Tag Archives: Happiness Research Institute

Summer, time of darkness

Happiness is always a good thing, right? At least, all over my life I’ve assumed that happiness is something pretty and beautiful, and always worth pursuing for its own sake.

A recent TEDx talk by Meik Wiking of the Danish Happiness Research Institute has opened my eyes. Everything in life has a dark side, and that even applies to happiness.

800,000 suicides per year

Wiking starts his talk on The Dark Side of Happiness by pointing out that around 500 Danes commit suicide every year, although they live in the country that tops the World Happiness Report as happiest country of the world. Some people think that suicide rates are particularly high in Nordic countries like Sweden, Finland and Denmark, with long and dark winters (sometimes it is even thought that happiness rates remain high, because unhappy people filter themselves out by suicide!).

This is not the case, and many countries in Eastern Europe and across the East of Africa rank worse, as the WHO data show. To some extent, suicide rates might be affected by cultural factors, such as the high pressure to perform and strong shame notions in Korea and Japan. Lower levels in a country like Mexico may also be a result of strong social support. Either way, every year around 800,000 commit suicide. That figure is massive, especially when you consider that the death toll of one the most bloody conflicts and biggest human tragedies always in our headlines, the Syrian civil war, is estimated at around 400,000 in the last five years.

 

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

Suicide rates per 100,000 citizens. Data: World Health Organisation, 2016

 

Social positions matter… a lot! 

But is there any correlation between happiness levels in society and the suicide? Wiking suggests that there could be a link. He claims that it is more difficult to be unhappy in a happy society. Imagine that Stine is unemployed and that she has had trouble in finding a job for some months. At the same time, most of her friends have great jobs, and excitedly tell her about their promotions or new cool projects when they meet for drinks together. Sounds sad, right? Now imagine the case of Jaime. He has also been looking for a job some time, but some of his friends are in the same boat. When they meet up, they exchange funny stories about failed job applications, or  share tips on how to land a dream job.

All things equal, Jaime will likely be happier than Stine. Our peer group, and the people who we compare to, matter for how we feel. Hence, it’s tougher to be unhappy in a country like Denmark, which scores a 7.526 in the World Happiness Report, than say in Spain, which scores 6.361. Our social position counts!

Wiking shares a couple of interesting experiments that reinforce that feeling. For instance, tests with social media show that when people are not exposed to other people’s seemingly perfect online lives for a week, happiness rates go up. Similarly, imagine asking hundred people if they’d rather earn €50,000 when everybody else earns half that amount, or €100,00 when everybody earns double. Typically, around 50% would prefer to earn less in absolute terms, but be richer than others.

Summer, a time of darkness

But one of the most shocking pieces of evidence are the quotes from depressed people. Contrasting what you might think, it is not Christmas that is the most difficult of the time for lonely people. In the survey that Wiking cites, spring and summer are worse: “Summer is a nightmare.” Everybody is sitting in parks, holding picknicks and barbecues with friends. For lonely people, this is the hardest time of the year. Other’s people happiness can generate a lot of unhappiness. And the impact of loneliness or happiness inequality is likely a lot bigger than the economic inequality.

Happiness also has a dark side, and summer may be a time of darkness. That truth is worth taking into account when we are thinking about happiness and public policies shaping quality of life.

Beyond GDP event: does happiness make good policy?

Can developing countries afford the money to develop happiness-based public policies?

Why is Saudi-Arabia a fairly happy country, despite low levels of personal freedom?

How is it possible that Sweden is one of the happiest countries of the world, but also a country with one of the highest suicide rates?

Are measures of happiness accurate? Shouldn’t weather and gastronomy be part of it, given their importance for happiness? 

This is just a snapshot of some of the great questions that I got fired on me from the audience at a conference on ‘Beyond GDP. Why Happiness Makes Goood Policy’. They provide plenty of material for future blog posts!

The event was organised by the Danish Embassy in Brussels and the Young Professionals and Foreign Policy (YPFP) in Brussels. Fortunately I wasn’t alone in answering them: I spoke alongside Marie Louise Dornoy of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen.

Happiness is all about statistics

Apart from challenging my arguments and thoughts about the topic, I felt that the questions also revealed a deep interest and understanding from the audience. Happiness is a universal topic, and everybody in the room seemed to reflect on the question what happiness means for themselves and for society they live in.

As in many events, people were curious whether happiness and well-being can really be used in public policy. I feel that progress has been made in the last ten years to strengthen the scientific base and to gathering of statistical evidence underlying well-being policies. Often this is up to academia and central statistical agencies. As I formulated it during the event, happiness is a lot about statistics.

Local governments ‘experiment’ with happiness policies

For the concrete policy initiatives, it is especially local and regional authorities that are discovering and experimenting in this area. The great thing is that field is expanding quickly and that in a couple of years, we will have a lot more knowledge than we have now.

I raised the example of the ‘Geluksbudget‘ (Happiness budget, see here in Dutch) used in some Dutch municipalities. With this budget, socially deprived people are granted a sum of money they can invest in an intervention to increase their happiness. Marie Louise mentioned various initiatives, such as ‘National Neighbours Day‘ in the Netherlands, and the ‘Mobile Mini Circus‘ in Afghanistan. The Happiness Research Institute has also started to collect examples from happiness-based policies and so far has gathered about one hundred examples.

 

Want to know more?

See some tweets below and my powerpoint presentation to get an impression of the event. 

Part of the conference was live-tweeted. For some of the coverage, see the accounts @YPFPBrussels and @DKinBelgium or the hashtag #YPFPBXL

 

Can we replicate Denmark’s success story?

Last week I gave an anecdotal explanation to Denmark’s happiness. To complete the story, today I would like to ask what the Danes think themselves about their high levels of happiness, and whether it’s a success can be replicated elsewhere.

What do Danes think themselves?

If I believe what Meik and Marie Louise from the Happiness Research Institute say, I get the impression that Danes find the interest in their high happiness levels amusing and comical. Danes tend to point at what is not good in Denmark: mental health issues and depression, a complex relation with immigrants, a reputation of not being too outgoing. Part of the disbelief, says Meik, may have to do with the fact that ‘lykke’, the Danish word for ‘happy’, is a term for quite an extreme term. Jante’s Law in mind, it’s probably to say that things are not bad than that they are amazing.

Can we replicate Denmark’s success?

Whether it is through well-crafted policies or a lucky coincidence of getting many things right, Denmark as a state manages to achieve one of the highest levels of happiness. Is there anything in Denmark that can be replicated elsewhere? My feeling is there are three factors that can be easier taken at heart elsewhere:

  • Urban design. Certain factors in the design of a city are related with the happiness of its citizens. A city like Copenhagen is easy to navigate, has green spaces close-by in various neighbourhoods, and can be travelled by bike. This allows people to get around easily and to be active, and the example can be followed elsewhere. The term ‘Copenhagenize‘ has already been used to drive the use of bicycles into other cultures.
  • Work participation. I believe work-life balance (also cited in the Happy Danes report) is an important factor in Danes’ levels of happiness. Acceptance of flexitime and working from home, subsidised creches and generous maternity leave, a full year to be divided by the two parents) are helpful. This allows people to pursue a career and benefit from the overall positive impetus for happiness levels of work, whilst maintaining a meaningful relation with growing children.
  • Strive to take away barriers. Kristian mentioned he does not have to worry about healthcare or education. If such services are accessible for all, this can prevent worries resulting in unhappiness. In other countries, such as the US, the belief that it’s people’s own responsibility to reach success in life is a barrier in the pursuit of happiness. Without wanting to sound like a communist – if US politicians want to increase quality of life, raising taxes to decrease the cost of health and education may provide part of the answer.
Copenhagen is full of bikes. Photo by Kasper Thyge/Visit Copenhagen

The size and design of Copenhagen help people to get around by bikes, spending little time on work-home commutes and being active on the go. Such a policy can be replicated elsewhere. Photo by Kasper Thyge/Visit Copenhagen

An anecdotal explanation to Danish happiness

Why is Denmark so happy? And most importantly: which of Denmark’s lessons can we replicate in other countries?

These were my main questions during a short study visit to Copenhagen that I undertook last week. Denmark routinely tops the rankings of happiest countries. In the 2015 World Happiness Report, it lost two places (going from 3 to 1), but it still the happiest country of the EU. And it is home to a dedicated think-tank on the issue: the Happiness Research Institute!

Another observation: Danish flags are everywhere

Another observation: Danish flags are everywhere. One day walking around in Copenahgen, we counted about 80 of them!

Let’s first share a couple of my findings and observations from three days in Copenhagen. And then, next week, I’ll provide my answer to the question whether Denmark’s secrets are unique to the land of the Dannebrog (the omnipresent flag) and Smorrebrod (Danish sandwiches served with fish, meat or potatoes), or whether they can be implemented elsewhere.

My findings

These findings are based on impressions and conversations with people over a couple of days. If you allow me, I’ll be a bit anecdotal today; I’ve discussed a more evidence-based list of factors identified in the Institute’s report on the Happy Danes before.

Opportunities to live the good life…

Our host Kristian identified two possible theories behind Denmark’s high happiness levels: firstly, Denmark offers plenty of opportunities to live a good life. At the cost of high taxes, the state takes many reasons to worry (and unhappiness) away: healthcare is free, and students cannot only attend university without any tuition fee, but also receive an allowance to do so.

At the same time, there does not seem to be a dominant path set out for you. It seems individuals have the possibility to choose their lifestyle quite freely. In Danish, there is no formal version of ‘you’, even the Prime Minister is a ‘you’. Compare this  to the difference between informal and formal in many languages, such as du and Sie in German, or titles like ‘Sir’ and ‘Dame’ in the UK social class system. Even the Danish royals seem to be down-to-earth: our tour guide’s repertoire includes an anecdote about petting the royal dog and entering a conversation with Crown Prince Frederik and princess Mary on the street.

… but low expectations?

The second theory Kristian cites is that low expectations about life can be a factor. As the expression has it, low expectations are key to a happy life. According to Danish-Dutch philosopher Stine Jensen’s, the so-called Law of Jante can explain the unpretentious mentality of the Danes. Half-ironic, half-serious the law of Jante drawn up by writer  Aksel Sandemose formulates ten rules Danes (and other Scandinavians) are required to live by. These include:

  • You’re not to think you are anything special.
  • You’re not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
  • You’re not to think you can teach us anything.

Happiness is within easy reach

This attitude and the small scale of the Danish society, at some 5 million people, could possibly explain why Danes live well together in their community. In a sunny May weekend in Copenhagen I observed a vibrant social life. With many Danes, I spent my Saturday night on the Tivoli Lunapark, and on Sunday in amongst hipsters in the Papiroen Street food Mekka and amongst hippies in Christiania. At the same time, the sun didn’t only colour my face but also bias my view. On a grey and cold March days, when winter is in its seventh month, there’s little to be ecstatic about.

That’s it for today. Next week, I’ll get to two other questions: what do Danes think themselves about their high levels of happiness, and can their lessons be replicated their elsewhere?

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Sitting on a sunny terrace at the waterfront, happiness is within easy reach

Event on Beyond GDP, 4 June in Brussels

Can human happiness be a basis for policy-making?

To hear my thoughts on this topic, join the event on “Beyond GDP – Why Happiness is Good Policy” on 4 June at 19.00 in Brussels. Find the details and the link to the registration form here.

The event is organised by the Danish Embassy in Brussels and the Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). The main speaker is Marie Louise Dornoy, a researcher at the Danish Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. The Institute is a think-tank dedicated to the study of happiness and well-being, as well as policies and interventions to increase them.

Full text of the invitation:

beyond gdp event

Picture by Camdiluv, Chile, taken from WIkipedia.

WHAT: Beyond GDP – Why Happiness is Good Policy
WHEN: Thursday, 4 June, 19.00 – 20.30
WHERE: Danish Church, Rue Washington 27, 1050 Brussels (Ixelles)
WHO:YPFP Members and friends. In the event of over-subscription, YPFP members will be given preference.

REGISTER: https://goo.gl/Gf88IH

Can human happiness be a basis for policy-making?

In the 1970s, Bhutan based its public policy on the concept of ‘Gross National Happiness’ (GNH). Instead of economic goals championed by Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the aim of GNH is to contribute to public policies that directly affect the well-being of citizens.
Since the early 2000s, global discussions on ‘beyond GDP’ policies have sought to include happiness as an alternate criteria for policy-making.

On Bhutan’s initiative, the UN adopted a resolution recognising the human aspiration to happiness. The UN’s Sustainable Development Solutions Network reports on world happiness levels. The 2015 World Happiness Report ranks Switzerland, Iceland and Denmark as the three happiest countries in the world. But ‘beyond GDP’ policies are also questioned. Can governments legitimately decide what happiness is? Can public policy really increase well-being? Does a focus on happiness distract governments from more important policy objectives?

Join our discussion with:
- Marie Louise Dornoy, Research & Communications, The Happiness Research Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark
- Jasper Bergink, Editor and Happiness Researcher, For a State of Happiness

Please note that you will be asked to provide ID details upon registration. Participants will need to provide photo ID to gain entry to the event.

The Happy Danes: why are Danes so damn happy?

Something is special in the state of Denmark. Believe it or not, but despite associations with the grey weather, not-so-outgoing personalities, and general boredom, Denmark tops the ranking in many international happiness surveys. Denmark is the happiest country according the World Happiness Reports of 2012 and 2013, the European Social Survey of 2008, and the Eurobarometer of 2012.

What is so special about Denmark? Why are Danes so damn happy?

The Happiness Research Institute, or Institut for Lykkeforskning as it sounds in Danish, was founded a couple of years ago just to answer that question. And the answer is simply that Denmark is good in almost everything that is related to happiness. In the words of John Helliwell (Author of the World Happiness Report, and winner of the Nobel Prize for Happiness, if there had been one):

Broadly speaking, Denmark ranks highly in all factors that support happiness

The factors behind Danes’ high happiness

What is behind this happiness? According to the Happiness Research Institute’s study on The Happy Danes, there are eight factors that contribute to Danes’ high happiness levels:

  1. Trust. People tend to trust each other – this even comes in crazy forms: I’ve been told that in Denmark it’s completely normal to leave your baby stroller (baby included) outside the supermarket during groceries or at a bar when you get a coffee.
  2. Security. The welfare state helps. Even if you’re poor, or unemployed for a time, the state takes care of you. Comparatively, Danish poor have a high level of well-being.
  3. Wealth. High prosperity helps!
  4. Freedom. And personal freedom, too.
  5. Work. And on top of that, a healthy relationship to work! High levels of autonomy and job quality – that makes happiness at work?
  6. Democracy. Election turnout of over 80% – and voting is not mandatory!
  7. Civil society. Beyond a high degree of voluntary jobs, Danes also socialise more than average.
  8. Balance. A balance between work and leisure.

All in isolation, none of these factors are very special. There are countries that offer social security, that have a strong democratic culture, or where people have a good work-leisure balance. The special thing about Denmark, though, is that all these factor appear together. What is the secret?

measure-happiness-1

Image via How Stuff Works

Social security, but no happiness policy

I asked Meik Wiking, the Director of the Institute and the lead editor of The Happy Danes, whether there is an overall policy framework dedicated to the pursuit of happiness in Denmark, or whether it is just the consequence of high quality policies in the individual areas mentioned. Wiking answers:

Currently, there is no overall happiness framework (…) However, I do think that the Danish welfare state has been good at having citizen-centered policies and focusing on reducing UN-happiness: ensuring basic income, access to health care, education etc.

As the report explains, social security has contributed to the fact that the gap in happiness between rich and poor in Denmark is a lot smaller then, for instance, in the US.

Trust

Trust is the first factor that the Institute identified as contributing to happiness. That begs the question why trust is so high. Wiking points at the low level of corruption and the small size of Danish society:

One element is of course the low level of corruption. We experience that we can have trust in our system and in our society. We are treated equally and fairly according to the law. Also, I believe that the equality and the smallness of our society reduces the incentive for cheating. We all have more or less the same – and in a small society (where everybody knows each other) the penalty for cheating is higher. I know this is all very banal, but it is the best explanation I can see.

The positive emotions paradox

Danes don’t have a reputation for being the most cheerful people. And indeed, they score lower on ‘positive affect’ (or short term, intense, positive emotions) then for instance some Mediterranean or Latin American countries. But the scores are higher for overall quality of life, where happiness measurements are based on longer term and more evaluative judgements about life as a whole. Isn’t this paradoxical?

I do believe we should strive for having high levels on both the evaluative and the affective dimension in every country. Life is made up of moments and the two dimensions are linked. However, I am not sure we should call it a paradox that one country scores low in one and high in another. I think it is just evidence that we need a more nuanced language – and understanding – to be able to talk about, study and improve quality of life.

Thus, Danes are a happy people, even though positive emotions are lower than in some other countries. In the end, it simply means that there is a lot more to know about happiness. Even in Denmark, the Happiness Research Institute won’t be out of work.

Kartofler

One example of Danish trust: unmanned stands with potatoes, where you can take them freely and supposed to leave the money behind. Image courtesy of Happiness Research Institute

The power of negative emotions – and two other lessons of the Foro Bienestar

I just came back from two weeks in Mexico. During these weeks, I fled the Brussels grey, rain and cold to replace it by the occasional Mexico City grey, the jungle rain, and Pacific coast warmth. Moreover, I spent a couple of days at the Foro Bienestar (International Forum of Well-Being and Development) in Guadalajara, where I was invited to speak. In the next two weeks, I’ll offer some thoughts about my own presentation on happiness and public policy and about the question ‘why are Mexicans so happy’ that was the leitmotiv of the conference. However, today I wanted to share some insights about the main points that I took home from the conference. Are you ready? Here we go!

Don’t forget the power of negative emotions

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Speaking of negative emotions: this slide by Stefano Bartolini (University of Siena) shows the problem of social comparisons and happiness very well.

Most of the speakers were academics and the good thing about academics, contrary to some happiness consultants, is that they don’t allow themselves to be carried away by their enthusiasm so much that they forget that being happy all the time is not possible and not desirable. Negative emotions are a necessary counterweight to positive ones. In a simple metaphor: feelings are a mountainous landscape. Without the valleys of anger, frustrations and anxiety, the happy peaks of joy, tranquility and exaltation would not be happy peaks but part of a plain.

Robert Biswas-Diener, often labelled as a positive psychologist, brought this forward most prominently. Answering his own question ‘how happy should an individual be?’, he suggested that the ideal rate of positive and negative emotions might be positive 80% of the time and 20% negative of the time. Being happy all the time does not do justice to real and important feelings as guilt, grief and anger. For instance, as he also discusses in his book ‘The Upside of your Dark Side‘, guilt can motivate us to work harder and accomplish more than we ever could do if we’d be simply content with everything.

Measuring happiness is very, very simple and very, very, complex

A large part of the conference was dedicated to one simple question: how do you measure happiness? It is clear that there are many ways to do so: the World Happiness Database at the Erasmus University Rotterdam knows 963 different methodologies, said Jan Ott.

But professor John Helliwell, one of the authors of the UN World Happiness Report, explained these can be summarised in a couple of simple ways. One way is to ask people how happy they are in a specific moment. This can be happiness in the ‘now’, to grasp a person’s feelings most accurately, or a moment like ‘yesterday’ or even longer ago, to prevent that events limited in time have a major influence. Such a question can be answered very quickly, without a lot of thinking. A second way is to ask a more reflective question, asking how satisfied you are with your life as a whole. Questions asking about positive or negative emotions typically give more random and diverse answers.

The debate is open on happiness as a policy objective

Picture from the opening session. Source: La Jornada de Jalisco.

Picture from the opening session. Source: La Jornada de Jalisco.

In my opinion, it should be obvious that governments would aim to increase quality of life and well-being – happiness if you want – especially where incomes increase and poverty reduces. Still, using insights about happiness and well-being in public policy is quite scarce: another research to welcome that Jalisco, the region where Guadalajara is located, is facing the challenge. Meik Wiking, from the Danish Happiness Research Institute, identified that taking happiness as a political goal is a trend. But there is also a counter-trend: skepticism about government efforts to formulate happiness policy objectives.

Professor Bruno Frey strongly advanced the argument that with happiness as a policy objective, there would be major incentives to governments to manipulate data, for instance by excluding people with lower happiness and by  falsification of indicators. In a high-level debate – the Tyson vs Ali of  happiness researchers – he was taken on by professor Helliwell, who thought these risks could be reduced as methodologies will be tweaked over time and that manipulation could be constrained in a democratic society.