they believed their lives were more happy or meaningful in response to their values, beliefs and values. It appears that happiness is linked to being more a of giver; meaningfulness also correlates with being a giver rather than a taker.
So there are 5 key take-aways:
1. Getting what you want and need. Satisfying your desires is a reliable source of happiness, but has nothing to do with meaning.
2. Past, present and future. While happiness is more related to the present, meaningfulness reliably links all the tenses together.
3. Social life. A sense of connectedness with other people is important for both happiness and meaning. However, the nature of the connections differ. Deep relations with close family and friends increase meaningfulness, while spending time with more casual friends correlates more with happiness, but not necessarily to meaning, since these friends involve less responsibility.
4. Struggles and stresses. A highly meaningful quality of life could cause a lot of stress. Raising kids, for example, is a meaningful and often joyful enterprise that might still cause high stress and not always bring happiness. And retiring to a serene life could bring happiness, but might not contain a deeper sense of meaning.
5. Self and personal identity. That’s is important here: Happiness is about getting what you want. But meaningfulness is about expressing and defining yourself.
A life of meaning is more deeply tied to a valued sense of self and one’s purpose in the larger context of life and community.
To the points above Jon adds: “Giving very clearly leads to happiness. There was an experiment where two groups of people were given money, and said to one group: go and buy stuff, come tomorrow and say how happy you are, and measured the happiness before. With the other group they said: go and give this away. And guess which group was the happier at the end?”
Defining your own recipe for a happy and meaningful life would eventually require you to connect a bigger sense of purpose with a series of small everyday endeavors and choices made to create happiness in the now, in the context of the past and the future.
While Jon’s job is to help happiness indicators becoming the measurement for governments worldwide in crafting their social policies, it looks like our job is to make better, more aware choices in leading a more meaningful life.
Jon’s answer to being happy himself is anything involving his kids, travel, adventure, laughter and a bit of adrenalin. He loves watching mammals in their natural habitat, and has already travelled 85 countries to observe more than 1500 animals.
We were concluding our lunch at a place close to the UN headquarters where Jon works--I left feeling that here indeed are the right people doing right job at the right place.
Larissa PAK for 30up.org
New York City, USA
02 April, 2014
World Happiness Index: http://www.ibtimes.com/worlds-happiest-countries-2013-according-un-1403880
Stanford research: http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/january/meaningful-happy-life-010114.html
Australian nurse patient’s regrets: http://www.inspirationandchai.com/Regrets-of-the-Dying.html
Website for mammal watchers worldwide http:// www.mammalwatching.com