The look of happiness

Last week, I took part in a two-day program on foundations of happiness from what I’ll simply call the Department of Happiness of Erasmus University Rotterdam – the official name is Erasmus Happiness Economics Research Organisation (EHERO).

The very first lecture was by a philosopher on the question ‘what is happiness’? As could be expected, prof. Jack Vromen’s review of thousands of years of philosophy raised more questions than answers. From Aristotle’s emphasis of the ‘life of virtue’ to Jeremy Bentham’s “greatest good for the greatest number”, ideas differ what happiness is. And it gets more complicated when we try to set happiness apart from the similar concepts life satisfaction and well-being. My takeaway simply was that we don’t need to have a solid all-weather-proof answer what happiness is. We ‘only’ need to decide what happiness is to us.

But what triggered me most is the picture to illustrate happiness in the deck that Vromen used. While I haven’t been able to find the actual one he used, conceptually it looked a bit like this:

What do you see here? Two people, seen from the back, in nature, jumping out of excitation in the air. It’s a very common theme in stock photos of happiness. Start paying attention to the imagery for online news stories about happiness or search for images of happiness on Google. This is what you’ll usually find, alongside a bunch of smileys of course. I’ve copied a few more examples in the gallery.

On my blog, you’ll also find a few posts illustrated by views of the beach or a tulip field, based on the implicit assumption that being in nature can create moments of happiness (it certainly can, in my experience, and evidenced by an emerging scientific literature).

Still, my favourite image of what happiness looks like is different. It is a picture that went viral in 2015. The picture was taken at the movie premiere in Boston of Black Mass – a crime drama starring names such as Johnny Depp and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The picture shows how a group of spectators all get their phones out to depict, I imagine, the celebrities arriving from their fancy cars. Apart from one person: the older lady in the centre of the picture seems to be truly taking in the moment, a small smile on her face. I might be projecting something, but it looks like a moment of happiness for her. And if you see how the image went viral and people praise her for being aware in person rather through their cameras, I think I am not the only person to ascribe this meaning to the picture.

For me, this is what happiness is about: paying attention to the small moments of pleasure in our life. Happiness doesn’t need to always be about majestic landscapes and great excitement. It can be as simple as enjoying the view of the moon in the sky, calm waves on the beach, a glance at a field of tulips, a coffee on the balcony or indeed – seeing a few celebrities at a movie premiere.

Source: the picture now can be found all over the internet, but was originally taken by John Blanding of the Boston Globe

Read of the month: a trip around the world through ‘The Atlas of Happiness’

2020 is not a year to travel wide and far around the world. Instead, I took a trip through my last happiness read of the month. ‘Atlas of Happiness’ by Helen Russell discusses ideas about happiness from 30 countries. Although I consider myself somewhat of a connaisseur of happiness around the world, to my surprise only two of the concepts figured on the blog before: Pura Vida (Costa Rica) and the obvious one – Gross National Happiness in Bhutan.

The ideas in the book look at happiness in a broad sense, ranging from the melancholic Saudade in Brazil/Portugal to the Danish happiness at work, arbejdsglaede. A few cultures emphasis the good life – joie de vivre in Canada/France, even by simply doing nothing – dolce far niente in Italy. Others are about dedication to an activity, like the Greek meraki, or about life in a community – ubuntu in South Africa and aloha in Hawaii. Oh, and some are just outright crazy – like kalsarikannit in Finland. Apparently, some Finns experience happiness in getting way too drunk, home alone, dressed in nothing but underwear…

The book should not be seen as a serious or academic exploration of what makes country happy. Do not expect deeper analysis of cultural features that explain why these ideas of happiness arise in certain contexts. Instead, it should be seen as an anecdotal exploration of stories people tell themselves about happiness, through the coffee chats Helen Russell has with individuals from the 30 countries she discusses. Let me share my three favourite stories…

Smultronställe: Sweden

‘Smultronställe’ literally means ‘wild strawberry place’. The term originates in a children book in the early 20th century, and further gained prominence by a Ingmar Bergman movie from 1957. In that movie, an old grumpy man opened a door to get back to the world he knew from his youth: indeed, the figurative meaning of the term is a pleasant place with sentimental and personal value.

According to Russell, a smultronställe combines two things: a sense of nostalgia, and an escape from the world. It bring back memories from earlier in life, to a simpler time. But it can also simply relate to a place where we can flee our daily concerns, often in nature.

Of course I asked myself whay my smultronställe is. I have to admit that I can’t really pick a place that meets all the requirements of the Swedish concept. Rather than going for a place from my youth that combines nostalgia and refuge, I’d pick the beach in The Hague, where I live since only one year. But we always go to the same spot; in the summer, we spent great moments with family and friends at the beach club; in the winter, we simply went for walks. Walking near the sea always helps to forget worries, and I think that helps to qualify as a smultronställe.

Wabi-sabi (侘寂): Japan

We all strive for perfection. The idea of Wabi-sabi (Japan) counters this dominant philosophy of what constitutes a good life: it is about appreciating the imperfections that we inevitably face. Wabi-sabi can be about appreciating that with age come both wrinkles and wisdom.

The concept even notes how imperfection adds an additional layer of meaning: apparently, in Japan it is a thing to repair broken ceramics with through kintsugi: ‘golden joinery’ or ‘golden repair’. Instead of throwing away the shards of a broken plate, joining them together with gold where the shards broke creates a beautiful ‘new’ object.

A great idea – we often believe something has to be new, and beautiful, to be worthwhile. But sometimes imperfections are just as pretty, and what is old and imperfect carries a lot more value than something new and spotless.

Kintsugi (golden joinery), the Japanese art to make items prettier through repair with gold or other precious material. Image found here.

Tarab (طرب): Syria

Given its troubled recent history, Syria is not the first place I’d think to find new thinking about happiness. But according to Russell’s research, the Arabic concept of ‘tarab’ can be found there.

Tarab relates to the feeling you can achieve when deeply engaging in music – be it as a player, as a listener, or through the interaction between a musician and their audience. It is the trance you can achieve when there is a strong connection. (Traditional) Arabic music is different than Western music, with a prominent role for the oud, an Arabic type of lute). Songs also can last for minutes and minutes, depending on how the performer feels and how the audience responds.

Say Arabic music and the first name that comes up – in the Arabic world itself and by those initiated to it in the West – is Umm Kulthum, a singer from Egypt from the 1960s and 1970s who’s still incredibly popular today. If you’re open to it, I am sure that listening for half an hour will drag you into it as well – that is experiencing tarab!

Three new ideas about happiness! If you want to let me know which one resonates most with you, write me @ jasper [at] forastateofhappiness.com.

Read of the month: “the art of being unhappy” requires the pursuit of meaning

Another month, another happiness book. My third read of the month was The Art of Being Unhappy (De kunst van het ongelukkig zijn), by Dirk De Wachter. After books focusing on what well-being is and on happy memories, it was time to look at happiness from another angle: is it sensible to pursue happiness, or should we strive for something else? And when we inevitably do face moments of unhappiness, how can we deal with them?

De Wachter is a psychiatrist. His perspective on happiness is different than most of the people I usually read, many of them positive psychologists. As a psychiatrist, De Wachter sees human sadness and depression in his practice every day. His diagnosis is that the idea picture of individual happiness leads many people to selfishness; or where they fail, to loneliness.

Finding inspiration in philosophy and poetry, De Wachter criticisises how people need bigger and bigger successes to experience happiness. We shouldn’t be contend to cycle up the Mont Ventoux; no, we ride up from the most complex side, twice. Running a marathon is not enough, we need to run three. To be special as individuals, we need to have ever more special experiences. And of course, they only matter when they are showcased on social media.

As a consequence, we are never special enough. Inevitably, unhappiness strikes. Is there any escape of the unhappiness we suffer due to our unsuccessful pursuit of happiness?

Don’t pursue happiness. Strive for meaning.

De Wachter claims that it is a mistake to have the pursuit of happiness as a major goal in life. When we strive for happiness for its own sake, it will never be enough.

Instead, we should become aware of the unhappiness in ourself and around us, and take that as a basis for social engagement: being aware of our own moments of unhappiness and the unhappiness around us can be a force for good, to motivate us to care about others or about social problems. According to De Wachter, real happiness is not found in individual experiences, but in doing meaningful things for others. That is what we live our life for. The ‘Art of Being Unhappy’ is the art of finding meaning in acting for others.

Hedonic and eudaimonic happiness

De Wachter is of course right that a life of happiness requires more than pleasure – the hedonic type of happiness. We feel more fulfillment when dedicating time to something bigger than ourselves. Often, this is understood as ‘eudaimonic’ happiness, which is based on a less fleeting and more permanent form of happiness. Feeling there is a purpose to our life is an important factor to our wellbeing. Indeed, theories of happiness and well-being – such as the PERMA model of prof. Seligman I discussed before and that we use as the foundation of our happiness vlog – see meaning as a key component of a happy life.

From all components of well-being, I feel, meaning is the most complicated one. Spending time in activities you enjoy or with people you like is easier than to find your source of meaning. But maybe the struggle to give a meaning to our lives is simply a part of life.

For many people, our purpose is in the others around to: taking care of children or family, dedicating ourself to protecting the environment or animals. Having a bigger reason to live, thus, is just as important as being able to enjoy the small pleasures of life. Thus, forget the ride up the mountain and profiling yourself online; dedicate yourself to a bigger cause instead.

Happiness read of the month: the art of making memories, by Meik Wiking

What do you remember about the day you got married, or the day you got your first kiss? Once you really start thinking about, you probably can replay a lot of details.

How about your first day of high school or university? Maybe a little harder, but you sure can bring back some sensations. And then: how about a random Tuesday in March five years ago, or even last year? Unless any of them was a special day, you may not even remember anything. Many days in our life turn into blanks without vivid memories.

But when we are prompted to tell stories about our happy memories, beautiful stories come out. These are the moments that define our life. Eight years ago – when I already started to be intrigued by the puzzle of happiness, but before my TEDx talk or the launch of the blog – I surveyed some friends and strangers (anonymously) about their happy memories*. After a quick search, I found the answer sheet back in my files. Here are some of the stories:

  • Re-discovering a long forgotten postcard from a close friend
  • The feeling of an adrenaline high after riding a horse at a very fast pace for a long time!
  • Being on XTC on an amazing technoparty
  • Laughing together with my love at a good joke – no matter if we are laughing at ourselves
  • Going to a secluded clean beach (preferably either from my favourite ones near home) on my own or with a few close friends. The sea makes me happy:)

* The stories are beautiful, so I am repeating the exercise now. If you want to share your happy memories, please fill out the form at the end

The art of making memories

I felt inspired to looking back at these stories by ‘The Art of Making Memories’, by Meik Wiking (the director of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen). His book touches upon a lot of fascinating research: tricks to remember long strains of data; the manipulation of memories; and nostalgia. But most importantly, he tells us how we can create happy memories and hold on to them. This is what he found:

  • The power of firsts: many memories are about things done for the first time. So how can you make days in your life memorable? By doing something new. Visit a park in a side of town where you usually don’t come, or – once they’re open again – a museum you haven’t been to. And even when you stay at home, there are plenty of opportunities to cook a new dish. Behold the first apple pie my wife and I baked together:
  • Storytelling: why do people buy souvenirs from their trips? Because they tell stories that will remind them of the experience. I have a small showcase with some memory-triggering objects: there is a decorated skull from Mexico that brings me back to the happiness conference where I met Meik. There are my espresso cups from Lviv and Porto, each carrying streams of memories. Another great example is the long forgotten postcard from a close friend the first respondent to my survey told me about.

  • Emotional reactions: events with strong emotions are memorable. Meik gives the example of a vacation day he planned to spend reading a book, when his friends proposed to go jet-skiing. In those situations, ask yourself: what will I remember in ten years? Not the book. I applied the same logic a few weeks ago when we missed the last skilift and couldn’t ski back to our parking. Instead of ordering a cab (boring, no emotional memory), we walked back through the snowy forest. It was a small struggle, but ultimately fun and memorable.

  • Meaningful moments: meaning is another factor that makes an event memorable. Those can be the big days – weddings or giving birth. Or they can be meaningful because of the time spent with an important person, like the person quoted above who was happy laughing with (and of) her boyfriend.

  • Invest attention: obviously, no attention = no memory. But it is important: in our daily routine, we often behave according to our usual patterns and fail to notice our surroundings. A ‘digital detox’ helps: phones are the most devilish distracting devices ever invented. Shape habits to prevent this; for instance, when I am outside in the dark I always consciously look out for the moon. Investing attention is also what the people that shared their memories did: they were aware of their feeling of adrenaline during a horse ride, the effect of XTC at a technoparty, or the simple beauty of the sea.
This is not the beach of the memory the person shared, but it’s one of my happy memories. Last week, after working from home, I released my tension through a bike ride and a short walk on my favourite beach.

Happy memories are beautiful to share and to read. If you want to share yours, please fill out the form:

Extra edition vlog: physical distancing, social connecting!

Wellbeing in times of corona is not obvious.

So many things have changed in the last few days: almost three weeks ago, we went to the theater to celebrate my birthday. Only two weeks ago, the Dutch government told us not to shake hands. Two days later (1,5 weeks ago), all events with 100 or more people where cancelled, and people were recommended to work from home.

Three days fast forward (just over a week ago), all cafes and restaurants closed, and trains ran only twice per hour. And today – after a sunny weekend with way too many people at the beach and DIY shops – the government announced that all events are cancelled until 1 June. #Covidiots will be fined €400 if they don’t keep a healthy 1.5 meter distance from others people. It’s such a different world than three weeks ago.

However the situation, Ania and I are lucky. We don’t suffer from corona or any symptoms (and don’t even know anybody who does). We don’t work in a place where we risk to be exposed to someone with symptoms. What we experience is a mild discomfort, working from home during the day only to exit to do groceries or get some movement. Now I still can, I still cycle, walk or run everyday – getting outside is important for mental and physical health. Though I can imagine that in a few weeks I’ll say: what was I thinking…

‘Social distancing’ is the term of the month. And as happiness vloggers, we don’t really feel good about that: social connections with other people are one of the key ingredients to maintain wellbeing. Therefore, in this extra episode of Happiness: A User Guide we propose an alternative: physical distancing, social connecting.

Stay safe and stay at home (no exceptions if you have even mild symptoms!). But also practice social connecting and pay attention to your wellbeing. Check our tips how to do this in the vlog!

vlog 2: the many manifestations of positive emotions

We’re back with Happiness: A User Guide, our vlog about happiness. Last time we introduced the ‘PERMA‘ model to understand what brings happiness to our lives: Positive emotions, Engagement, positive Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment.

Today, in our second episode, we tackle the P from PERMA: positive emotions. Check the video below.

In the video, we talk about some of our favourite positive emotions, like flow, calm, and hope. What are yours, by the way?.

We also said that we think that people usually can name only about three to five positive emotions like joy, happiness, and love. (The both competitive and brilliant guests that played our 2020 Blue Monday quiz some weeks ago were an exception. All teams listed ten to twenty-five).

What are all these positive emotions, you say? Well, here’s a list put together by Courtney Ackerman at PositivePsychology.com as part of a fascinating article on positive emotions generally. (Thanks for sharing, Courtney! We feel grateful for the possibility to use your list, and hope you feel a sense of altruism.)

  • Joy – a sense of elation, happiness, and perhaps even exhilaration, often experienced as a sudden spike due to something good happening.
  • Gratitude – a feeling of thankfulness, for something specific or simply all-encompassing, often accompanied by humility and even reverence.
  • Serenity – a calm and peaceful feeling of acceptance of oneself.
  • Interest – a feeling of curiosity or fascination that demands and captures your attention.
  • Hope – a feeling of optimism and anticipation about a positive future.
  • Pride – a sense of approval of oneself and pleasure in an achievement, skill, or personal attribute.
  • Amusement – a feeling of lighthearted pleasure and enjoyment, often accompanied by smiles and easy laughter.
  • Inspiration – feeling engaged, uplifted, and motivated by something you witnessed.
  • Awe – an emotion that is evoked when you witness something grand, spectacular, or breathtaking, sparking a sense of overwhelming appreciation.
  • Elevation – the feeling you get when you see someone engaging in an act of kindness, generosity, or inner goodness, spurring you to aspire to similar action.
  • Altruism – usually referred to as an act of selflessness and generosity towards others, but can also describe the feeling you get from helping others.
  • Satisfaction – a sense of pleasure and contentment you get from accomplishing something or fulfilling a need.
  • Relief – the feeling of happiness you experience when an uncertain situation turns out for the best, or a negative outcome is avoided.
  • Affection – an emotional attachment to someone or something, accompanied by a liking for them and a sense of pleasure in their company.
  • Cheerfulness – a feeling of brightness, being upbeat and noticeably happy or chipper; feeling like everything is going your way.
  • Surprise (the good kind!) – a sense of delight when someone brings you unexpected happiness or a situation goes even better than you had hoped.
  • Confidence – emotion involving a strong sense of self-esteem and belief in yourself; can be specific to a situation or activity, or more universal.
  • Admiration – a feeling of warm approval, respect, and appreciation for someone or something.
  • Enthusiasm – a sense of excitement, accompanied by motivation and engagement.
  • Eagerness – like a less intense form of enthusiasm; a feeling of readiness and excitement for something.
  • Euphoria – intense and the all-encompassing sense of joy or happiness, often experienced when something extremely positive and exciting happens.
  • Contentment – peaceful, comforting, and low-key sense of happiness and well-being.
  • Enjoyment – a feeling of taking pleasure in what is going on around you, especially in situations like a leisure activity or social gathering.
  • Optimism – positive and hopeful emotion that encourages you to look forward to a bright future, one in which you believe that things will mostly work out.
  • Happiness – a feeling of pleasure and contentment in the way things are going; a general sense of enjoyment of and enthusiasm for life.
  • Love – perhaps the strongest of all positive emotions, love is a feeling of deep and enduring affection for someone, along with a willingness to put their needs ahead of your own; it can be directed towards an individual, a group of people, or even all humanity.

Happiness read of the month: Flourish, by prof Seligman

I usually have New Year resolutions. Sometimes only one for the year, sometimes a bit too many. This year I have about five, and if there’s one that I really aspire to make, it is this one: I would like to read a book about happiness every month.

I built up a nice little collection of happiness books, so why not motivate myself to read a bit more this year. And – of course – find an excuse to buy a few extra books…

In January I read Flourish by prof Martin Seligman. I have spoken about prof Seligman, the role he played in positive psychology and the PERMA model of happiness and well-being already before. I however never read his book.

 

Happiness is out. Wellbeing and flourishing are in.

Flourish came out in 2011, and Seligman wrote it partially to correct his understanding of happiness in an earlier book, Authentic Happiness (2002). Over time, Seligman’s – and positive psychology’s –  understanding of what happiness and wellbeing are evolved. Gradually, the distinction between happiness and wellbeing  became more clear. Happiness relates to a brief, quickly passing moment, and is quite of a buzzword. It is a term easily understood by people, but when you look under the surface, it can have many meanings. Indeed, happiness is often used as a proxy for well-being or quality of life (in his book, Seligman also uses flourishing). Well-being is a more complex and generic phenomenon, describing everything what is important to a living good life.

In 2002 Seligman thought happiness manifested itself in three aspects: positive emotions, engagement, and meaning. In 2011, he argued that well-being or flourishing – a more stable and more permanent notion – should be the focus of positive psychology. He also added two ‘missing’ dimensions of flourishing: positive relationships, and accomplishment. The PERMA model was born.

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness pages, Penn University

The PERMA model. Source: Authentic Happiness pages, Penn University

 

The mission of positive psychology

The fundament now laid, most of the book is about fulfilling the mission of positive psychology: increasing flourishing. The chapters focus on what type of positive psychology interventions work. This can be compared to what standard psychology started to do when it was invented: find out, through academic research, what type of interventions can treat personality disorders and depression.

An example of a positive psychology ‘intervention’ is what Seligman calls the ‘gratitude visit’: think about someone in your life that did something for you for which you couldn’t thank them enough. Found the person? Now write down, in some detail, what the person did for you and what it meant to you. Then announce you want to visit the person, but don’t tell them why. When you visit the person, read out your gratitude letter aloud. I am sure that if you try it out, it will be a very powerful moment.

Seligman and colleagues then expanded these interventions in different areas. They built a positive psychotherapy programme to treat people with depression. They developed a positive education programme to reshape curricula in some pioneering schools. And they worked with the US Army to train soldiers on resilience.

The book then even stretches on to other areas, such as the economy and happiness – it was precisely the debate on alternative ways to measure progress than GDP that brought me into happiness blogging seven years ago.

 

What are your signature strengths?

One of the most interesting areas, though, is the work of Seligman and co on strengths. They defined what key call ‘signature strengths’. While acknowledging we all need to work on our weaknesses, they argued it’s just as important to build on our strengths when we define our ambitions and plans for personal development. The book contains a questionnaire, which can also be found on the website of the VIA Character Institute, that helps you to identify your personal strengths out of a set of 24. I did the test myself, and for me these strengths are honesty, gratitude, and curiosity. It’s a nice narrative to think that these traits define me.

  • Honesty is about authenticity, and being true to yourself. For instance, this helps to share your opinion when someone asks for it, or to name – and then improve – a bad habit.
  • Gratitude means being grateful for the good in your life, and being able to express that gratitude. This can help in maintaining relationships with others (people like to hear ‘thanks’), but also to accept life events outside your control as they are.
  • The strength Curiosity concerns an interest in new topics and experiences. I believe it’s a factor in personal growth, as it motivates to increase or go out of our comfort zone.

Curious what your strengths are? Read more and do the test here.

VIA Signature Strengths. Source: VIA Institute on Character

VIA Signature Strengths. Source: VIA Institute on Character

The King’s Speech: beyond happiness, pursue flourishing

“The pursuit of happiness is a beautiful thing. But it shouldn’t become an obsession.”

That’s one of the key messages of the Christmas speech of Dutch king Willem Alexander gave a few weeks ago.

It puts the finger on an important issue around happiness: happiness is worthwhile to pursue, but only in moderation. It should not become an obsession, indeed. Happiness gurus and positive thinkers may emphasise optimism so much, that they forget that bad things are a natural part of life. Sometimes life sucks, sometimes we fail, sometimes we doubt ourselves. And negative emotions – anger, guilt, self-doubt, sadness – are just as important in regulating our emotional health as positive emotions are.

If we shouldn’t obsess about happiness, should we still pursue it? Indeed, as Willem Alexander said: “one cannot force happiness. It is elusive. It comes suddenly”. In that vein, should we still wish each other a happy New Year?

Here the King’s Speech (in Dutch). The part on happiness starts around 3:00.

Have a Flourishing New Year

I think it’s still worth wishing each other a Happy New Year – it is an easy term and everybody has an image of what ‘happiness’ means. But we can also do better: in a way, ‘happiness’ is a lazy term. It is easily used incorrectly, and we have better, more precise alternatives. Many of them have been mentioned on the blog: well-being, meaning, life satisfaction, and flow.

Maybe the best one, though, is ‘flourishing‘, as described by Martin Seligman. A person that ‘flourishes’ doesn’t merely experience happy moments (and certainly doesn’t obsess about them!). Instead, he or she is doing well in a broad sense: positive emotions  and meaning to live well, but also resilient in face of the dark days that inevitably will occur during the year.

Beyond happiness, pursue flourishing

Let’s cheer to a year of flourishing. But how do you pursue flourishing? A start point might be to pursue a healthy life style. The example below is taken from Arts en Leefstijl (Doctor and Life style) in the Netherlands. They recommend to pay attention to six factors to develop a healthy life style: nutrition, your social life, relaxation, physical activity, meaning, and sufficient sleep.

On some you will already perform well. My examples here: I get my eight hours of sleep, I am grateful for what is good, I try to be friendly and interested in others. Some will be more challenging: I can definitely reduce phone time and do more sports. Others will be in between: my eating pattern is overall fine, but I can sure do more to reduce sugar and get enough fruit and veg everybody. A healthy life style finds a right balance on all of them.

With that, let me wish you a Flourishing New Year, full of positive emotions, a healthy life style, and resilience. Go beyond happiness, and pursue flourishing.

 

The wheel of flourishing. Source: adapted from Arts en Leefstijl, www.artsenleefstijl.nl

The wheel of a healthy life style, contributing to flourishing. Source: adapted from Arts en Leefstijl, www.artsenleefstijl.nl

We’re vlogging! Check Happiness, a user guide

We proudly present: the very first ‘Happiness, a User Guide’ vlog!

In the first vlog, my wife and vlogger-in-chief Ania and I introduce you to our vlog. As you can imagine, the mission isn’t too different from the blog. We both believe that it is worth to better understand how happiness works and to pay attention to what makes us happy. As we say in the first edition, we will use the vlogs to explore the science of happiness, and introduce some exercises that can contribute to quality of life.

Like every vlogger tells you: if you like what you see, don’t forget to click the thumbs up & subscribe buttons. Enjoy the video!

“Happiness is a warm kitty”: the joy of pets

Three months ago, I found myself facing an important question: did I want a cat?

My sister-in-law found a poor kitty on the street, without a home and a wounded tail (aaah…). After a day of reflection and rushed research in the question how to take care of a kitty, we decided to take him in. Since that moment, we are proudly housing Rembrandt – I negotiated the right to name him and to pick a Dutch name. We hope to do so for the next fifteen odd years.

Rembrandt a few days after arriving, with still a wounded tail.

Rembrandt a few days after arriving, with still a wounded tail.

Rembrandt is a pretty social kitten. He likes to lay on the couch with us and enjoys to play. He has grown tremendously in the short time he has been with us. If only we figured out how to teach him to leave the plants alone…

As a happiness blogger, I am not just going to share cat pictures or cat memes, though I take it that’s one of the main functions of the internet. So let me face these questions: do cats, and other animals, make us happier? And a more complicated one: do animals themselves experience happiness?

Is happiness a warm kitty?

Amazingly, almost every single question about happiness I could come up with has been answered by a scientist. To answer whether animals make us happy, I looked at the result of a small study published by Bao et al. under the title “Is Happiness a Warm Puppy?: Examining the Association Between Pets and Well-Being”. Based on a survey under 263 people, among which 94% pet owners (of which 53% dogs and 41% cats), Bao et al. find a slightly higher level of life satisfaction for pet owners.

Although the survey numbers may be too small to draw strong conclusions, intuitively the findings make sense. Human beings need both social relations with other beings and a purpose to feel happiness. Having a pet could enrich human lives in both ways

Bao et al.’s study also looks into a trickier issue: cats or dogs? Dog owners were found to be happier than cat owners, and again, intuitively this makes sense. Cats are more isolated and independent animals, while dogs display a lot more affection. Also, dogs require to be walked, and people with more active lifestyles and time in nature are happier. The study – again, based on a small sample – even found higher levels of conscientiousness in dog owners and higher levels of neuroticism in cat owners. Scientists have found neuroticism to be a personality trait that is correlate with lower levels of happiness.

Do animals experience happiness?

And what about animals themselves: does Rembrandt love me? Does he experience happiness when he’s purring on my stomach and I am petting him? We are always warned not to project human emotions upon animals, but that does not mean animals do not have feelings. Even Darwin already asserted that animals have emotions.

To measure human happiness, scientists use surveys as well as brain research. In case of animals, surveys do not make sense – I cannot ask Rembrandt to fill out a questionnaire asking him to value his health, social relations, quality of food and shelter, and overall life satisfaction. Brain research in animals has confirmed that animals have broadly similar cerebral systems. Even the frontal cortex, said to be the determining factor in human progression over animals, may not be as sacred anymore.

Indeed, the more complex animals’ brains are, the less their behaviours are hard-wired in intuition, and the larger and more complex their brains are, the more space there is for emotional systems to influence animals’ behaviour. We can watch animals – including Rembrandt – and observe their behaviour, and infer something about how they feel.

As Carl Safina says in his TED talk “What animals are feeling and thinking“,

“attributing human thoughts and emotions to other species is the best first guess about what they’re feeling”

As such, I can be confident that Rembrandt feels positive emotions – be it calm, pleasure, or even happiness – in my presence.

 

And Rembrandt now, ready to join on a trip!

And Rembrandt now, ready to join on a trip!

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