Sydney Morning Herald
You can't buy joy, but you can learn to lift your spirits.
It's one of those things, like art, that's hard to define, yet we know it when we see it. What exactly is happiness and how can you get it? While that question has occupied the minds of philosophers from Aristotle onwards - humans seek it above all else, he wrote more than two millennia ago - scientific investigation of this most elusive of emotions only really got underway in the past two or three decades.
While many of us see happiness in terms of maximising pleasure - what's called the hedonic approach - social scientists focus on more enduring sentiments, such as overall satisfaction with the way our lives are progressing. Integral to this are several core components, according to Australian National University social analyst Richard Eckersley, a co-author of the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index, which regularly reports on quality of life issues. The components include a good marriage, friendship, rewarding work, sufficient money, a healthy diet, physical activity, sound sleep, engaging leisure and spiritual belief and practice.
"Wellbeing comes from being connected and engaged, from being enmeshed in a web of relationships and interests," he says. Top of the list, unsurprisingly, is love: "The intimacy, belonging and support provided by close personal relationships seem to matter most."
What about money? Contrary to the cliches, it can buy happiness ... up to a point. Overall, the populations of wealthier countries are happier than those of poorer ones, with affluence linked with improved standards of living, health and human rights. And abject poverty certainly generates misery. Having sufficient for our basic needs is important, but beyond that, more money doesn't substantially increase wellbeing.
In fact, acquisitiveness is "a happiness suppressant", according to the World Values Survey, a continuing investigation by an international network of social scientists. It linked materialism with depression, alienation and dissatisfaction. It seems things that make us feel good over the short term - such as a raise or a better car - cease to have much effect once we adjust to having them.
It is a phenomenon that prompts some people to keep earning and buying more in the hope of regaining that first glow, putting them on what psychologists describe as the "hedonic treadmill" - endlessly striving, but never arriving because they acclimatise to each successive level of consumption.
On the World Database of Happiness (see below) compiled by Ruut Veenhoven, professor of social conditions for human happiness at Rotterdam's Erasmus University. New Zealand scores 17th place, pipped at the post by Australia, Denmark, Switzerland and Iceland. It's thought the high ranking of Scandinavian countries relates to the high value they place on tolerance and democratic freedoms, by contrast with more miserable nations such as some in Africa and the Eastern bloc.
Values, it seems, matter when it comes to happiness. A sense of meaning or purpose is the single attribute most closely correlated with overall life satisfaction, according to Australian researchers Bruce Headey and Alex Wearing. Just what gives life meaning varies from individual to individual but it tends to be linked with a sense of connection with something - from a like-minded group to a common belief system, cause or goal - bigger than oneself. This could explain why many studies show religious faith and church attendance, which incorporates all these factors, promotes subjective wellbeing.
Conflicting goals, or feeling ambivalent about them, has the opposite effect, with people whose occupation clashes with their personal values unhappier than others whose values and callings connect. Happiest of all are those who experience "flow", defined by US psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as "optimal experience" or deep enjoyment resulting from meeting a challenge or creating or achieving something significant.
Gender affects happiness - women are happier than men - as does age. We're happiest in early adulthood and least happy in mid-life, according to happiness researcher Professor Andrew Oswald of Warwick University, with happiness levels rising again in old age. Heredity also plays a part. In twin studies conducted by the University of Minnesota, researchers found the happiness levels of identical twins who were reared apart was much closer than that of fraternal twins raised together, indicating a predisposition to happiness (or conversely, to depression) is genetically hardwired.
However, it's not all down to the cut of our genes, because individual happiness levels can be reset by early life experiences.
The Minnesota twin study also found that family environment - the type of household in which participants were reared - plays a part, predisposing individuals to being happier or sadder later in life.
Certain personality traits are linked with happiness, including extraversion, self-esteem, optimism, adaptability and the perception of control. But not to worry if your personality, heredity or upbringing predisposes you to gloom: you can still reprogram your emotions towards happiness, according to Professor Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania.
He maintains optimism can be learned, the theory being that our thoughts shape our emotions, with habitually thinking in pessimistic terms contributing to what Seligman calls "learned helplessness" (giving up because you've convinced yourself you're powerless to change anything). Depressives can reset these self-sabotaging mindsets, however, by learning to challenge pessimistic thought patterns and recast them in more optimistic terms.
Positive psychology also involves focusing on your strengths, not weaknesses; thinking of the things you have, not those you don't; and living in the moment (which could explain why regular meditation appears to promote happiness), according to Dr Timothy Sharp, founder of the Sydney-based Happiness Institute.
"A fundamental mistake many people make is to think, 'I'll be happy when I get that job/car/get married', or whatever," Sharp says. "As well as putting the focus on external rather than internal factors, they're putting happiness off into the future, not now."
Above all, Sharpe says, happiness takes planning: regularly including activities that you find satisfying into your schedule, rather than simply waiting for happiness to find you.
It just might be, however, that a tendency to a state of continuing mild happiness is innate, according to Ed Diener, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. However much our happiness level fluctuates in response to life events, over time it tends to revert to a kind of set point or equilibrium. Studies of people who have won large sums of money, for example, indicate that after initial euphoria their mood returns to close to its usual level - as does, conversely, the mood of people who've suffered disabling spinal injuries, who, after initial distress, bounce back. Humans are supremely adaptable and, whether we've won or lost, it seems we eventually come up smiling.
Helping this process is what the psychologists call the optimism bias, an almost universal tendency to see ourselves through rose-coloured glasses. Self-delusion has its uses: if you perceive yourself as doing better than others, your capacities and achievements as above average, and that you're in charge of your life, regardless of any objective truth of the matter, then you're already ahead. At the end of the day, happiness is a state of mind; if you think you are, then you are.
If you're not, you can console yourself with the thought that despite the documented benefits of happiness - a stronger immune system; longer life; greater resilience, creativity and altruism; better leadership skills; being more conscientious at work; more successful overall; and being more sociable and popular - happy people overwhelmingly fall short on one major capacity: a realistic outlook. Depressives may be sadder, but they view life much more accurately, are more logical and less biased than happier folk, according to Diener and other researchers. This leads to the "depressive realism" hypothesis (essentially, that miserable bastards have better judgement).
"Happiness can make you too divorced from reality," Eckersley says. "[Its] requirements are that you have an exaggerated view of your abilities." Unhappiness has its pluses, he points out, not least because depressives tend to be introspective and ruminate over issues - a no-no according to tenets of positive psychology, but conducive, perhaps, to working out what's important in life and what gives it meaning. And that, ultimately, is integral to wellbeing.HAPPY LANDS
The 20 happiest nations:
17 New Zealand
20 El Salvador