The Happiness Formula

BBC World’s The Happiness Formula

[I’m writing this as I watch the program on cable TV].

Measuring activity in the brain by oxygen levels when shown a happy or sad picture shows that happiness can be detected directly in the brain ….. or is it pleasure? Is pleasure and happiness the same thing? And does it last? Or is happiness something deeper and more lasting than mere pleasure?

Can you just ask people to rate their own happiness and get a valid result? Professor Ed Diener, psychologist and researcher into happiness, thinks we can. He finds that the happiest people in the world are the Swiss, and those in Belarus are the least happy. Happy countries are richer and democratic, but their happiness is not so much greater than poor, non-democratic ones.

[Why democratic, I wonder? Do we prefer to have some perception of control over our lives that democracy theoretically gives us? This is a question for another time, I think].

Measuring happiness in this way predicts outcomes in peoples’ lives. Are they more likely to commit suicide if they are less happy? Surprisingly, yes! Can someone who scores less on the happiness scale keep his hand in iced water for as long as someone who scored higher? The answer turns out to be no! So are happy people more persistent, more resilient, more likely to succeed in life? Perhaps extrapolating from iced water experiments are pushing the whole thing too far, but it is easy to see how it could work.

Another study, of nuns interviewed a few years ago, found that those who sounded happier in interviews lived longer than the less happy ones, up to 9 years longer. This is not something to be sneezed at! And another one, of performance during memory exercises, showed that people who are pampered a bit more are able to remember objects better.

Professor Layard, an economist, has come to the conclusion that money doesn’t make us happy. Striving to make more money doesn’t make us happier, and perhaps it makes us less happy when we are constantly comparing ourselves to others. Bhutanese polititians measure Gross Domestic Happiness rather than Gross Domestic Product, and make decisions according to whether people will be happier rather than richer. Plastic bags have been banned (not a bad idea). Bhutan is not as rich as it might have been, but the people are happier.

What do we need for lasting happiness? Not endless consumption, but volunteering is what gives our lives meaning, and meaning is necessary for real, lasting, happiness. Happy people volunteer, and volunteers are happier. They also are more likely to get married, stay married, become leaders and help others at work, and have better health, says Ed Diener.

A survey asking whether governments should aim to make us richer or happier, the overwhelming majority went for happiness.

[What would you choose? Will you wait for the government to do something, or will you do it yourself?]

Stay tuned for the next episode in this excellent series on BBC World.