What are the
determinants of happiness? Studies that relate subjective happiness to
different people in different countries worldwide report some surprising
Health and happiness have remarkably little to do with
each other. People with HIV may be an exception to this, but their high
unhappiness scores, it appears, are not caused
by HIV: they may have a lot more to do with other factors, such as social
Income matters a bit. On average, inhabitants of poor
countries tend to be a little less happy than those of rich countries. But
there are huge variations. Economic growth may be as important as absolute
income. When it comes to individuals, very poor people tend to be less happy,
but everyone on or above a basic level of income is as happy as each other;
millionaires are only marginally happier than those who are comfortably off.
Age has an effect. Older people are generally calmer and
more satisfied with their lives than young people. They don’t hit the heights
of happiness so much, but neither do they plumb the depths of despair.
Race, education and climate on their own make no difference.
So what does
make a difference? There are two consistent predictors of greater happiness:
Religion. Having a religion or strong spiritual belief is
strongly associated with happiness, and the more fundamentalist the religion,
the happier the individual person. Some may find this disconcerting, but religion
could be seen as one example of the kind of cause that gives meaning to a life.
Marriage and friendship. The strongest predictor of happiness is a
successful marriage or ‘primary’ relationship. Equally, one of the strongest
predictors of unhappiness is an unhappy marriage. Happy people also tend to
have a richer social life. Both of these could be because happy people tend to
attract mates and friends, rather than because marriage or friendship as such
make you happy.
If you can’t
change your immediate circumstances, though, can you change your feelings? Positive
psychologists feel that the answer is yes.
They believe there
are two ways to do this.
Live in the present. People can try to pack their lives with
pleasure, flow and meaning, but still be unhappy because they are preoccupied
either with regretting the past or fearing the future.
recommends developing conscious gratitude to the people who have helped you
along the way and conscious forgiveness of those who may have hurt you, in
order to look back on the past with contentment and serenity, rather than
bitterness and remorse.
When it comes to
predicting the future, pessimists tend to generalise bad events (“I didn’t get
the job because I’m bad at job applications” while attributing positive events
to chance (“I was lucky, really, I only got the job because that other
candidate dropped out”). Optimists do the reverse: for them, bad events are
specific (“They were unclear about the presentation they wanted”) and good ones
are general (“I got the job because I really know the field well”). It is
possible to retune one’s habitual responses to avoid catastrophising bad events
and minimising good ones.
Play to your strengths. By doing some anthropological research
across a number of cultures, psychologist Katherine Dahlsgaard10 was
able to generate a list of six key virtues, and 24 sub-characteristics, that
all cultures, at all epochs of history, appear to have valued.
Wisdom and knowledge (curiosity, love of learning, critical
thinking, originality, social intelligence, perspective)
Courage (bravery, perseverance, honesty)
Humanity and love (kindness and generosity, loving and receiving love)
Justice (fairness, teamwork, leadership)
Temperance (self-control, discretion, modesty)
Transcendence and spirituality (appreciation of beauty, gratitude,
optimism, sense of purpose, forgiveness, playfulness and humour, enthusiasm).
questionnaire helps people measure how strong they are in a particular area (for
instance, “I am always able to see the big picture” for perspective). This helps
people understand their particular strengths and play to them, and to try
harder in areas where they’re weaker.
aim to compile a diagnostic manual of mental strengths to pit against the
DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), used to
diagnose mental illness.