Source: New Scientist
Date: 4 October 2003

The pursuit of happiness

It is the subject of countless treatises and self-help books. In the US, the quest for it is an inalienable right enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. Now investigating it has become an academic discipline.
Michael Bond looks at the new science of how to be happy.

WHERE or how are we supposed to find happiness? Through good works and helping people, perhaps, or by finding religion or discovering the joys of "downshifting"? Well, maybe. But whatever strategy you choose, it'll help enormously if you live in Puerto Rico or Denmark.

The latest global analysis of how levels of satisfaction and happiness vary from country to country shows that the most "satisfied" people tend to live in Latin America, Western Europe and North America. Eastern Europeans are the least satisfied. The figures - published here for the first time - come from the 1999-2001 World Values Survey. The countries where New Scientist has most readers all come in the top third, with New Zealand ranked 15th for overall satisfaction, the US 16th, Australia 20th and Britain 24th - though Australia beats the other three for day-to-day happiness.

It is not the first time such league tables have been drawn up. What is new is how experts and politicians are taking such data increasingly seriously. Over the past decade, the study of happiness, formerly the preserve of philosophers, therapists and gurus, has morphed into a bona fide discipline. You can find "professors of happiness" at leading universities, "quality of life" institutes the world over, and thousands of research papers. It even has its own journal, the Journal of Happiness Studies.

And policy advisers are getting interested. In the UK, the Cabinet Office has held a string of seminars on life satisfaction, and last December the prime minister's Strategy Unit published a paper recommending policies that might increase the nation's happiness ( These include using quality-of-life indicators when making decisions about health and education (go for the option that leads to greatest life satisfaction), and finding an alternative to gross domestic product as a measure of how well the country is doing - one that reflects happiness as well as welfare, education and human rights.

As political agendas go, it seems blissfully uncontroversial. But just how realistic is it to set goals based on happiness or life satisfaction? And what happens when the traditional goals of growth and consumer activity conflict with national happiness goals? The government of Bhutan has already declared itself more concerned with gross national happiness than gross national product. But Bhutan is not a major western economy. Would the governments of the UK or US be willing to chase GNH (however it may be measured) at the expense of GNP?

"My guess is that, yes, we will see the emergence of 'lifestyle politics'," says David Halpern, lead author of the paper from Tony Blair's Strategy Unit. "We shouldn't be naive, though. We still need a real economy."

What above all else has made the systematic study of happiness possible is data gathered from hundreds of surveys measuring happiness across different cultures, professions, religions, social and economic groups. These surveys use various methods, such as asking people how happy they feel at a particular moment, or at random times over a few weeks, or even asking their family and friends. In this way researchers can investigate, for example, how much difference money makes to a person's happiness after their basic material needs have been met; whether happy people are more likely to be leaders or live longer; and whether inequality in wealth and status is as important a source of dissatisfaction as we might think.

"It is an exciting area," says Ruut Veenhoven, professor of social conditions for human happiness at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Happiness Studies. "We can now show which behaviours are risky as far as happiness goes, in the same way medical research has shown us what is bad for our health. We should eventually be able to show what kind of lifestyle suits what kind of person."

So what lessons does the research hold for governments keen to improve their people's happiness? While it is tempting to hold up those nations and populations that report the highest levels of happiness or life satisfaction as a model for others to follow, even those optimistic about the science think this unwise. "Interpreting the data can be a great problem," admits Veenhoven. The word "happiness" has no precise equivalent in some languages. Even in English it means different things to different people - Veenhoven has recorded 15 separate academic definitions.

Another complication is that satisfaction is not quite the same thing as happiness. When asked how happy they are, people tend to consider first their current emotional state. The trouble is that a person's mood can fluctuate from moment to moment. So to get a better idea of someone's overall "subjective well-being" researchers seek cognitive as well as emotional measures. They ask people to take a step back and consider how satisfied they are with their lives overall and how meaningful they judge their lives to be. A person's subjective well-being incorporates both these emotive and cognitive judgements, and different people weigh them differently. This helps to explain the otherwise baffling finding that people under 35 tend to be "happier" than those over 75 yet less satisfied with their lives.

It also helps to explain the fact that several nations that report low or average life satisfaction in the World Values Survey at the same time report high percentages of very happy people. Nigeria, for examples, comes top of the list for happiness, but is near the middle for satisfaction. "The Nigerian public has a striking tendency to give more very high and very low responses than other publics," says Ronald Inglehart at the University of Michigan, who chairs the World Values Survey steering committee. "The Japanese have the opposite tendency: they cluster near the middle."

Another result from the surveys that conceals layers of intriguing complexity concerns wealth. Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea report lower levels of subjective well-being than their incomes would predict, and the US and certain other western nations higher. So westerners are happier than Asians? Not necessarily.

Different cultures value happiness in very different ways. In individualistic western countries, it is often seen as a reflection of personal achievement. Being unhappy implies that you have not made the most of your life. Latin American countries, which also report high happiness levels, have a similarly high regard for those with an upbeat attitude. Eunkook Mark Suh at Yonsei University in Seoul thinks this pressure to be happy could lead people to over-report how happy they feel.

Meanwhile in the more collectivist nations such as Japan, China and South Korea, people have a more fatalistic attitude towards happiness. "They believe it is very much a blessing from heavenly sources," says Suh. "One of the consequences of such an attitude is that you don't have to feel inferior or guilty about not being very happy, since happiness does not reflect your ability." Indeed, in Asian cultures the pursuit of happiness is often frowned on - which in turn could lead people to under-report how happy they feel.

What's more, the things that give people happiness, satisfaction and meaning in their lives vary considerably between cultures. Shinobu Kitayama at Kyoto University in Japan and Hazel Rose Markus at Stanford University, California, believe that how satisfied a person is with their life depends largely on how successfully they adhere to their particular cultural "standard".

In the US, satisfaction comes from personal success, self-expression, pride, a high sense of self-esteem and a distinct sense of self. In Japan, on the other hand, it comes from fulfilling the expectations of your family, meeting your social responsibilities, self-discipline, cooperation and friendliness. So while in the US it is perfectly appropriate to pursue your own happiness, in Japan you are more likely to find happiness by not directly pursuing it.

And there's another twist. The happiest nations - mostly western and individualistic ones - also tend to have the highest levels of suicide. "There are some real downsides to individualistic cultures," says Ed Diener at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "People with mental illness are in real trouble with no extended family to watch over them."

There is plenty more about national happiness levels that has researchers scratching their heads. One of the most significant observations is that in industrialised nations, average happiness has remained virtually static since the second world war, despite a considerable rise in average income . The exception is Denmark, where people have become more satisfied with life over the past 30 years - no one is quite sure why.

A growing number of researchers are putting the static trend down to consumerism. Survey after survey has shown that the desire for material goods, which has increased hand in hand with average income, is a "happiness suppressant".

One study, by Tim Kasser at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, found that young adults who focus on money, image and fame tend to be more depressed, have less enthusiasm for life and suffer more physical symptoms such as headaches and sore throats than others (The High Price of Materialism, MIT Press, 2002). Kasser believes that people tend to embrace material values when they are feeling insecure (retail therapy, anyone?). "Advertisements have become more sophisticated," says Kasser. "They try to tie their message to people's psychological needs. But it is a false link. It is toxic."

Kasser, who has not owned a television since 1992, wants governments to categorise advertising as a form of pollution and either tax it or force advertisers to print warning messages about how materialism can damage your health. His point is that since nothing about materialism can help you find happiness, governments should discourage it and instead promote things that can. For instance, they could support businesses that allow their employees plenty of time off to be with their families, and that practise equality through profit-sharing.

Idealistic? Of course. Yet these days even hard-headed economists tend to agree that the key to making people happier is to shift from pure economic growth - which fuels a consumerist culture that is antithetical to happiness - to personal growth. By this reckoning, a government's priorities should be to reduce unemployment and job insecurity, improve mental healthcare, encourage direct democracy (studies in Switzerland, where referendums are common, suggest people are happier the more they feel in control of their lives), and - perhaps most controversially - discourage the pursuit of status.

This last is crucial, believes Richard Layard, co-director of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, since the pursuit of social status is "truly fruitless" at the level of society. So, out go devices such as performance-related pay and league tables when they are deliberately made public in order to motivate people through the quest for rank. "This condemns as many to fail as to succeed - not a good formula for raising human happiness," says Layard.

Of course, the idea that inequality in general leads to unhappiness is not new. And there are some anomalies: Colombia and Brazil, for example, two nations with high levels of inequality, consistently report high life satisfaction. But what is surprising to some is just how influential perceived status - or the lack of it - is in determining well-being.

For example, Clyde Hertzman at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver found that disparities in health - both between wealthy countries and between citizens within those countries - have far more to do with the anxiety and stress that inequality causes than with its impact on education, housing or healthcare (American Scientist, vol 89, p 538).

Governments would do well to worry about the happiness of their electorate. Political instability appears to go hand in hand with low life satisfaction, although it is difficult to say for sure which causes which. The lowest subjective well-being ever recorded - 1.6 out of 10 - was among inhabitants of the Dominican Republic in 1962 during the period between the dictator Rafael Trujillo's assassination and the overthrow of the constitutional government.

Carol Graham at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC warns that countries trying to deepen democratic reforms need to concentrate on keeping their "middle-earners" happy and secure. In a study in Peru, Graham found that this group, whose support no government in a developing country can do without, are far less satisfied than the poor, for they take as their reference point the very wealthy, whose income and status they will be hard-pushed to match. The poor, meanwhile, take as their reference point the middle-earners, who are more within their reach. Once again, what counts is not what you have so much as what others have.

Which paradoxically could be a warning to governments hoping to improve their global happiness rankings. Strive too hard to climb the table and you are in danger of turning the pursuit of happiness into yet another competitive quest for status - just what researchers have shown is a sure path to making people miserable.

Go To Good Drug Guide
The Good Drug Guide
mental health in the third millennium

Happiness 101
Negativity Bias
Are You Happy?
Drug Companies
Just For Chemists
Pain and rejection
Moderate Happiness
Hardwired Happiness?
Adaptation and Happiness
Depression and Chronic Pain
Health, Wealth and Happiness
The Futile Pursuit of Happiness?
Big Pharma and Madison Avenue
Happiness and Life Circumstances
Happiness: a Buddhist Perspective
Happiness: the Recipe for Success?
Happy Images Make Depressed People Sad