Category Archives: Science

The art and happiness of travel

A few weeks ago, I spent a few days in Varanasi, India.

A depiction of Vishnu, the sustainer, one of the main gods

A depiction of Vishnu, the presever, one of the main Hindu gods

It wasn’t the easiest place I have visited. I was confronted with a sweltering heat, pollution affecting my breathing, occasional smells of cow dung and rotting garbage, and a cacophonous concert of auto-riksha horns that resounded in my head long after I returned to the calm of my hotel.

At the same time, it was the most mind-blowing of all the places I had the fortune to visit. Varanasi is so different from any other place I have visited. I enjoyed visiting the temples, and learning how Hindu Gods are portrayed. Did you know that Hindus have 330 million Gods? They are not only above us, but everywhere around us.

I was fascinated to walk past the Ganges, the holy river, and witness how pilgrims came here to bath in the river, wash their clothes, and drink a few sips of holy water. On the riverbank of the Ganges, a few sets of stairs are used for the cremation of those who are lucky enough to die in Varanasi. According to Hindu mythology, if someone dies in Varanasi, their soul escapes the cycle of death and rebirth. Hence the streets are lined by pilgrims, among them many long-bearded men dressed in orange, waiting for the moment to liberate their soul.

The unique spirituality of the place, in my opinions, far outweighs the discomfort. And it perfectly illustrates why we travel in general, and why our travels can generate such moments of happiness.

Palace towers, temples, stairs, and the brown water of the holy Ganges

Palace towers, temples, stairs, and the brown water of the holy Ganges

Why we travel

The question ‘why we travel’ seem simple, but is not that easy to answer. For me, travel is a complex art of relaxation and adventure. Overall, I think there are five important reasons:

- to relax: to gain new mental and physical energy, or enjoy lazy days with sea and sunshine

- to learn about the world around us: experience different ways of living in other nations (people already have been doing this since the Roman times! A geographer named Pausanias even wrote a travel guide to Greece in the 2nd century AD).

- to admire beauty: to experience the beauty of nature, art and culture

- to meet new people: to gain fresh perspectives and ideas by meeting people from different cultures or in different settings than home

- to escape our comfort zone: while we need stability, we quickly adapt to our daily reality and bored. Travel helps us to break routines (and boy, did I do so in India!)

The Taj Mahal, the jewel of Indo-Islamic architecture and a monument of love

The Taj Mahal, the jewel of Indo-Islamic architecture and a monument of love

Travel, for a 2% happier life

Travel creates many moments that could experience happiness: relaxation, learning, beauty, and social encounters. At the same time, travel can also lead to difficult and stressful situations.

Altogether, there is only a small net positive effect of travel of happiness. Compared to people who do not go on vacation, people who travel have a slightly higher level of subjective well-being. According to this PhD study on leisure travel and happiness, holiday trips account for about 2% of the variance in life satisfaction. Probably, the effects are limited due to the simple fact that a vacation ends pretty soon. A few weeks after, sweet memories disappear to the back of the mind and daily routines take over again.

Nonetheless, there’s a clear stream in research suggesting spending money on experiences – which would include travel – rather than material goods is the way to go. While the novelty of a purchase wears off, triggering memories of the holidays through souvenirs, pictures or reading journals helps to keep the experience.

I think I’ve those boxes ticked: I write this on the couch next to pillowcases with elephants bought in India and lighted up this post a few pictures. And describing my experience in Varanasi at the start of the post almost made me hear the chaos of riksha traffic and admire the sunrise from a Ganges boat again. It is as if I haven’t left India yet.

It is worth to get up before 5 during the holidays - for a sunrise on the Ganges

It is worth to get up before 5 during the holidays – for a sunrise on the Ganges

 

Why the weather doesn’t make you happy

“If only I lived in a warmer place, I would be so much happier”

One of the most pervasive misconceptions about happiness that I encounter is that weather and climate strongly influence happiness. It is a persistent beliefs, and even in the view of evidence, I typically fail to persuade people of the opposite. Let me put it out there, loud and clear: no, moving to a place with better weather will not make you happier.

Why is this – admittedly, counterintuitive – statement true?

Two phenomena explain why. The first one: focus illusion.

Focus illusion

‘Focus illusion’ is the phenomenon that when people evaluate two alternative scenarios – say, living in Northern and in Southern Europe – they only focus on one element. Amsterdam is grey and rainy, while Barcelona is sunny and warm, hence life in Barcelona must be better.

But life is made up from a lot more than the weather. A day in Amsterdam doesn’t only involve a rainy bike ride to the office. It may also include a long meeting with clients, a backlog of work emails to clear, catching some friends for a few drinks, and watching an episode of your favourite series before falling asleep. A day in Barcelona may start with a commute by bus through morning traffic, and then elapse in exactly the same way as one in Amsterdam. That massively reduces the impact of weather!

A famous study by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman and co-author David Schkade backs up the ‘focus illusion’. For their study – nicely titled ‘Does living in California make people happy’ – they asked students in the US Midwest (Michigan and Ohio) and in Southern California to evaluate either their own life satisfaction, or the life satisfaction of a student in the other region.

Both Californians and Midwesterners predicted Californians to be happier, and students’ ratings suggested that the better climate would contribute to higher happiness levels. However, there were no discernable difference in both the happiness levels found and the contribution of climate to those happiness levels.

As Kahneman and Schkade phrase the focus illusion they found: “Easily observed and distinctive differences between locations are given more weight in such judgments than they will have in reality.” Overall, academic research indicates that other factors – primarily,  social relations, work and financial situation, and health, have a lot larger influence on happiness.

Adaptation

But now say you’re a person who is a lot more sensitive to the weather than the average person. Say that you are meteopathic, sensitive to temperatures, or suffer from seasonal affective disorder (SAD, also known as winter depression). Even in those cases, moving to a place with a more suitable climate may result in a bit more comfort, it may not meaningfully affect your longer-term quality of life.

‘Adaptation’ is the reason why. When something changes in our life – say, we get a new car – it is amazing in the beginning. The first few rides are wonderful. But over time, the novelty wears off. And after a few months, a great new car is not a source of satisfaction anymore.

This adaptation affect is very strong, and it is one of the reasons why we always ‘need’ more material goods and experiences, running the ‘hedonic treadmill’. A seminal study by Brickman et al., a classic in social psychology, shows how strong the effect can be. The scholars study small groups of paralyzed accident victims, lottery winners, as well as a control group. As time passed, both lottery winners and people getting paralyzed in an accident adapted to their changing situation and returned to their previous level of happiness.

By extension: if you move from Amsterdam to Barcelona or from the Midwest to California, you’ll benefit in the first three months or so, but afterwards it won’t make a difference anymore. No, warmer weather really won’t make you any happier.

Illustration by Maroussia Klep, earlier published by Ionic magazine and For A State of Happiness

Illustration by Maroussia Klep, earlier published by Ionic magazine and For A State of Happiness

We have to talk about suicide

800,000 people. That’s the number of people who die through suicide each year. And 25 times more, 20,000,000 people, make an attempt to end their life. To put the number in perspective: it is as if all of Amsterdam disappeared, or as if all of Mexico City made an attempt in a year.

Contrary to the belief of some, suicide is not only a problem in developed Western countries. It is a global problem: World Health Organization data for 2016 shows that four fifths of suicides occurred in low or middle income countries. We have to talk about suicide, and 10 September – world suicide prevention day – is a good moment to start.

Happiness thus affects many people, and is the second cause of death for 15-29 year olds. But what can we do to prevent suicide?

I am not a psychologist, and to anybody who truly does not see a purpose to be alive I would above all recommend to seek immediate professional help (and to be clear, this blog does not offer professional help). In many countries, there are suicide prevention hotlines you can call when in crisis. Wikipedia lists them here.

What to do when you have thoughts about suicide

For less acute cases, there are a few things that can be done (partially based on the tips of the Dutch suicide prevention hotline 113:

  • Seek professional help. Get help from a professional therapist to tackle the problems you are facing.
  • Talk to friends or family, or write down your worries. If you express some of the thoughts that are bothering you, their weight is already smaller.
  • Get a daily routine. Make sure you sleep enough and eat in right amounts. Go outside for a walk, or exercise: fresh air and movement already give a boost to the hormones regulating how you feel.
  • See life in perspective. Moments of happiness pass by, but the same is true for moments of unhappiness. The dark side is a part of life.
  • Show gratitude for the good things. Pay attention to and appreciate the small and beautiful things that happen: rays of sunlight on your skin, a nice coffee, a smiling person on the street. You can even consider the ‘three good things‘ practice and start writing down positive events during your day for at least a few weeks.
Image found on Up North Parent: https://www.upnorthparent.com/the-hope-squad-suicide-prevention-awareness-month-resources/

Image found on Up North Parent: https://www.upnorthparent.com/the-hope-squad-suicide-prevention-awareness-month-resources/

What to do to help someone who is down

Suicide and suicidal thoughts are a social issue. What can we do – as individuals – to reduce this source of suffering around us?

  • Speak up and offer help. When you suspect that someone feels lonely and a burden to people, and is not afraid to die, reach out. Talk about the problems they are facing. And not only in autmn, winter or Christmas time: summer can also be a time of darkness.
  • Talk about suicide. According to the Dutch suicide prevention hotline, there is no need to shun the subject. In their experience, talking about suicide does not result in a suicide attempt. Youth could be an exception though: if they talk about suicide openly, this could influence behaviour.
  • Encourage the person to get professional help. Support them in reaching out to professionals.
  • Take care of yourself. Don’t make yourself responsible for all the suffering you see. Use your own support network to express your own feelings.

Equip people to face the ups and downs in life 

As a society, there is still a lot what we can do to improve suicide prevention: continue breaking the taboo, train doctors and other health care professionals in recognising and treating suicidal thoughts and depression, and reduce access to tools used for suicide.

There is more that can be done to strengthen mental health and build resilience. Depression and schizophrenia are said to account for 60% of all suicides. Schizophrenia is a complex disorder, and there is no easy cure for depression. Many cases are inappropriately treated or not treated at all.

As societies grow richer and people live longer, more investment needs to be made to better understand how depression can be prevented and treated. It can start with changes in education: increase emphasis on life skills and happiness at schools, to help people face the ups and downs in life. Happiness education may be a factor that helps to prevent suicide.

 

Do you have suicidal thoughts? Please, please, please, reach to a suicide crisis line. Find an overview here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_suicide_crisis_lines 

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.

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.

DSC03590

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.

DSC03648

What would a once-per-50-years newspaper say on happiness?

I recently came across a brief podcast by the US National Public Radio (NPR) with an intriguing question.

Some of us have quit reading the news, as the endless updates about conflicts, natural disasters, political in-fighting, and abuse scandals make us depressed. (Sports news could balance it down a bit though, depending whether your team wins or loses).

The news is about what is uncommon – hence it is news – and often these are bad developments. In a time of online news and push notifications, we can get ‘new’ news in the time it takes to load a few tweets. As a result, we are a lot better informed about conflicts and disasters in many places we otherwise wouldn’t have heard about. But it might also make us lose the big picture on what is going well in the world.

That’s why the NPR jumped on an idea of Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie. The two are affiliated with Oxford University, and run a number-lovers’ paradise: Our World In Data. They came up with the idea: what would a newspaper consider as headline news if it appeared only once per fifty years?

 

The 50-year newspaper

The newspaper the NPR and Our World In Data made appeared on 1 January 2018, exactly fifty years after the previous edition of 1968.

It contains some bad news…

  • Is It Just Me, Or Is It Hot In Here? (on climate change, as human-induced greenhouse gas emissions rocket)
  • Humans to Animals: Drop Dead! (on biodiversity loss; the number of terrestrial animals declined by 60%)

… but also shows some of the great progress made in the last fifty years:

  • Poor No More (on poverty, which feel from 60% to 10% of the world population)
  • Child Mortality Plummets (in 1968, 1 out of 6 children died before their fifth birthday. With healthcare improving, it now is 1 out of 22)
  • Blame It On The Grain (on undernourishment; the population share with hunger fell from about one third to 12%)

 

What about happiness?

But what would the headline on happiness be in the paper of January 2018?

Fifty years after 1968, these are the headlines the newspaper should run:

  • Have You Jumped Out The Rat Race Yet? (on the growing awareness of people that they are in charge of their own well-being, but that they need to make important and difficult life style choices to achieve it)
  • Emerging Economies Show Massive Happiness Gains (the progress in fighting poverty, child mortality, and undernourishment across developing countries comes with a happiness dividend)
  • Free At Last! (on the transition towards democracy and self-determination in many countries, mainly in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and former colonies)
  • Politicians and Bosses Say: Your Happiness Is My Command (on the growing attention for happiness and well-being as a policy issue for the state, and corporations increasing attention to happiness at work)
  • Materialism Out, Experiences In! (on the gradually changing habit of people to value and spend money on experiences such as trips or time with friends, and a lesser emphasis on consumer goods)

 

Bonus: what the 1968 papers actually said about happiness, referring to a creepily titled Beatles song.

american-rifleman-happiness-is-a-warm-gun_01-1

 

The unexpected ripe age of happiness

Life is a trap.

When you’re young, you’ve time and energy, but no money.

When you’re an adult, you’ve money and energy, but no time.

And in old age, you’ve finally have both money and time – but then your energy is gone.

At least, that’s how the online joke has it. Laughs aside, it also triggers an interesting question: what is the happiest stage of our life?

The age of happiness

The website Hospice End of Life Care is convinced there is. They collected data from various surveys (and kindly shared them in the neat infographic below!) showing that old age isn’t as gloomy as one might think. Beyond the cliches about lonely and depressed grandpa, the elderly often have lower levels of stress. They perform better on well-being indicators such as healthy eating and being energised from social contacts. And they’re even more confident about their looks!

One could cynically think: by the time you’re 70 or 80, you’re happy to be still around. Happiness scientists indeed are quite certain about the correlation of happiness and longevity. For instance, a 2015 study in the United States found that happy people tend to live longer. Compared to ‘very happy’ people, both people who consider themselves ‘pretty happy’ (+6%) and ‘not happy’ (+14%) had higher risks of death in the reference period.

Life expectancy is rising, and the share of the population above 65 grows ever larger. In the United States (15%, relatively low for the Western world), Germany (21%), and Japan (27%), over 65s represent an increasingly large share. So, the sample of over 65s grow and grow, and these figures are average across a wide range of values.

Are all older people happier?

It is not as simple as saying that all older people are happier everywhere around. In some geographies, that is indeed the case: people tend to be happy in their 20s, go down a bit in their 30s, 40s, and 50s, before picking up again in their 60s and 70s, resulting in a kind of U-shape.

Schermafbeelding 2017-12-03 om 20.13.44

However, their infographic at the end of the post uses American survey data. Globally, the US is a bit a different beast then many other countries. The World Happiness Report of 2015 studied the matter in some detail, as shown in the image just above. While the U-shape appears both across the North America and Australia/New Zealand (NANZ) region and East Asia, these are the exceptions worldwide.

In all other regions, happiness either stabilises at some point between people’s 30s and 50s, or continues to reduce. The reduction effect is strongest in the Central and Eastern Europe and former Commonwealth of Independent States (CEE & CIS in the graph).

Less stress and better rested

That, however, is not the full story. On some indicators for the positive emotions that underly happiness, older people seem to perform better, even where they are not among the happiest groups overall.

For instance, in many world regions they tend to smile and laugh more than other people. In old age, depression and especially stress levels fall far below their peak, around middle age. And in many regions, the elderly are among the best rested groups! Maybe those low energy levels are a just a myth, and we do have something to look forward to when growing older.

 The full infographic

HappinessIGFULLNOV

Does size matter: higher tax, happier countries?

One of the oldest questions in political philosophy is of course: does size matter? Or to phrase it more precisely for the aims of this blog, does the size of the state influence the level of happiness of its population?

There are two ways of looking at the questions. Firstly, does the size of population matter for the quality of life? And secondly, how large a role should the government play in society?

Small is beautiful

At least at the anecdotal level, the first question is relatively to answer. It appears that smaller countries, typically, have happier populations than larger ones. From a theoretical angle, that makes sense. If a country is smaller, it is more likely to have a more homogenous population, and people are more likely to feel close to each other. For instance, this would result in a better community life, one of the factors associated with happiness. A glance at the 2016 World Happiness Report shows that most of the top-ten countries are relatively small, with Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland in the top-three, and only Canada, Netherlands and Australia (numbers six, seven and nine) having a population above 10 million.

Schermafbeelding 2016-05-22 om 18.37.08

Father state makes you… happy?

There is a second way of looking at the question, though. Does the share that the government takes in the economy and society affect happiness levels? Is it the invasive Big Government or rather the freedom of the laissez faire night-watcher state that makes people best off?

A book by Benjamin Radcliff, The Political Economy of Human Happiness, suggests there are three ways of measuring state size when assessing the correlation: welfare spending; overall government spending; and taxation.

From a theoretic perspective, one could presume a link between government spending and happiness. For instance, welfare policies could be expected to provide the safety net to lower income and/or unemployed people, and therefore reduce inequality. Similarly, a large amount of government spending – for instance by providing free or subsidised education or healthcare – could result in higher happiness levels.

Indeed, the evidence assessed by Radcliff suggests this kind of link. His data shows that for one of the metrics, linked to welfare spending, countries scoring high on this indicator, happiness levels are above one point higher than low-scoring countries. He suggests that this contribution to happiness is double that of being married (being married is positively correlated with happiness), and three times the negative drag of unemployment. To give an example: if your baseline happiness is 7, living in a state with high spending would statistically increase your happiness to 8. Being unemployed would drag it down to 6,7. That’s the magnitude of the influence of the state size according to Radcliff’s evidence!

More tax, more happiness

Government spending doesn’t come for free. While taxation of citizens and companies isn’t the only source of income, it typically is the most significant one. Could it really be the case that being taxed more resulted in citizens being happier?

Again, the data suggest there is a correlation. Radcliff even states that “higher levels of taxation suggest higher levels of satisfaction with life”.

The graph here compares taxation levels (tax revenue as % of GDP) with happiness levels (life satisfaction), based on data from the OECD and the World Happiness Report quoted above. It shows an increasing trendline, associating a level of taxation of 20% in this group of OECD countries with a happiness level of around 6.5. All others thing equal, a level of 50% is correlated with a happiness level of around 6.8: some one thirds of a point higher across the trendline.

But not all others things are equal: the distribution is broad and the effects are very diverse. Denmark is on the top right with a happiness level of 7.526 and the very highest tax level of 50,9. On the far left, we find Switzerland with a marginally lower happiness level of 7.509 and only half the tax rate at 26.6%. On the lowest part of the graph, with happiness levels just above 5 points, we find Portugal, Greece and Hungary, with taxation levels around 34-38%.

tax vs happiness

 

Correlation, goes the warning to every first-year student, is not causation. The 34 countries of the OECD provide some interesting figures, but there are many other factors than taxation that determine happiness. Idiosyncratic factors and practical things like a state’s efficiency – what kind of society does is create with the 20 or 50% tax money it collects? – certainly also play a role. I’ll look at some of what the states does next week: the Nanny State.

The Good Life: 75 years of research in five simple words

One of the eternal quests of men is to discover the good life. The key to happiness, one would suppose, cannot be simple. What would the conclusions be of a 75-year study of the Good Life be? They must at the minmum fill a small library.

In what is now one of my favourite TED talks, Robert Waldinger summarises the takeaways in twelve minutes I need to eat my breakfast.

75 years of study

Waldinger is the director of the so-called Grant Study. In the longitudinal study, started 75 years ago, Harvard students starting university in the years 1939-1944 have been studied throughout their life. Every two years, research staff came to see them, asking them about health and illness, happiness and misery, career and love. Based on thousands of data points, the researchers got an in-depth understanding of how the health of these 268 men developed over life. The study included people running for senator (and one US President – guess and check at the end of the post if you were right!), doctors and lawyers, but also people who fell down hard from the top. And to ensure the findings wouldn’t be biased on different realities of the Harvard elite, the study early in its history was complemented by a survey of a sample of 456 inner city Boston boys.

Social relations for happiness and health

How did Waldinger summarise all these years of data in his twelve minutes? Simple: he pointed out how social relations are the key to our happiness and our health:

  • Social connections are good for us – and loneliness kills. Social relations to friends, family and community are correlated with longer lives. And loneliness is toxic: it’s associated with earlier decline in health.
  • Quality is king. Living in conflict is bad for health: high-conflict marriages without affection may even be worse than getting divorced. That doesn’t mean that everything goes smoothly: the typical bickering old-age couple isn’t too problematic, as long as both partners know they can rely on each other in case of need.
  • Good relations protect our brain. If you want to predict the health of someone’s brain at age 80, data of their relationship satisfaction age 50 provide a good indication.

Is it really that simple?

If you’re a sceptic, I know what you’ll say reading this. First: how can we make judgements based on relatively small samples, of only 268 and 456 studies. Second: is there proof that this correlation means causation. If we study 10,000 instead of just over 700 people, are the effects the same? Thirdly: is the key to happiness this simple and obvious? Can it be reduced to, just, being a good person to your wife or husband?

The honest answer is: I don’t know. I haven’t conducted the research myself. I haven’t analysed the 10,000s of data points to come to these conclusions. The way I see it is that these conclusions, maybe more than anything, are good reminders to focus on the big picture from time to time as we frantically go from place to place and task to task, busy living our lives.

In two articles portraying the study in the Atlantic in 2009 and 2013, Waldinger’s predecessor as study lead George Vaillant presents a couple of other lessons. And again, these are quite obvious, or at least, they don’t come as big surprises:

  •  Alcoholism is destructive, and the number one cause of divorce.
  • From a certain point, a higher IQ doesn’t affect incomes anymore
  • A good relationship with your mother matters your entire life
  • And: aging liberals have better sex lives (ok, maybe that one was actually less obvious!)

Tools to unravel the mystery of happiness

In our attempts to unravel the mystery of happiness, we use all kind of different tools, from spiritual retreats to decade-long surveys. Ultimately, even though happiness means different things for different people, probably the conclusion of most of these quite similar. In the words of Vaillant, when summarising his decades as leader of the study:

“Happiness is love. Full stop”

 

And who was the later US President who participated in the study? John F. Kennedy.

Less is more: a minimalist life

I’ve spent some time the last month in packing, storing, and reordering, as I moved recently. It made me realise how much stuff I own: books I’ve read a long time ago, clothes I don’t wear, postcards and pictures reminding me of ancient times in my own life, scientific articles to prepare my thesis while in university, all kind of random small objects… so much stuff!

When I was in this reflective mood, I met a guy who has a lot more minimalist approach to life than I did. I’ll call him Alex, because that is his name. Alex lived in various countries throughout his life, and ended up in Brussels around a year ago. He rents a room here, and all his own possessions fit in two suitcases. (Funnily, he admitted he owns seven pairs of underwear, so he needs to do laundry at leat once per week, but is thinking of buying more of them).

Alex doesn’t necessarily define himself a minimalist, but there any people who do. For some, it means picking a certain lifestyle which is less about stuff and more about experiences. For others, there clearly is a sport in it to count and reduce the number of items they own, to 288 items only, to 100, or even 50 or below. Some go by with less than seven pieces of underwear. To be honest, most of cheat a little: they may count three pieces of underwear as one item!

Does less stuff equal more happiness?

Have the minimalists found a pathway to happiness in a time when storage centers are booming business? The science on stuff and happiness is not that clear. According to this post, minimalism is a tool that can help people reassess their priorities. For instance, when the focus shifts away from owning stuff and towards spending money on experiences or social relations, that is something that contributes to happiness.

From research on the relation between consumption, money, and happiness, we know for a long time time that there are ‘hedonic adaptation’ and a ‘hedonic treadmill’ effects. Once we acquire something new, we quickly get used to it, and need to buy other things again to retain this feeling. Hence, material goods do not create lasting happiness, and we up storing boxes and boxes of stuff outside our house.

To the contrary, spending money on special experiences works, says professor Michael Norton. You might not remember anything anymore about the experience of buying a piece of clothing five years ago. But I bet you remember a special outing you did, like going skydiving or a hike with friends.

Storage centers, a booming business.

Storage centers, a booming business.

It’s decluttering and ordering, not minimising, that matters

One of the great benefits of minimalism, wrote one of the bloggers I read, is the following: you never have to look search for anything, and cleaning your apartment takes only a couple of minutes. But all good virtues come in moderation. A couple of more extreme people like Alex aside, probably most of us are better off with just a bit less and better organised stuff, not a minimal amount of stuff.

Looking at blogs and book titles, there is an enormous hype around ‘decluttering’. This term simply means clearing ‘clutter’ out of our houses and our lives, by throwing (or giving) away clothes, books, and household items you don’t need. When all your stuff is in your life and your house for a reason – be it because of a practical use, or sentimental value – you’re in a situation where less is more.

Am I tempted to throw away all my books and become a minimalist? Absolutely not. I have selected and re-selected my collection, and I cherish those books I’ve kept. I like to believe that everything I own is there for a reason.

These chaps may disagree. But to me, it’s not the number of items in your life that counts, but the life in your items.

 

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