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How to (actually) be happy

How to (actually) be happy

It turns out, money can’t buy you happiness. Who knew? Well, the folks who put together the World Happiness Report, for one. According to their latest research, the world’s richest country, the USA, ranks 19th for happiness. The happiest, Finland, is only 44th wealthiest, depending on whose figures you go by. Its fellow Nordics round out the top four – Norway’s second, followed by Denmark and Iceland. That’s despite all four having a combined GDP less than a third of our own (we’re 15th, up four spots on last year). As Bobby Kennedy put it, GDP is the measure of everything “except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Happiness, or lack thereof, is moving up the agenda. The World Health Organisation (WHO) identifies the leading cause of ill health and disability globally as depression, which afflicts 4 per cent of the population, or 322 million people – a rise of 18 per cent since 2005. It’s an expensive problem. A WHO study estimated that depression and anxiety cost the worldwide economy $1tn a year in lost productivity alone. Not for nothing has the United Arab Emirates, which came one place behind the UK in last year’s WHR, appointed a minister for happiness (even so, they’ve slipped a place). India (down seven at 140) has even added the subject to its school curriculum. In the West, a new course teaching happiness at Yale University, where half of undergraduates are driven to seek mental health support, proved to be the most popular class in its 317-year history.

It’s part of a wider trend that’s treating unhappiness more like a disease than an attitude. “With a mounting depression, anxiety, addiction and suicide epidemic – especially in wealthy nations like the UK and USA – we will see a surge in ‘solving’ for happiness in 2019,” says Beth McGroarty, research and PR director for the Global Wellness Institute. “If happiness has always felt like a ‘soft’ concept, now there’s a new body of hard science – like the World Happiness Report – measuring what actually drives it the most.” It’s also helped us pin down exactly what it means to be happy.

“Happiness can be defined as the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile,” says Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, which compiles the report. Unlike GDP, happiness is “inherently subjective”, and researchers are reliant on self-report: in this case, respondents were asked to imagine themselves standing on a ladder with steps numbered one to ten. But that’s less of an obstacle than it might seem, says Wiking, who points out that depression and anxiety are also measured subjectively: after all, people are the best judge of their own happiness.

Except people aren’t very good judges of what will make them happy. Harvard Business School asked 2,000 millionaires, of varying net worths, how much money they thought they’d need to be happy. The typical answer, across the board, was double or triple whatever they had. Those sitting comfortably on more than £6m were happier than those perched precariously on £1m, but the payoff was only “modestly greater wellbeing”. Other research has found that if you earn $30,000 a year, you think you’ll be happy with $50,000; if you earn $100,000, you think you’ll be happier with $250,000. As a pioneer in the field once put it, mo money, mo problems.

Nobel prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman calls this the “hedonic treadmill”: you quickly adapt to your new norm. A striking illustration of this is the famous study which found that lottery winners weren’t much happier than a control group: most of them returned to baseline within three months, and actually derived less enjoyment from everyday activities, which seemed more mundane next to the jackpot win. More strikingly, paralysis victims weren’t that much unhappier than the control. Our psychological immune system, if functioning correctly, inures us to highs and lows alike.

GDP per capita is just one of six contributory factors to happiness that the Happiness Research Institute uses to account for its findings, along with social support, social freedom, healthy life expectancy, generosity and absence of corruption. Which explains why the USA, where life expectancy is falling and confidence in the government has plummeted, leads the world in antidepressant use. Or why, despite a fivefold increase in individual earnings, people in China are less happy than they were 25 years ago.

Dating back to 1943, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a famous psychological theory that, like the Egyptian pyramids it resembles, has stood the test of time. The foundations of the pyramid are physiological needs: food, water, sleep, shelter and sex. On the level above those is safety: personal security, but also emotional and financial, plus health and wellbeing. And on the level above those is social belonging. In the original blueprint, you had to complete each level before ascending to the next, computer game-style; it’s now thought that they can overlap, but the order in which we pursue them to achieve satisfaction remains the same.

“Whereas economic wealth is very important for happiness in countries where basic needs are not fulfilled, it plays a less significant role in developed countries,” says Weiking. “In developed countries, once basic needs are fulfilled, social relations are the most important driver for happiness.” Yale’s happiness class set weekly “rewirement” assignments, such as forming new social connections, keeping a gratitude diary or getting seven hours sleep a night for three days in a row (curing insomnia in depression patients doubles the success rate of treatment).

“Social connections and community are fundamental if you want to be happy,” echoes the Global Wellness Institute’s McGroarty. “Another lesson is that, with alarming new research on how constant digital connection and designed-for-addiction social media can ravage our mental wellbeing, we have to – and will – learn how to disconnect.”

These issues are linked. “Our current relationship with technologies of our hyper-connected world is unsustainable,” writes Cal Newport in his new book Digital Minimalism. A professor of computer science at Washington DC’s Georgetown University, he advocates a 30-day “declutter” of optional technology: so not your work e-mail account, or anything else that would “harm or significantly disrupt the daily operation of your personal or professional life”, but things like Instagram, Netflix and your PlayStation. By that time, you’ll have hopefully gotten enough of a real life that you don’t want to reintroduce them. Or if you do, then you’ll also implement rules around their usage: for example, only watching Netflix with other people so you don’t binge-watch; restricting web browsing to certain websites that you need for work; or deleting your business e-mail account from your personal phone.

Such “operating procedures” are particularly handy for devices that can be employed for work or play, and frequently enable the latter at the expense of the former. Either way, Newport proposes that you should use all tech much more mindfully and minimally than you currently do: “We cannot passively allow the wild entanglement of tools, entertainments and distractions provided by the digital age to dictate how we spend our time or how we feel […] Humans are not wired to be constantly wired.”

Evidence cited by Newport indicates that, for all its facsimiles of connections and community, social media is making us less happy. In fact, the Centre for Research, Media and Technology at Pittsburgh University, which has previously connected online networking with depression in young adults, found that the more you visit and spend time on such platforms, the lonelier you feel. Another study tracked Facebook use and found it was negatively associated with physical health, mental health and life satisfaction. Social media has also been observed to trigger inadequacy, ostracisation and outrage.

Not that all social media is bad. There is some evidence that specific social media behaviours, such as receiving “targeted” information from someone you know well, like a comment, can make you feel better. (Info from someone you don’t know well, or a “like”, isn’t associated with any positive effect.) But it’s still no substitute for actually talking to someone, which calls on what Newport calls your “high-performance social processing networks” to crunch data such as tone of voice, facial expression and body language.

Digital interactions also give you the false sense that you’re being actively social, take up time that you might otherwise spend interacting in person and, insidiously, incline you to message rather than call or talk face-to-face, because it just feels easier in the moment. If you can’t see or hear the person you’re talking to, contends Newport, then it doesn’t count. Technology should facilitate physical get-together, not take their place. Newport, who doesn’t have a Facebook account, suggests deleting social media apps off your phone, so you don’t get sucked in by incessant, insignificant notifications, but can still periodically log in to read updates, or arrange activities.

Those could be anything mediated by the drivers of happiness – social relations, economic wealth, physical and mental health, freedom, trust and kindness. (The “rewirement” assignments at Yale included random acts of kindness.) “One impactful thing could be to take a walk with one of your best friends,” says the Happiness Research Institute’s Wiking. “In this way, you would both be active as well as social.”

Conversation isn’t the only activity pushed out by digital distractions. “For many people, compulsive phone use papers over a void created by a lack of well-developed leisure time,” writes Newport. Hence that empty feeling after an evening’s scrolling. They say that time is money, but it’s far more valuable than that. In theory, you can always acquire more money. But your time will, eventually, run out. Which is why research shows that spending your money on things that give you more time – like ordering a takeaway rather than cooking, or hiring a cleaner – will make you happier than accruing more stuff.

But please, do not spend those hard-earned extra hours watching other people live their lives on social media. If you want to be happier, do something constructive with this precious commodity. Newport makes a case for building or fixing something once a week, but you could meet family or friends, read a book, write a journal (gratitude or otherwise), take an evening class, go to the gym or meditate. You may have noticed that all these things require more effort than pulling your phone out; some of them could even be construed as difficult. But they’re also all much more purposeful

The Happiness Research Institute measures happiness in three dimensions: cognitive, or overall life satisfaction; affective, or daily emotions such as joy and stress; and eudaimonic, from the Greek for ‘meaningful life’. The School of Life, a global educational body headquartered in London and dedicated to developing emotional intelligence, doesn’t like talking about happiness at all, preferring instead eudaimonia or ‘fulfilment’. Happiness is both an emotion and a state, it says, and trying to become happy means that when we feel frustrated or bored or sad – in other words, when life happens – we feel like we’ve failed.

Few worthwhile things make us happy in the moment, the School teaches. Your wedding day is likely full of anxiety. Taking your nephew to the zoo is, in the moment, stressful and enraging. But being responsible for things – kids, pets, plants – or volunteering makes us happier in the long run (even if it makes us unhappier in the short term) because it fulfills our potential as humans. And those moments of suffering are actually vital if we want to experience happiness as well.

In his book The Other Side of Happiness, social psychologist Brock Bastian argues that aversity to pain is making us unhappy. Pleasure and pain are interrelated: take a paracetamol and your response to pleasant and unpleasant images will be numbed; pain triggers the release of pain-killing endorphins, which in turn make you feel good. It’s why paracetamol also mutes emotional pain, and exercise can attenuate depression and anxiety. Pain’s sharp contrast helps mitigate the hedonic treadmill’s gradual dulling of pleasure by dialling up your enjoyment of that hot shower after a run on a cold morning. And relief from pain can make you happier than before. “Developing a routine that involves repeated unpleasant experiences is more likely to increase our overall levels of pleasure, than a routine that involves repeated instances of pleasure,” writes Bastian. Without some darkness, you can’t really appreciate how bright the light is.

Doing things that are difficult, physically or mentally, allows you to explore and expand your limits, demonstrate mastery and ascend the highest level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: self-actualisation, or being all that you can be. The difference between poison and medicine is in the dose: too much pain is overwhelming; too little is unchallenging. “Manageable personal challenges… literally build psychological immunity,” writes Bastian. The paradox of hedonism is that you can’t pursue happiness directly, because the disappointment of not yet having reached your goal sets you back: “Pleasure can only be achieved indirectly by pursuing other things in life, not because they will make us happy, but perhaps because they are meaningful and important in other ways.”


Words: Jamie Millar
Illustration: Guy Field