Tag Archives: Happiness

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?

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.

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

 

Who do I vote for happiness?

Tomorrow my home country, the Netherlands, goes to the polls. The Dutch political system has a low barrier to enter the parliament. Especially this year, this leads to a proliferation of parties: there are 28 parties on the ballot, of which around 11 to 15 stand a stance to win seats according to recent polls.

The broad offer of political ideas also resulted in a large amount of online voting tools. Nowadays, about fifty sites offer tools to compare your views with party manifestoes. Apart from two big and generic ones, others help you to determine which party to vote if you are an entrepreneur, a young voter, if you want to see swift work on climate change, and even if you smoke cannabis (this remains the Netherlands…!).

 

A voting tool for happiness

But there is no tool on happiness. If I want to support a politician that promotes policies improving happiness and well-being, who should I vote? Does any politician ‘run on happiness’?

Happiness is a very tricky issue for politicians. Few politicians would directly promise to make their voters happy, and for good reasons. But if you dig a bit into some of the electoral manifestoes, a couple of ideas linked to wellbeing and the beyond GDP agenda do appear.

 

Four out of the seven large parties have some notion of happiness

Let’s run through the seven parties performing best in the polls; known as VVD, PVV, CDA, D66, GroenLinks, SP and PvdA in their Dutch acronyms.

Three of the main parties do not dedicate a single word to these ideas. For the one-page manifesto of the Freedom Party (PVV, Geert Wilders), this is not a surprise. It’s main aim is to ban things that does not make its leader happy: islamic, asylum seekers, the koran, and public expenditure on culture, wind mills, public broadcasters, etc.

For the Christian Democrats (CDA) and especially Labour (PvdA), I am a bit surprised not see a reference. Both have paragraphs on sustainable economic development, and the link to welfare and wellbeing could be easily made there.

The idea of basic income – arguably also a revision to the thinking about wellbeing – appears in some manifestoes. Some smaller parties wholeheartedly support it (including a dedicated basic income party), while Labour, Greens and Social Liberals (D66) favour experiments with this tool.

 

Liberals: we are happy already, nothing to do here

The Liberals (VVD) programme follows Prime Minister Rutte’s relentless optimism: if the Netherlands wouldn’t exist, we would invent it. We’re one of the happiest countries of the world. Almost nowhere else life is as good as here (the Netherlands second?). But the measures it then proposes do not concern happiness or wellbeing – the programme simply focuses on prosperity. Is our happiness then just a coincidence? If our basis is so strong, isn’t there any way to strengthen wellbeing even further?

 

Socialists: equality makes everybody happy

The Socialists (SP) start from the correct notion that people are happier in a country with smaller differences between people, and equality is a key objective of their policies. Elsewhere, the programme notes that there is more than GDP, and wellbeing and sustainability should be considered to measure prosperity. Surprisingly, this point does not lead to a plea for alternative indicators. Instead, the relevant paragraph continues to speak out against European budget rules…

 

Greens: GDP is not holy

The Greens include a section on a pleasant life, with mostly has to do with nature and spatial planning. Quality of life in our neighbourhoods should be improved, and with an allusion to Robert F. Kennedy, the programme states that “the value of the beauty of the landscape, nature and animal welfare cannot be expressed in money”.

Elsewhere, the manifesto states that ‘GDP is not holy’, and that “wellbeing is a lot broader: green growth with sustainable boundaries, based on knowledge and innovation; inclusive growth, that creates good jobs and fair incomes. That is what counts.” A couple of nice quotations, surely, and the manifesto is full of utopian ideas to get to such a society. Indeed, according to the Central Planning Agency that reviewed the impact of most parties’ programmes, the Greens gets us very far in reducing income differences. Revision in the taxation system should finance this: the Greens are the most radical in greening the taxation system via the ‘the polluter pays’ principle.

 

Social Liberals: measure wellbeing

The Social Liberals (D66) denounce both the dogma of a government that steps too far back and the dogma of the state as a ‘happiness machine’. The programme notes that employment and social expression contribute to people’s happiness. The party also has the most detailed view on measuring wellbeing. In a dedicated paragraph, the party states that we should not only measure GDP, but also evaluate our ecological footprint, welfare, and wellbeing. These elements should be evaluated to determine our success. And based on an amendment proposed by your happiness blogger, the programme also links this to the efforts ongoing on the Netherlands to develop an alternative indicator in the form of a ‘Broad Wellbeing Monitor’.

 

NL happy

The Nanny State: repression of happiness?

It’s a pedagogic dilemma all parents will face: should we be strict to our children and prohibit them to do things that are bad for them? Or should we give them the freedom to learn for themselves that sand is not tasty, that you can fall if you climb a tree and that a drink too many has dire consequences the next day?

At the state level, similar dilemmas arise. Social-democrats traditionally don’t scare away from a dose of paternalism to educate citizens. Libertarians, on the other hand, abhor states that coerce a certain type of behaviour. Which recipe works best to develop a happy society?

Two weeks ago, I addressed the question “does size matter” – when it’s about the size of the state and happiness levels, that is. The evidence indicated that some of the happiest states are smaller countries, and that after a certain level? There is – surprisingly – a positive correlation between higher tax and higher life satisfaction. Does that also mean that a more active government, a Nanny State, could contribute to higher levels of happiness?

Nanny State Index

Republicans in the US and liberals in EU States – such as Dutch PM Rutte – agree on one thing: big government is big enough, and the state shouldn’t interfere too much with individuals’ life. That’s also the thought behind the Nanny State Index. It has been developed by liberal or libertarian think-tanks, and maps the strictness of regulation affecting personal choice in the 28 countries of the EU.

The Index lists four areas: e-cigarettes, tobacco, alcohol, and food. There is quite a difference in the freedom of access to this products across the EU. For instance, in Sweden alcohol is only available in state stores and e-cigarettes are effectively prohibited in Belgium.

Altogether, two of the paternalistic Nordics, Finland and Sweden, top the list. They stay ahead of UK and Ireland. As a result of strict rules on tobacco and so-called ‘sin taxes’ on unhealthy foods and drinks, Hungary completes the top-5. Denmark, which one might expect to be in sync with paternalist Nordics, only ranks 12th. On the lower end of the scale, we find Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Germany. The freest country of all is… the Czech Republic.

Nanny State Index. Source: www.nannystateindex.org

Nanny State Index. Source: www.nannystateindex.org

 

Does repression, or freedom, bring happiness?

Is there any correlation visible between being a nanny and low and high happiness levels? The evidence is difficult to interpret: the three top-1o countries of the World Happiness Report rank at different places in the Nanny State Index. Swedish is on top of the list, the Netherlands at the bottom, and to confuse the picture further, Denmark is mid-way in the table.

The implication might be the following. Policies may work out differently in different settings. It’s probably the same with children: all are different. Some kids will exploit freedom and end up in troubles; other will feel their confidence strengthened and will be good and happy citizens.

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 Pursuit of Happiness, A User’s Guide

We hold these truths to be self-evident,

That all men are created equal

That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights

That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

 

This is how the United States Declaration of Independence, proclaimed on 4 July 1776 starts.

It’s great line. But how does one pursue happiness? What can one do to be happier? The US declaration of independence doesn’t answer that question, so I have resolved to do so myself. And while there are many, many, ways to pursue happiness, I think they ultimately boil down to three strategies.

Dedication

The first strategy to be happier is dedication. If you want, you can dedicate your life to pursuing happiness. The best example is the book under the name ‘The Happiness Project’, by  author Gretchen Rubin. It’s quite a thing: one day she decided that she wasn’t happy, and that she wanted to be happier. So, she made a plan.

Her plan was to dedicate one year of life to being happier. In doing so, she identified twelve topics to work on, for instance Marriage, Work, Family Relations, Reading, Spirituality, and so on.

Every month she undertook different projects. In January, she worked on her energy, and started by… cleaning and keeping the house in order. In June, she worked on friendship, and made sure to remember her friends’ birthdays. In July, she worked on money, firstly reducing her dependence on happiness, but also going on a major spending spree. I’ve been told it can be great to buy a new dress.

The dedication strategy is great if you’re a programmatic person. But if you’re not, or if you don’t believe you can plan and organise your way to happiness, you may prefer the awareness strategy.

the-pursuit-of-happiness-quote

The idea of Dedication also comes forward in the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, a 2006 movie with Will and Jaden Smith

Awareness

A simpler strategy in the pursuit of happiness is awareness. This strategy I based on the simple assumption that all of us have happy moments. But sometimes we’re just simply too busy to realise our moments of happiness. Life is great, but sometimes we need to slow down to be aware of that.

That’s what the awareness strategy to the pursuit of happiness is based on: registering moments of happiness we all experience. That can be done by journaling, or by a tool called ‘Three Good Things’.

The Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley and the grass roots organisation Action for Happiness both promote ‘Three Good Things’ as, in the term positive psychology puts it, an ‘intervention’. The idea is that if you write down three things during the day that made you happy. It’s the best to do it every day ebfore you go sleep. Maybe you sat down for a coffee with a friend. You enjoyed a walk in the sun. And you favourite football team won. It can be very banal. But that’s happiness.

Either way, it will help you to remember and be aware. And it will also focus your spirit the next day. You’ll register moments during the day and think: this will go in my three good things today!

Curiosity

Again, the awareness strategy requires you to put aside some time every day. The third strategy is less time bound. I call it Curiosity. This strategy is based on the idea that we are curious people. Even when we don’t dedicate ourselves to happiness all day, or ensure we’re aware every day, we can develop happiness by being curious.

The idea that by learning about happiness, you can also absorb some of these lessons, and be happier, is one of the ideas behind my blog For A State of Happiness. There are plenty of places where you can learn about happiness.

For instance, there is a great course in the Science of Happiness on the online courses site EDx (enrollment is open!)

Or, there are dozens of TED talks about all aspects of happiness. On how to spend money on gratitude, on irrationality, or compassion. You name and you can find a talk!

Another place to be curious is to read blogs. Of course you can try For A State of Happiness! But there are many. Gretchen Rubin, from the Happiness Project under the Dedication strategy, has a blog. There is a blog of the Minimalists, blogging how a life with less stuff makes them happier. And Action for Happiness shares all kind of happiness facts and tools on their site.

Which strategy works for you?

The US Founding Father’s put it nicely when they stated that the Pursuit of Happiness is our unalienable right. But happiness is so personal. We all pursue happiness in our very own ways. Whether your pursuit resembles the Dedication, Awareness or Curiosity strategy is irrelevant. In either case, I’ll wish you luck on the way to a state of happiness.

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.

Be Simply Happy in 2016

Happy start of 2016! I wish all my readers a year of achievement, inspiration and of course, happiness.

In early 2016, this blog will turn 2,5 years old. Since I entered the road to the discovery, I’ve now written just over one hundred post. I’m now in a much better position to answer the question what happiness is about. If I’d have to summarise what I learned in one phrase, it’d probably be the realisation how complex and simply happiness is at the same time.

Happiness is complex. It’s difficult to define and it’s difficult to pursue – the pursuit of happiness, this  is even futile.

At the same time, happiness is very simple. We all know it when we are happy and are able to feel happiness. Intuitively, we very well understand that friends, family, and fun experiences are more likely to generate moments of happiness than material things or status.

And maybe we don’t need long lists of New Year Resolutions, but just some simple ideas to take steps towards  (mine is to explore new recipes to cook!). Simplicity, humility and sometimes downright minimalism might be a worthwhile path to pursue.

Or, as the card I picked up when 2016 was only a few hours old put it: Be simply happy.

beSimplyHappy

Happiness: it’s not just your genes, stupid!

One of the most quoted facts about happiness goes as follows:

50% of happiness is determined by your genes.

10% of happiness is determined by the circumstances in which you live.

40% of happiness is determined by your actions, your attitude or optimism, and the way you handle situations.

These figures are often quoted by positive psychologists to back up claims that at least a part of our happiness is man-made. It’s a comforting message: despite the fact that there is a certain genetic disposition to be happy, there are many things in life that we can change to be happy. 40% is a large margin of manoeuvre! Imagine that we could control 40% of the weather, or the traffic on the our way to work.

According to these theories, happiness would look like this:

Source:

Source: Funders and Founders, based on material in ‘The How of Happiness’

The famous 50-10-40% formula is prominent in work done by positive psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky. Based on a body of research in this field, she and her colleagues argued that approximately 50% of variance in happiness is determined by genes, and 10% of variance in happiness is determined by circumstances. Automatically, that would leave 40% that we can influence.

 

Except that, there is a lot that’s wrong with the figures and the interpretation.

 

Variance in happiness does not equal happiness

To start with the first important nuance: these figures explain the variance in happiness - or the variation in happiness between different people. That is, genetic factors – or the presence of heritable personal traits – can explain about 50% of the difference in happiness levels between two people. It’s a small, but important detail. It means that if one person scores a 7 out of 10, and another person scores an 8, 50% of that 1-point difference could be due to genetic traits. That is not the same as saying that for a person that scores an 8, half of its level of happiness, or 4 points, are due to genetics.

 

Why 50% genetic, and not 40% or 60%?

Where does this theory come from? A 1996 study by Lykken and Tellegen compared well-being levels of samples of pairs of identical and non-identical twins in Minnesota, either raised together or apart. This differentiation allows to test both the impact of same or different genetics (identical vs non-identical) vs same or different environment (raised together or apart), e.g. both nature and nurture effects. Namely, identical twins share the same genes, and non-identical ones do not.

Lykken and Telleken found that the correlation of levels of well-being of identical twins in both cases are around 50%, significantly higher than for non-identical ones (2-8%). As such, they conclude that around half the variation is determined by genetics. This would leave another half determined by other factors. But it is important to note that this particular study has a limited sample. The smallest groups consists of only 36 pairs or 72 people. From a sample of twins in Minnesota, it is hard to draw so strong conclusions for human population as such.

 

Is it so simple?

The variance in happiness is not the full answer. In a comment of the preference of positive psychologists to favour well-rounded figures, Todd Kashdan notes a couple of other issues with genetics.

The first points is that personal traits – influenced by genetics – are not stable over life. Traits are shaped by a process called ‘emergenesis’. When a characteristic is ‘emergenic’, it is affected by the interaction of a couple of genes together. This might result in a behavioural predisposition to be extravert, self-controlled, or any other trait. (And similarly, there is not one ‘happiness gene’).

So far so good. But the way these genes work out is affected by many other factors. One example Kashdan mentions is that toxins or nutriments in a person’s environment can switch genes ‘on’ and ‘off’. In turn, the functioning of an individual gene can affect such an emergenic factor. If you add or take away a block from a tower, it will look different.

This reminds me of another example I learned about at a course on happiness. A certain individual may have a genetic predisposition for leadership. But if he grows up in an environment where resulting actions are suppressed, the talent will not come to fruition. As such, genes could be seen as ‘enabling’ factors, that only result in an outcome (such as happiness) when underlying conditions are met.

 

Genes interact with the environment

Another important issue notes is the interaction of genes and environment. In the same article, Kashdan writes that

Much of what influences our personality has to do with the presence of (positive and negative) life events and our response to choice points. Do I approach or avoid my co-worker who regularly demeans me? Do I wake up early and workout or sleep in? Do I ask out the girl I’ve had a crush on for months or do I keep my feelings to myself? No single decision matters but the patterns do. The decisions we make, the people we surround ourselves with, and the behaviors we engage in, are the building blocks for the quality of our lives. Small changes accumulate over time leading to large changes in who we become.

Our personality is the result of a complex process, in which genes and environment interact. Can we really put a hard number on that?

 

Happiness is not a formula

My answer is no. There is no comfortable formula for happiness. What we can say, is that our genes play an important role in determining happiness. But so do other factors, including our circumstances, environment, and our actions. Happiness is not a hard science. It is a way too complex phenomenon to quantify. But maybe that’s one of the reasons why it is so fascinating.

Rather than like a pie chart with three elements, happiness may rather look like a complex system:

The Internet as a Complex System. Source: opto.org

The Internet as a Complex System. Source: opto.org

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