Author Archives: Jasper Bergink

What happiness looks like in our brain

One of the coolest gifs on the internet might answer one of the coolest questions: what does happiness look like?

Yes, you might imagine happiness could look like a smile on the face of a calm and relaxed person enjoying rays of sunlight in a beautiful park, or be expressed by excited cheers when their sport team wins. Ultimately, however, happiness is a biochemical experience, triggered by neurotransmitters. If we want to see what happiness really looks like, we’d have to observe the release of chemicals like serotonine, endorphine, dopamine, and oxytocins in the body.

The gif claims to show a molecule of a protein dragging a bag of endorphins inside the parietal cortex. The release of these endorphines results in… happiness!

"This is what happiness really looks like: Molecules of the protein myosin drag a ball of endorphins along an active filament into the inner part of the brain's parietal cortex, which produces feelings of happiness."

“This is what happiness really looks like: Molecules of the protein myosin drag a ball of endorphins along an active filament into the inner part of the brain’s parietal cortex, which produces feelings of happiness.”

It’s a great gif, although the caption might cut a few a corners. In reality, it might be a slightly different molecule, it wouldn’t necessarily be in the brain, and the ‘bag’ at the back could also carry other chemicals than endorphines. At least, that’s the diagnose of the science communication blog Eastern blot. Oh, and in case it wasn’t clear, it is an animation drawn up by an animator called John Liebler, and not a recording of what is going on below our skull.

So, what are the main chemicals associated with happiness?

  • Serotonine: a mood-booster, emitted when you feel valued or important
  • Dopamine: a chemical with many functions, among others released when you experience
  • Oxytocin: also duped the trust hormone, and emitted when feeling close contact. (Scholar Paul Zak recommends eight hugs per day to get your dose).
  • Endorphines: the star of the gif is emitted in response to pain and helps you persevere when facing a difficult task.

Would you take a pill of happiness?

One of the great things about the gif is that helps to give insight in the many ways you can look at happiness.

Usually I tend to write about the way that humans think about their own happiness, or even how governments or companies evaluate the happiness or quality of life of their citizens/staff. But to a biochemist, those views of happiness would likely be beyond the point. A biochemist might contribute to developing pills treating mental disorders. And indeed, if you were to be given pills that would help the release of the ‘right’ chemicals, our body would feel ‘happy’ – but would we, as individuals, be genuinely happy? Most likely not.

Either way, it is not easy to determine what our brain and our body experience as happiness. We can ask people, but the way we evaluate our happiness does not necessarily give the same result as measuring it. Barring a new innovation that would let us walk around with electrodes on our head measuring all kind of brain activity, it’s hard to know what happiness is really looking like. In the main time, we can fantasise, and enjoy the gif.

Netherlands: wellbeing is more than wealth, new indicator shows

One of the Dutch traditions in May is ‘Woensdag Gehaktdag’ (a term so nice I won’t translate it). Every year, on the third Wednesday of May, the government justifies how it has implemented the budget in the last year, and the day the opposition fiercely criticises any misallocated cents.

Last week, however, Woensdag Gehaktdag saw an innovation: it saw the presentation of the first annual Monitor Broad Wellbeing. As I wrote before, this new indicator has been instigated by a parliamentary committee requesting a better toolset to evaluate how the Netherlands is doing in a broader sense than only economic indicators. Prepared by the statistics agency in cooperation with the planning agencies (for which my home country has a passion), the Monitor evaluates quality of life in three ways:

  • wellbeing here and now (how are we doing in the Netherlands, today)
  • wellbeing later (how do our choices today affect the future population of the Netherlands)
  • wellbeing elsewhere (how do our choices affect wellbeing elsewhere)

Throw in a mix of economic, social, environmental, trade and a few extra indicators, and you get a detailed picture of what wellbeing looks like. Where data is available, the Dutch performance is also compared with other EU countries.

A high quality of life, but…

So, how is our broad wellbeing? The conclusions of the report are as follows:

  • Overall, the Netherlands has a high level of quality of life. Many indicators show a positive trend over the last eight years, or a positive change with the year before. Only three out of 21 indicators were markedly negative: the number of people with obesity, satisfaction with free time, and size of nature areas.
  • Nonetheless, the figures aren’t equal. Some groups report lower scores: women, some ago groups (below 25 and 55-65), those with low education levels, and migrants.
  • Here’s the crux: wellbeing scores are clearly higher in the here and now then they are in the future and for the impact on elsewhere. Indicators concerning the future that post lower scores are primarily the environmental ones: CO2 and nitrogen emissions, fossil energy reserves, and biodiversity. Possibly, policy changes may see improvement here in the future, as energy is becoming cleaner and the Netherlands is due to stop all domestic gas production. However, the Netherlands large agro-food business has a massive and unsustainable footprint. You don’t directly see these negative externalities in simple indicators like GDP – a clear example of the value of the Monitor.
  • Another tricky piece is that current wellbeing is also connected with a negative impact in third countries. The Netherlands has a large carbon footprint and imports resources and biomass from elsewhere, including from least developed countries (LDCs). That means that natural capital is moved from those countries.
Broad Wellbeing Monitor, 'Later'. Source: Dutch Statistics Agency

Broad Wellbeing Monitor, ‘Later’. Source: Dutch Statistics Agency. Key: the graph evaluates the impact on wellbeing later across four categories: economic, human, natural, and social capital. Green/red represents positive/negative 8-year trends or 1-year net changes. The lower part of the graph shows how the Netherlands stand compared to fellow EU countries.

Back to politics

The report is a new annual feature, and should become a high-profile publication with an impact on policy formulation. For that, we go back from the statistics agency to politics, to the MPs and the cabinet we have mandated to make choices for us. This Wednesday will see the Parliament evaluate the government’s performance in a plenary debate, and MPs can use findings of the report to encourage the government to reshape their priorities. In this way, they can make the Netherlands a happier place, not only now, but also later and elsewhere.

 

Today’s Labour Day. What do good jobs and happy companies look like?

Happiness at work. For some workers it is a contradiction in terms or a mirage, for other an aspiration or even reality. As today is Labour Day, it’s a good moment to answer a few questions how happiness at work can be pursued.

Happiness at work has been a powerful trend in recent years. Many companies have jumped on the bandwagon, rethinking how personnel find purpose in their work or recruiting happiness officers to organise fun activities and provide entertainment.

But what makes a happy company?

Characteristics of good jobs

As happiness at work is studied more seriously, there are more and more ideas and knowledge about what is needed to make us thrive in the work-place. The UK Business, Industry and Skills Department surveyed how employee wellbeing affects workplace performance. The survey’s 11 main takeaways on what makes a good job were summarised in the visual below by the What Works Wellbeing Center.

A lot of these elements are common sense: ownership and responsibility, variety in tasks, open communication, positive relations, learning, and a good balance between life and work. Implementation is step two, though. It requires a good company structure and the right culture to make sure they’re adequately implemented and not mere window-dressing.

Elements of good jobs. Source: What Works Wellbeing, https://whatworkswellbeing.org/blog/what-we-know-good-work/
Elements of good jobs. Source: What Works Wellbeing, https://whatworkswellbeing.org/blog/what-we-know-good-work/

 

The business of happiness at work

Some firms endow their HR department or another function, or even a dedicated Chief Happiness Officer, to bring happiness to the work place. Others work with external consultants specialising in the science of happiness at work and implementing changes at a project basis.

One such organisation in my current base of Warsaw, is the Employer Branding Institute (EBI). Apart from assisting firms is creating happier work places, it also runs a project called Pracuję bo lubię (I work because I like it). The project aims to raise the number of employees that are happy at work. There certainly is work to do: one Gallup study found that about 87% are unhappy or unengaged at work.

Health, atmosphere, purpose and flow

I sat down with Aleksandra Grabska of EBI, who rans the project and co-wrote the report, to ask her how they evaluate happiness at work. She explained me that they broke down happiness in four dimensions:

  • Health: a working culture that helps employees to live healthily. A job should not lead to too much stress, and employees should have the possibility to eat healthily. Even having a few good lunch options close to the office can contribute to happiness.
  • Atmosphere: humans are social animals, and the interaction with our colleagues – with whom we spend more time than with our partners! – is important. Thus, good employers invest in team dynamics. Hence all the Chief Happiness Officers organising champaign parties – and good managers focusing on open communication in their teams.
  • Purpose: ultimately, apart from basic needs and fun we also want to feel we are achieving something worthwhile. According to Aleksandra, this especially requires a bit of effort for bigger firms whose purpose is more abstract. These should make sure that employees with more technical or administrative tasks see how their support helps the firm achieves its mission. For instance, admin staff in an accountancy firm facilitate the work that accountants do in reviewing clients performance, and thus also support that those clients are well run and stable.
  • Flow: a final part of the picture is how we feel those 8 hours at work. Good jobs are those that create flow, or activities that can absorb employee who are  passionate about what they do.

And what about me?

But what, you might wonder, can I do to pursue happiness at work? There are a few thinks you can do. First of all, it helps to have a job in a company where you feel comfortable in the work environment and the sector. In some cases, that means simply packing up your things and leaving elsewhere.

A tool Aleksandra told me about is ‘job crafting‘, or slightly reshaping your job to match your ambitions. In many corporations, not all the content of the job is fully fixed. There will always be tasks that you can will have to take on, but many bosses are flexible enough to allow some degree of pro-activity and creativity. Volunteer to take on new projects, and try to carve out some time within your working week to do what gives you flow.

Good luck with the pursuit of happiness at work back in the office tomorrow!

Ikigai: the happiness of always being busy in Japan

Only staying active will make you want to live a hundred years

The proverb comes from Japan, the origin of the concept of ‘Ikigai‘. Ikigai is now the subject of a new book, and writers Hector Garcia and Francesc Miralles claim the idea has a great promise. They say ikigai – meaning ‘purpose’ or ‘raison d’etre’ – is the Japanese secret to a long and happy life.

Japan is indeed a good place to look for longevity. At 74.9, it has the highest healthy life expectation at birth. A Japanese person that is 60 years old can be expected to still live 21.1 years in good health. And the share of centenarians is far above the global average. In the region of Okinawa, Japan’s southernmost region with a subtropic climate, there are even about 50 in 100,000 people who are older than 100 years.

The happiness of always being busy

Ikigai, say Garcia and Miralles, is what makes people reach one hundred years. Putting it more poetically than purpose, they refer to Ikigai as ‘the happiness of always being busy’.

In Japanese, it is written as 生き甲斐. It can be broken down in 生き, life, and 甲斐, to be worthwhile.

Everybody has an ikigai. If we know what it is, it shapes our days. If we are unsure what our raison d’etre is, we still carry it in ourself. And it’s broader than our passion or desire. Instead, ikigai combines four elements: what you love, what you are good at, what the world needs, and what you can be paid for.

The four dimensions of Ikigai. Source: Toronto Star, diagram by Mark Winn.

The four dimensions of Ikigai. Source: Toronto Star, diagram by Mark Winn.

Long lives in Okinawa

All good so far. Now we know what ikigai is, let’s turn to Garcia and Miralles to find out how Okinawans live to a hundred years and more, and how we can find our personal purpose following their lead.

The authors map a few factors that explain the high age reached by Okinawans:

  • healthy diet, based on a lot of green tea, large amounts of vegetables and fruits, soy products such as tofu, and low sugar consumption. Also, people tend to eat from smaller plates, and until their stomach is 80% full. No all-you-can-eat buffets!
  • closely tied communities. Individuals are part of a moai, or a support group of people with similar interests who look out for each other.
  • a good dose of daily activity of low to moderate intensity: Lots of walking around, and people spend time to tend their gardens.
  • regularly sports activity. Again, these tend to be low to moderate in intensity, like yoga, tai chi or qigong.

Finding your purpose

One of the promises the book makes is that it helps find our purpose. To this end, they share a few stories of what made the life of the eldest residents of Ogimi, Okinawa worth living. A few stories they shared:

The secret to a long life is not to worry. And to keep your heart young – don’t let it grow old. Open your heart to people with a nice smile on your face. If you smile and open your heart, your grandchildren and everyone else will want to see you.

I plant my own vegetables and cook them myself. That’s my ikigai.

Chatting and drinking tea with my neighbours. That’s the best thing in life. And singing together.

Do smiles, vegetables and tea really provide purpose to a life?

While these stories are nice to read, they come from a different origin than ours. Of course we can feel inspired by Japanese 90- or 100-year-olds to do tai chi or qi gong, and to replace our third cup of coffee by a green or white tea (I am trying!), but helping me to find the purpose in my daily life here in Europe is a bigger feat.

Rather than spending a few dozen pages on explaining all tai chi postures, the book could have expanded to offer insights from, say, Japanese philosophy or global psychology on where people find purpose, to inspire the reader to apply these in daily life. Is it really as simple as smiling, growing vegetables, and drinking tea with neighbours. These are sure moments that provide happiness, but does this mundane enjoyment of life really provide purpose? Is it all we need to come to terms with the negative sides of busy lives in the West?

The book also doesn’t dispel another myth. While concrete data on Okinawa itself are hard to come by, as a country, Japan is not too happy. It has indeed the highest Healthy Life Expectancy worth wide, but isn’t scoring as high in the World Happiness Report. In the 2018 edition, it ranks 54th, just below Latvia and just ahead the happiest country of Africa. Asia’s happiest country – Taiwan, is far ahead at spot 26 in the ranking.

Having an ikigai helps, but might be more of an ideal picture than a story representing society at large.

A practical study of happiness in Turkey

What does happiness look like in Turkey?

That’s the main question I dived in during a few days in Istanbul two weeks ago, as I spoke at a conference on Determining the Happiness Map.

At the conference, hosted by Tüses and Kadıköy municipality, I spoke alongside professor Erhan Dogan (Marmara University Istanbul), Ragnhild Bang Nes (Norwegian Public Health Institute and Oslo University), and Jochen Dallmer (University of Kassel).

Happiness in Turkey

It’s a funny idea to have researchers from cold Northern countries like Norway, Germany and Netherlands come to Turkey to speak about happiness. Many of our chats on happiness focused on the relevance of good weather, tasty food and the street life culture for happiness. While all of those are present in Mediterranean Istanbul, they’re not factors that North-West Europe is known for.

That factor highlighted one of the interesting elements we came to discuss: happiness and quality of life are not the same. While Turkey may have a warmer temperature and a Mediterranean cuisine on offer, some of the key features that contribute to quality of life are less prominent. Norwegians may or may not enjoy themselves more than Turks, but perform well on loads of factors that matter: high incomes, a strong collective social support mechanism, and personal freedom.

How much work do we need to do in life?

A few takeaways from the conference:

  • Turkey’s level has increased over the years. In the 2017 World Happiness Report, Turkey scored about 0.3 points higher (for 2014-2016, compared to 2005-2007). According to prof. Dogan, the factors of GDP and social support are most prominent in explaining the level of quality of life. In that matter, Turkey is quite similar to many other countries. To the contrary, only a relatively small part of the happiness level is explained by generosity. Correlation of course does not equal causation, and there is no direct causal relation, but nonetheless there might be a case to promote generosity!
  • In Norway, the qualify of life is high, resulting in a 1st spot in the World Happiness Report for 2017 (though it was overtaken by Finland in the 2018 edition). But that doesn’t mean all is well. According to Bang Nes, suicide rates in Norway stand at around 11 per 100,000, almost triple the 4 per 100,000 in Turkey. At the Public Health Institute where she works, efforts are made to better understand how people live longer and healthier lives. Better data on happiness and mental health are collected, in order to guide public policy.
  • My third fellow speaker, Jochen Dallmer, looked at the German public debate on quality of life, and especially the role of sustainability. His PhD research is about a complicated question. We know that we should change our lifestyles to get back in the boundaries of the single planet we have. Happiness now is often associated with hedonic pleasures. Could an ascetic lifestyle provide happiness? He also posed another very un-German question: how much work do we need to do in life? And finally, he spoke about the German quality of life data collection, which he felt mainly conveyed high quality/standards.

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My own 20 minutes of fame: happiness in the Netherlands and Poland

  • Finally, my own 20 minutes of fame were dedicated to the development of happiness levels in Poland and the Netherlands over the last 25 years. Dutch happiness level stayed broadly stable, and slowly a more active public debate on well-being policies is emerging. Until the elections of this month, the municipality of Schagen had a Councillor for Happiness (with Finance as his primary portfolio). And similar to the Norwegian and German efforts, a new Broad Wellbeing Monitor mapping happiness is being shaped after a hesitant start.
  • Poland has seen massive transformations since the 1990s, and also the domain of happiness has not been left untouched. Even with social ineqaulity rising, happiness levels icnreased, likely in connection with tremendous economic growth. But also Poland shows awareness that there’s more than work and GDP. The Pracuję bo lubię (‘I work because I like it) project is one example taking happiness as inspiration.

And my own happiest moment in Turkey? A lost Sunday afternoon hour in company of old and new friends, spent basking in the sunlight with a view on the sea of Marmara.

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On this International Day of Happiness, learn how Finns pay attention to the right things

Happy International Day of Happiness!

The International Day of Happiness must be my favourite day of the year. It is a recent invention, and only celebrates its fifth anniversary today.

Like every international day, it acts as a reminder to pay attention to the right things. To be aware of what makes us happy, and cut away some of the things that don’t. There are plenty of sources of inspiration that could help make small moments of happiness happen, like on HappyActs or Action for Happiness. Often it’s very simple: say thank you or smile to someone, take a walk in nature, or do a (Random) Act of Kindness.

Source: #HappyActs calendar

Source: #HappyActs calendar, www.happyacts.org

 

World Happiness Report

The release of the World Happiness Report is now a regular fixture on the calendar. This year, there is a new number one: Finland. It is a sign there is a lot of space at the top: the last few editions also saw Norway, Denmark and Switzerland coming first. (The authors explain that this is due to very small differences in happiness levels among these countries. Next year it could be any of those – or Iceland – again).

All these countries share high performance across the board on factors that strongly correlate with happiness: a well-developed economy, social support, a good health system, personal freedom, trust in public society, and high levels of generosity.

Having said that, there are a couple of things that are particularly interesting in the Finnish case, and that might have helped to build a lead over its competitors for first place.

  • Education in Finland is of high quality. Finnish teachers are highly respected and qualified (a master’s diploma’s are required), and the country scores extremely well in international comparisons.
  • Nature matters. Finland is a scarcely populated country. Having nature makes it easy to get away from daily distractions. It also facilitates an active lifestyle favouring happiness (this is also a factor that it has in common with other high performers, like Norway and Switzerland). Some Finns take this to the extreme though: the practice of winter bathing is popular in some circles. It goes like this: cut a hole in a frozen lake, dip in for a minute or so, and then run for the sauna to warm up.
  • Sisu‘, a concept close to hearts of Finns that helps to keep going. Many Finnish people believe in the idea of ‘sisu’, which means something like grit, resilience or determination. This attitude helps to overcome difficulties, be it a long cold winter or adverse events in life.

Does that mean that everything is perfect in Finland, or any of the other top five countries for that matter. Of course not – paradise on Earth does not exist. But Finland is a state that takes care of education, offers a natural environment that promotes an active life style, and has a cultural strong attachment to grit. These factors all help in the pursuit of happiness. If happiness is about paying attention to the right things, the Finns probably are doing a great job.

Determining the world’s happiness map: from ‘mutluluk’ to ‘shiawase’

The poster below is for a conference I’ll be speaking at in Istanbul on Friday 9 March (join if you’re around!) Whether you can join or not, I thought the design is so nice it is worth sharing.

The conference, hosted by the Social, Economic and Political Research Foundation of Turkey (TÜSES) and Kadıköy municipality, aims to ‘determine the happiness map’. Speakers from Turkey, Norway and Germany, as well as your truly at For A State of Happiness, will share their knowledge. But before the conference day even starts, the organisers’ poster already make quite a trip around the world.

The poster displays the words of happiness in a few languages. But which languages are these, and what is the original meaning of those words? Admittedly I didn’t get all of them right straight away, but with the help of Google and wiktionary I quite far.

Scroll lower for a crash course in the etymology of happiness.

Istanbul happiness conference

Happiness (English)

Bonheur (French)

Glück (German), geluk (Dutch), lykke (Norwegian)

All different and all the same! Interestingly, all the words for happiness in these Germanic languages share a common etymological origin. As Darrin McMahon writes in his history of the philosophy of happiness, Happiness: A History, it doesn’t even stop there:

“It is a striking fact that in every Indo-European language, without exception, going all the way back to ancient Greek, the word for happiness is a cognate with the word for luck. Hap is the Old Norse and Old English root of happiness, and it just means luck or chance, as did the Old French heur, giving us bonheur, good fortune or happiness. German gives us the word Gluck, which to this day means both happiness and chance.”

 

Felicidad (Spanish), felicidade (Portuguese)

Both in Spanish and Portuguese (as well as in the Italian felicità), the words for happiness have a root in the Latin word ‘felix’. ‘Felix’ could also mean ‘fertile’. The Romans venerated a goddess called ‘Felicitas‘, which among others represented fertility (although in modern times, people with children tend to see slightly lower happiness rates).

But felicitas meant more than fertility: sharing the meaning of the Germanic terms above, felicitas also means happiness in the sense of ‘good luck’.

 

Mutluluk (Turkish)

A quick search suggest that the Turkish word ‘mutluluk‘ combine ‘mutlu’, happy with ‘luk’, a suffix to add -ness. ‘Mutlu’ itself is also a given name. Very economically, it’s antonym ‘mutusz’ means sad.

 

شادی (Shadi; Farsi)

In Farsi, finally, happiness is ‘shadi’. I can’t find too much about it, apart from that is also a name!

 

Szczęście (Polish)

If this description and Google Translate don’t deceive me, the  Polish word for happiness dates back to the 14th century and originates in a Slavic dialect. It seems to combine the prefix sъ- (‘good’) with čęstь (‘part’), to render something like ‘good part’ or ‘successful endeavour’. Good luck pronouncing the ‘szcz’ bit though!

 

幸せ shiawase (Japanese)

In Japanese, the word for happiness is a combination of two characters.

, says Wiktionary is an old Japanese verb ‘su’, meaning to “to do, to make something be a certain way”. It is complemented by  合わす (awasu, “to join together, to fit together”, though the last part is often simply written as .

Combined, that makes “to put together well; to work together well”. That results in meanings like ‘happiness’, ‘good fortune’ or ‘good luck’, circumstances or the flow of events.
But the most eloquent rendition is “a moment when circumstances come together; fate, opportunity”. Isn’t that a beautiful definition of happiness?

The robots are coming. What purpose do we have left?

A life without purpose is no life all.

Our purpose – a key element of a happy and fulfilling life – could be radically overturned by the rise of robots. Automation and artificial intelligence, sometimes referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, are threatening work and the economy as we know it. With that, even our happiness levels could be at risk.

The robots are coming

A seminal study on the future of employment by Frey and Osborne of 2013 put the figure of US jobs that could be automated by the early 2030s at around 47%. Imagining that about 1 in 2 employees lose their jobs is massive, but it is an average. For some sectors, like truck drivers or cab drivers, the figures are 70% or higher. If self-driving cars deliver on their promise, they will drastically reduce, or even eliminate, deathly car accidents. They will also radically cut employment in a sector that now represents about 3% of the US economy, and offers people with low education access to a middle-class lifestyle.

The gastronomy sector is another example. In a few years, you can order your pizza capricciosa online, and have it delivered home without any human intervention (we’re already almost there, though we still need a few humans). The dough could be prepared by one robot, the stuffing and sauces by a second, a third could bake it, and it could be delivered to your doorstep by driverless vehicle. Hygiene and efficiency would increase. For a capitalist, it is great: robots can work 24/7, without asking a salary, requesting additional training, getting bored, or going on strike.

White collar jobs are also at risk

But it’s not only blue collar jobs that can lose out. Also part of complicated jobs, like lawyers, accountants or radiologists can be automated. Again, their performance can be better than of humans. A well-programmed (or ‘trained’, through machine learning), robot accountant does not make the mistakes a human makes. A robot radiologist sees more cases during its training that a human during their entire career, and scores better in its diagnoses. These are just some examples: robots might also threaten your job, because humans can be beaten in every repetitive task.

Dramatic social effects

All these developments have massive social and economic effects. If robots take over so much of the current work, what will we do? Can we create new jobs for the 47%? Or will only be half the population be able to be employed? The demand-and-supply laws would posit that salaries would go down. Only those who control robots, the new means of production, would earn good salaries. Inequality would massively increase. This development is already visible in places like San Francisco. A four-person family with an income below $105,00o is now considered poor.

Maybe the entire economy would collapse. If only few people work and earn salaries, who can afford to consume of all products and services that robots produce? Henry Ford’s production line only started to take off when he realised that he needed to pay his staff enough to buy his T-Fords. Supply is nowhere without demand.

A new social contract?

Many in the tech industry, from Elon Musk to Mark Zuckerberg spoke out on basic income as a tool to protect those who lose out. In an interview last year, Bill Gates advocated a robot tax: “The human worker who does, say, $50,000 worth of work in a factory has his income taxed and you get income tax, social security tax, all those things. If a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think that we’d tax the robot at a similar level”. Policy makers, such as San Francisco counsellor Jane Kim, have started to think what it could look like. Basic income might be part of the new social contract in a robot-driven economy – who knows?

What is our purpose?

At the moment, we have many more questions than answers. We know robots can do many parts of our jobs, and that some sectors are destined for radical transformation. But we don’t know what comes next. When coal mines in Western countries were closed in the 1970s and 1980s, nobody could tell coal miners not to worry – we didn’t know yet that their children and grand-children could make a living as social media managers or YouTubers.

Similarly, the jobs that will be needed in the 2030s may not exist yet. At the same time, there are a few things that can give us hope. Coding is safe – robots cannot programme themselves (yet?). Social skills and social relations will remain important. And while robots are great in performing repetitive actions in situations they have seen before, they cannot (yet?) deal with completely new situations and decide what to do.

So, there are at least two avenues to find our purpose: one is to do the non-routine, creative work that is hard to automate (some creativity can be automated though – robots can create music and paintings). Another thing we can imagine is living the life as in Keynes vision – with a 15 hour working week, we can spend so much more time on holidays. There are a few big ifs – firstly, we need to have a new social contracts that allows it. Secondly, we  need to find a raison d’etre, a purpose outside work.

We should hurry to do so. The 2030s are close.

Finding happiness in unhappiness: “somehow, it will be” in Poland

Poland, my adopted home since four months, is a country of many associations, albeit often based on cliches. Your associations may be negative: you could think of the troubled history and ongoing struggle to find its place in Europe. They might be positive: a dynamic economy of hard working people valuing family and tradition.

Either way, Poland may not strike you as an extremely happy place. And you are right: Polish hovers somewhere around one-third in the World Happiness Report, ranking 46th out of 155 in the 2017 edition.

The Polish way of happiness

But how happy are Poles really? Is there a Polish way for happiness? These are some of the questions I wanted to research as I moved here.

In my search, I encountered a recent book written on the topic: “Somehow it will be: the Polish way of happiness”, or “Jakoś to będzie. Szczęście po Polsku”. I set out to meet one of the four authors, journalist Beata Chomątowska, to ask what this concept of ‘Jakoś to będzie’ means.

The book, which she co-wrote with Dorota Gruszka, Daniel Lis, and Urszula Pieczek, was born when they noticed a flurry of books on hygge had hit Polish book stores. “Why are Poles reading about hygge? Denmark is doing such a good job in advertising its country. We thought we could also show Poland and Jakoś to będzie as a source of happiness,” Chomątowska said.

The book thus inspires Poles (and foreigners) to take the old-Polish life philosophy to heart, rather than trying to be calm and light candles. The word ‘hyggeligt’ does not come in mind when thinking about Poland.

Jakoś to będzie

As Chomątowska told me,  Jakoś to będzie means something like ‘we will make it’, or ‘somehow it will be’. “It is the most appropriate title. Poles got used to deal with very hard circumstances, to be miserable. Regardless how bad it is, we will manage.”

(After being partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia, Poland disappeared from the map in 1795 and only returned in 1919. Twenty years later, World War II and then Communism followed. Poland again became a democracy in 1989).

The book then describes the ‘creative tensions’, or paradoxes, that Chomątowska and her co-authors see in their nation. They are hospitable to their guests, but quarrelsome among themselves. They are ingenuous, but desperate. They are working hard, but also enjoy festivities. All these elements make Poles Poles, and describe their approach to happiness.

Map of Poland filled with traditional folk pattern. Found on dekowizja.pl.

Map of Poland filled with traditional folk pattern. Found on dekowizja.pl.

Without danger, Poland does not thrive

According to Chomątowska, the Polish way of daily life is not made for happiness. She sees Poland as a ‘anti-hygge’ society that cannot live in stability. “Ordinary life is too boring. We can’t deal with it. We need the rush of adrenaline and can’t stand stability for a long time. We always had to fight and be active to reach our goals, like independence”. Without danger, Poland does not thrive.

That doesn’t bode well for happiness. But the picture is changing. Happiness levels tremendously increased in Poland, as the country is one of the biggest economic success stories of the last 25 years. The population enjoys higher salaries and higher wellbeing levels than before. While the country orients itself to Western Europe, Poland is now one of the happiest countries of Central and Eastern Europe, as Poles are often surprised to hear.

And there are more hopeful signs: a public debate on how a life should be well lived is slowly emerging. After the fall of capitalism, capitalism ran wild during the 1990s, but attitudes have been shifting since. “For twenty years, GDP was a fetish. But the younger generation is more aware that there is no sense in working 12 hours a day and run like a hamster in a wheel”.

Finding happiness in unhappiness

Whatever the future holds, Poles have an amazing skill, says Chomątowska:

“Poland is a land of paradoxes. We find happiness in unhappiness. We find it in actions to change our  circumstances because we don’t feel good. We have the ability to create something from nothing”.

And thus, jakoś to będzie. Somehow, it will be.

A dark portrayal of the rat race life can be

Interested in the pursuit of happiness? Take a few minutes to watch the video by artist and animator Steve Cutts.

Watched it? You’ll realise Cutts is an extremely sharp observer and critic of human society.

He paints a dark picture of the human pursuit of happiness. Far from finding real happiness, all our pursuits are temporary and doomed to fail. Whether it is consumer electronics, a brand new car, alcohol or drugs, nothing leads to lasting happiness. We always need stronger and stronger doses, or to switch to a heavier means of finding happiness. In the end, our desire to be happy – and chase money to afford it – enslaves us.

Cutts’ animation is a powerful narrative. And while he exaggerates and simplifies how we live our lives, he is asking some great questions: can humans be happy? Or is society dominating our choices to such an extent that true happiness is a mirage?

Can we escape from the rat race?

Nonetheless, I would like to turn the question around: is the rat race an inevitable result of your aspirations? Because I do not believe it is. Life doesn’t have to be a rat race. By making the right choices, one can achieve happiness on their own terms.

In some cases, it is very simple: enjoy your first or second glass of wine, but maybe don’t drink a full bottle by yourself. Be amazed about the possibilities of modern technology that a smartphone represents, but use them wisely, and don’t immediately switch to the next upgrade. And you can be dedicated to a great job, but don’t forget your work-life balance, and whether your job is right for you.

Be conscious of what makes you happy 

In his 2011 book “Thinking, Fast and Slow“, Nobel prize winning behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman distinguishes between the fast, or impulsive, brain functions that make most on the spot decisions of humans, and the slower, more reflective, functions humans use to think things over a bit more. Both fulfill a function: the fast brain pulls you away from a quickly-approaching car before you consciously realise what happens. But if you make big life choices – where to live, career, your partner – impulsively, they may not be right ones.

A conscious approach to what happiness is to you may be what pulls you out of the rat race.

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