March/April 2010 Featured Stories
Be Happy Now
by Robert Holden
Happiness is the new darling of the social sciences. Every day we see the publication of new findings from intriguing studies on happiness and money, gross national happiness, and even happiness and the brain. This collective inquiry into happiness has gained the attention of us all, including politicians, economists, schoolteachers, health professionals, church leaders and business leaders.
In the spring of 2006, BBC aired a six-part series called The Happiness Formula, which presented a comprehensive mix of happiness surveys, experiments and opinion polls — many of which challenge us to rethink our most basic assumptions about life and how to be happy.
The Happiness Formula’s inquiry confirmed the existing evidence of a worldwide decline in happiness levels in recent decades. “The proportion of people saying they are ‘very happy’ has fallen from 52 percent in 1957 to just 36 percent today,” reported Mark Easton. Worse still, the number of adults diagnosed with depression or other serious mental illnesses has increased tenfold. Also, a worldwide report by UNICEF on the “critically low levels” of well-being among our children has called for an honest appraisal by government and society of how we live.
An inquiry into happiness is an opportunity to rethink your life. As you deepen your happiness inquiry you get to test the truth of all of your assumptions and beliefs. Sometimes your inquiry will confirm what you already know to be true, and other times it will ask you to let go of ideas that you may have identified strongly with until now. Here are five examples of how thinking about happiness can help you to get clearer about everything else that truly matters.
Rethink 1: Happiness and money. When people are asked what they need to enjoy “the good life,” the most common answer is, “Show me the money!” This is the right answer, at least to begin with, if you are one of the three billion people living in the Third World who earn just $2 a day. “Once the gross national product exceeds $8,000 per person, however, the correlation [between purchasing power and happiness] disappears and added wealth brings no further life satisfaction,” reports Prof. Martin Seligman.
The majority of people’s big game plan for increased happiness is to earn more money. The fact is, however, that while money helps to take care of life’s basic needs, after that it doesn’t do much for us. Even the very wealthy, such as Forbes 100 club members, who earn millions a year just in interest from their savings, are only slightly happier than the average person — and in some cases they are less happy.
Rethink 2: Happiness and circumstances. Almost everyone agrees with the idea that if my life circumstances improve, my levels of happiness will increase. This is the basis for almost every political and economic strategy the world over. And yet the scientific inquiry into happiness dismisses this theory out of hand. One leading researcher, Richard Kammann of New Zealand, reports, “Objective life circumstances have a negligible role to play in a theory of happiness.”
Even a big improvement in circumstances, like winning the lottery, has been found to give people only a temporary uplift. Most researchers agree that over the long term, life circumstances influence happiness levels by 10 percent at most.
Rethink 3: Happiness and education. A popular theory in society today is that a better education will create more happiness for our children. This has resulted in more tests for preschoolers, more focus on regular exams and more money spent on private education. Surely a better education increases happiness, doesn’t it? “Sorry, Mom and Dad, neither education nor, for that matter, a high IQ paves the road to happiness,” states Claudia Wallis, who compiled a report called “The New Science of Happiness” for TIME magazine. Clearly, the scientific inquiry into happiness is challenging us to rethink what a “better education” really is.
Rethink 4: Happiness and the future. So, at least we can expect to be happier in the future, right? Wrong! Longitudinal happiness studies that record the happiness levels of subjects over the course of 20 years suggest that the best predictor for how happy you will be in the future is how happy you choose to be now. The fact is, the future won’t make you happy. Why? Because nothing is going to make you happy. That’s right, not even shopping.
Let me clarify what I mean by sharing one of my conclusions from my first book on happiness, called Happiness NOW! The conclusion is: Nothing in the world can make you happy, but everything in the world can encourage you to be happy.
Interestingly, what the happiness research has taught the researchers is that their initial inquiry into happiness is based on a limited line of questions like “What determines happiness?” and “What makes you happy?” What the researchers need to do now in order to advance their inquiry is to ask new questions, like “What does happiness mean to you?” and “What have you learned about happiness?” and “How do you choose happiness?”
Rethink 5: Happiness and you. The modern scientific inquiry into happiness recognizes that everyone can be happy. Happiness does not discriminate. It is an equal-opportunity provider. Happiness research teaches us that the “enduring characteristics of the individual” are more important to happiness than external life circumstances.
Happiness researchers have recently begun to study the “very happy” people for more lessons on happiness. This inquiry is also challenging us to rethink major life issues. For instance, researchers have found a correlation between high happiness scores and marriage. It is too simplistic, however, to say that marriage makes you happy. If that is the case, why are divorce rates soaring? Clearly, we need to deepen the inquiry into happiness and marriage and explore the influence of, for instance, love, forgiveness, intimacy, shared purpose, communication and kindness.
Researchers who study the “very happy” have also found a strong link between religion and happiness. Again, however, it is not enough to say that religion makes you happy. If that is the case, why are fewer people attending church these days? The inquiry into religion and happiness has to examine more deeply, for instance, the influence of a living faith, the need for meaning and purpose, a belief in a loving God, a sense of oneness and a spirituality that is bigger than any one religious book.
I firmly believe that the more we learn about the nature of true happiness, the better we will learn to live.
Robert Holden, author of Be Happy!, is the director of The Happiness Project and Success Intelligence. Visit www.behappy.net. He presents a happiness lecture on April 30 at the Center for Spiritual Living in Seattle. For tickets, visit www.bellaspark.com.