It seems that everyone, from the Danes, Buddhists, Aristotle, to the Bolton Evening News are on the hunt for the secret to happiness. Our enthusiasm seems insatiable with Happiness Institutes, International Happiness Day and World Happiness Reports. Despite these and the belief it lies in promotions, shopping sprees and holidays, ultimately it can only come from within.
In spite of all the measuring, analysing and research it seems that we’re struggling to find our ‘happy ever after’. Nordic countries take four out of the top five spots in the 2017 World Happiness Report (Norway was #1); the UK and US are well behind with the latter dropping even lower from 2016 – reflecting how higher GDP is associated with lower levels of happiness.
It’s all down to the Easterlin Paradox apparently, which explains how happiness correlates with wealth within a country, but isn’t found between countries. This is because increased wealth beyond what you need only increases people’s happiness if they have someone else to compare themselves to. So, a new car may make us happier, until everyone can afford new cars and the effect is lost.
It’s the same tendency to compare that’s also responsible for the negative impact of social media; add the epidemic of loneliness amongst the elderly and it’s easy to see how the national picture is on the bleak side. But although ‘happy’ is the perfect sentiment for birthday cards, it seems an unlikely panacea for such social ills. A bit like asking Tinkerbell to do a term as Prime Minister, when reality calls for something more than fairy dust.
Understanding what ‘happiness’ really means is the first hurdle. It’s prime territory for the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate; meaning different things to different people; and is affected not only by recent experiences, but by our expectations too. Aristotle even suggested that it’s what we do rather than who we are, with the answer lying in the Golden Mean on his 12 virtues.
Yet in the age of the quick-fix, there’s plenty of suggestions listed in newspapers and self-help books about how to find our happy place. The Danish principle of Hygge is gaining infamy – up there with bacon and Lego – and back in the ‘80s and ’90s we were even told that “Happiness is a cigar called Hamlet”; or quite simply told “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and that “Everything’s Going to Be All Right”.
Surely it’s a case of ‘whatever floats your boat’ and rather than one-size-fits-all, we should instead ask ourselves what happiness means for us, as the Bolton Evening News asked their readers in 1938. Interestingly, the top three themes in the responses (peace of mind, family and home, helping others) were found to be the same in 2017. Suggestions for becoming happier from the same data included lessening our use of social media and to get out more by exercising, helping others and doing new things – the same stuff that Gretchen Rubin tried in her year-long ‘Happiness Project’.
Doing fun things is only half the story according to Paul Dolan’s book Happiness by Design. In it he suggests that happiness is a balance between pleasure-seeking and meaningfulness, which he called ‘the pleasure-purpose principle’. The example he gives for how happiness is a combination of both pleasure and purpose is the fact that people say their children bring them happiness, despite the sleepless nights and bickering which may not always make it pleasurable. However, watching them grow and helping them develop gives a sense of purpose and meaning, from which happiness is derived.
Whilst we’re all wired to be either a ‘pleasure machine’ or a ‘purpose-engine’, we can easily get out of balance. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, whereas unbridled hedonism can make us feel rudderless and lacking in purpose. Rather than operating in the extremes (such as working long hours, in stressful jobs, punctuated by a couple of weeks on a sun-lounger each year), he suggests it’d be better for us to try to create more balance on a daily basis. This puts us in the driving seat to make decisions which can increase and preserve our happiness. As Ralph Marston’s says: ‘happiness is a choice, not a result’.