According to a 25 year study, happiness does not come from hard work, health or wealth
About a month ago, I was scrolling through the guide on my television/cable box when I saw a PBS documentary called “Happy.” I hit record and moved on. When I finally Got around to watching it, I found it fascinating.
Directed, written, and co-produced by Academy Award nominated filmmaker Roko Belic, the film is based on an international study which measured happiness (rather than depression) over a 25 year period. The results simplify the secret to happiness in such plain terms that it could easily put the “self-help” book industry in jeopardy.
A major finding was that job, health and social status was only 10% relative to happiness. 40% is intentional behavior, things we can change ourselves, and 50% is genetic.
The film starts with an interview of Manoj Singh, a “happy” rickshaw driver in Calcutta. His customers can be very rude, but he never complains because he wants their business day after day. He doesn’t care how hot or rainy it gets and he loves his home.
His home has only three intact walls as the fourth one is a simple plastic tarp. “It is difficult during monsoons, but other than that, it is a good home,” Singh says. His son waits for him at the tea shop every day and it brings him joy to see him there. He also said that he has great neighbors. According to the study, Manoj Singh is as happy as the average American.
In 1981, a psychologist named Edward Diever, Ph.D. of the University of Illinois decided to collect random samples of people around the world to measure happiness. He was told that he could never properly measure happiness, but Dr. Diever replied “why not? We’ve been measuring depression for decades.” Dr. Diever’s idea of happiness was uncovering what it took to have a life that is flourishing.
Dopamine, which causes feelings of pleasure, declines with age and if too severe can cause Parkinson’s disease. A number of physical activities help produce Dopamine, but especially activities done in a novel way. The best way to do so is by engaging in activities that are demanding, but for no good reason, no money, just for the love of it.
Activities where an individual can feel “in the zone” can range from rock climbing to playing a musical instrument. This brings on different aspects of consciousness that feel so good that one could do that activity forever.
Activities with clear goals where people know what they are trying to accomplish can make them feel in control, forget their problems, forget about themselves, and produce a feeling that life is worth living outside of family, job and personal time. People who experience this flow on a regular basis are happier than those who do not.
People might think differently, but people actually do better when things go wrong than when things go right. As a society, we are twice as wealthy as we were 50 years ago. People have larger homes, more than one vehicle, bigger wardrobes and travel further away from home.
However, money doesn’t necessarily buy happiness. According to the study, an individual making $50,000 has the exact same potential to be happy as someone making $50 million. People get on the “pedantic treadmill” where they always want more.
In the Country of Bhutan, the government has traded their economic development or Gross Domestic Product for Maximum National Happiness. This cross-national happiness includes government. The government balances imports and exports so that they think rationally, holistically and spiritually on a micro and macro level.
By law, 60% of the environment will always be forest. What good is it if a flood is caused by selling another country too much hydro? Greed is not the priority. The results of this experiment are yet to be seen, but so far, citizens of Bhutan are happy.
Denmark is considered the happiest country in the world. There is social equality, free education and health care. They encourage co-housing for divorcees to prevent isolation.
One community had 20 families that live very close in small flats. It is a small community that feels like a big family with many friends. They eat together and between all the adults, each person only has to cook twice a month, saving hours of human energy. They save money on food, small families spend more time with their children and the elderly is like having several grandparents.
The study found that life feels better in a community and there is a paradigm shift from “What don’t I have?” to “What do I have to give?”
Japan is considered the least happy country in the world. People are literally working themselves to death and the suicide rate is high. Ironically, Okinawa has the largest population over 100. They grow vegetables for their friends and neighbors and there is a community center where the elderly meet every day for tea.
Social bonding, interaction and cooperation is proven to be intrinsically rewarding. Cooperation works better on depression than an antidepressant. The happiest people had close, supportive family and friends.
Intrinsic goals are inherently satisfying such as personal growth, community feeling and close contact with friends. Extrinsic goals are money, image and status related. These values are in opposite of each other. Extrinsic goaled people are more depressed, anxious, less satisfied with life and have less vitality.
In the United States, ranked 23rd in terms of happiness, anti-bullying campaigns have been viewed as a start. Meditation practice, Tai Chi and other practices that cultivate compassion, love and kindness have become more and more popular.
Individuals were asked to write down five things they were grateful for every Sunday night and other individuals were not asked to do anything. The individuals who wrote down the things they were grateful for were happier. Between writing down five things each Sunday and performing random acts of kindness, such as putting a coin in an expired parking meter for a total stranger, resulted in the most satisfaction and happiness.
Andy Wimmer, a wealthy Australian banker, left everything behind to work at a home in India founded by Mother Theresa. He works in the hospice ward and has never felt happier. “Spoon feeding a patient was like enlightenment. We pick up the homeless so that they know that their life is precious and someone cares. A glass of water is so small and so significant to these people and all of us. Life is like a loan and I intend to give back with interest.”
Spiritual emotions such as gratitude, compassion, love, and caring make you think of things bigger than yourself. The well-being of the world can transcend your own life and death. Practicing random acts of kindness or finding other ways to cultivate happiness can transform our brains in a very positive way. If we all practiced virtuous qualities like compassion and altruism, the world would be a happier (and better) place.
Happiness is a skill like guitar or golf. The formula is not the same for everyone, but the things we love to do are the building blocks to a happier life. New experiences, meaningful things and appreciation are all free. They are charming and powerful. The more happiness you have, the more others will have. And that is the key to happiness!