Over the last five years or so, there has been a fairly dramatic shift in the way in which psychologists look at the human condition. For the last hundred years or more, they have based most of their understanding on our problems… essentially by studying people with known medical conditions and mental health issues, they have evolved a science of human dysfunction.
The radical change in direction has been to study instead what is ‘normal’ and what makes the majority of humans ‘normal’. At one extreme of this has evolved a branch of psychology known as ‘positive psychology’ – which takes as one of its guiding principles the idea that it is not satisfactory to be ‘normal’ but instead it is preferable to be positive.
‘Positive psychology’ emerged as a new area of psychology in 1998 when Martin Seligman chose it as the theme for his term as President of the American Psychological Association. The term originates though with Abraham Maslow, who coined it in his 1954 book ‘Motivation and Personality’.
Recently a number of ‘meta-analyses’ of positive psychology have been published, and from them some interesting aspects unfold. One such dimension involves happiness and what makes some of us predominantly happy and some of us predominantly unhappy. Three studies in particular have contributed to our current view of happiness – the German Socio-Economic Panel, the US General Social Survey and the World Values Survey. The findings provide a useful focus for those of us working with individuals who would like to be happier, as well as to policy makers in Government who are concerned with ways of promoting happier societies. If you are interested in a detailed summary of these issues, check out Lord Layard’s book “Happiness – Lessons from a new science” on which much of the following is based.
Firstly, let’s be clear about a few things that we can be sure do not really contribute to happiness;
- Physical energy
- Mental energy
For each of these, we now know that the contribution to an individual’s happiness is extremely low or non-existent at all.
Instead, we can say that there are seven factors that contribute to the bulk of an individual’s happiness. In order of decreasing importance, they are;
- Family relationships
- Financial situation
- Community and friends
- Personal freedom
- Personal values
Family relationships – When most people marry or have children they enjoy a peak of happiness for a year or so before returning to their previous level. When they separate or divorce they suffer a drop in happiness for a year or two. Men return to their underlying level sooner than women. Half of US children will be living in a single parent household by the time they are 15, so marriage break-up is a very real cause of reduced happiness. Couples who remain ‘in love’ tend to have better sex lives, have better hormonal balance, be healthier, live longer and be happier than they were four years before they were married.
Financial situation – There have been some fascinating studies on income. Absolute income has little or no effect on happiness. Two things do. Firstly, the relative level of income to who ever we compare ourselves with (generally our local community). Secondly, changes in our income. We are generally happier being poor but with good prospects of an increasing income than being well-off but with little chance of an increase.
The prospect of a drop in income of one third is used as a benchmark of many other factors in studies of happiness. For example, the impact of separation is FOUR times greater than that of a drop of income by one third, and the impact of being widowed is DOUBLE.
Work – Work provides not only income but also meaning in our lives. It also provides self-respect and a social network. The impact of being unemployed is three times greater than our benchmark of one third income drop. Being employed but in an environment where unemployment is increasing substantially, is also seriously bad for happiness. So, believing our job is stable and living in a society where unemployment is low and also stable are good predicators of happiness.
The nature of the work is also important. Dull repetitive work has a direct and substantial effect on our health, literally doubling the likelihood of arterial related diseases.
Community and friends – The impact of the quality of our community is two-fold – how much we trust people and how safe we feel. We feel happiest when we live in a community where we can trust people around us. Asked whether they could trust most people around them, 5% said so in Brazil and 64% in Norway. The impact of this on national happiness (still measured at an individual level) is the same as a drop of one third of income.
Health – Although we generally care about our health, it doesn’t feature as a particularly high factor in determining happiness despite lots of reports in the 80s and 90s about endorphins as nature’s ‘Prozac’. Generally, people adapt well to the loss of health and it has little impact on happiness, with two exceptions – mental illness and chronic pain. These two elements are largely a reflection of our inner feelings than any physical limitation. Their impact is roughly the same as becoming unemployed.
Personal freedom – A fascinating effect on happiness (again, measured at the individual level) at the national level is that of perceived personal freedom. When people feel that they have more control over the government policies affecting them they feel happier. The impact is huge – as much as marrying (and this is sustained throughout rather than dropping off after a couple of years)!
Personal values (our personal philosophy of life) – There are two factors that have the greates impact on personal happiness; believing in some kind of higher purpose for society and caring for others. People who care about other people, rather than being pre-occupied with themselves are happier. Interestingly, people who worry about “doing well” in their lives suffer from more anxiety than those who worry about “doing good” for society in general.
Whatever the belief system, when people believe in some higher purpose (whether it is God, spirituality, or mindfulness) they are TWICE as happy as the effect of our benchmark 1/3rd drop in salary.
Summary – So, to capture all of this; working on our relationships, managing our finances, having meaningful work, living in a community in which we feel safe and can trust people, seeking help promptly for mental health and chronic pain, taking an active part in government and developing our sense of connectedness and spirituality, will all have a profound impact on our own happiness.