Be Happy

I am just back from the World Government Summit in Dubai, where we got an update on the state of wellbeing in the world. What were the lessons?

The key lesson was the news from Ruut Veenhoven, the world’s foremost Bibliographer of Happiness these last 30 years, that average world Life Satisfaction is rising. It is probably at its highest point since measurement began in the 60s. Life Satisfaction is rising in the UK, many countries in Europe (France, Eastern Europe), China, India, and many of the other centres of human population.

Add to that good news the fact that global incomes, life expectancy, personal safety, and physical health are also rising, and we have cause to celebrate. The key indicators of how humanity is doing are all at a rate that the idealists of the Enlightenment hardly dared to hope for.

Imagine, merely 200 years ago, an English priest called Thomas Malthus worded the expectations of his time, which was that the poor, who were then the vast majority of the population in both England and Europe, would always be with us. They would supposedly breed like rabbits and remain unhealthy, miserable, criminal, and stupid. Well, extreme poverty is almost unheard of in Europe and is rapidly disappearing from most countries, particularly China and India where 30% of the world’s population live. The progeny of the formerly poor now live longer lives and get more education than the rich did in the 1950s. Whole countries that were populated in the time of Malthus by former criminals (Australia) and the downtrodden (the US) are now amongst the happier and richer nations in the world. Fantastic!

The Summit also revealed an expanding interest in wellbeing from governments. The UK is getting serious about wellbeing-oriented programs in schools, local communities, and adult mental health, with over a million people now having been treated for anxiety and depression. France and Italy have legally mandated that new policies must be appraised for their wellbeing effects. New Zealand, Bhutan, Andra Pradesh, and Dubai have adopted some notion of wellbeing as the official goal of government. The US, which has had the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right in its Declaration of Independence 240 years, is now, unfortunately, far behind these wellbeing leaders.

And what do we now know about how to improve happiness? Well, it’s not by giving everyone lessons in yoga, veganism, or the 7 chakras. The big areas of quick improvements lie in programs that teach people with common mental health problems how to help themselves (cognitive behaviour therapy for depression and anxiety is the big one); programs that deliver relationship coaching for parents and pregnant couples (eg the Incredible Years program which targets the habits of couples in trouble); and by curtailing managers who make their staff particularly unhappy.

Mindfulness programs seem to work well with very academic audiences (Cambridge, Oxford, and – would you believe it – the UK parliament), but the jury is still out as to whether it’s a good idea to have the whole population do a mindfulness program.

What has been hard to prove, but seems increasingly likely to me, is that the mere orientation towards wellbeing has a large positive effect on the wellbeing of the population. It is as if people were waiting for permission to be happy, previously held back by puritanism and other philosophies of unworthiness. Unshackled from the idea that their lot in life is to work, suffer, fear social interaction, and be proper, populations themselves quickly figure out how to be happier. The UK has gone up almost a point in the last 20 years on a 0-10 scale!

There was not much chatter about league tables, but we were nevertheless reminded of which countries were the happiest on average in the available surveys. Denmark has over the last 5 years been the most happy country, getting even happier so that it now has an 8.4 in Life Satisfaction on a scale of 0-10. Costa Rica, which is not as wealthy but has a very rich social life and strong sense of local community, is in some surveys at the same level. Otherwise, the happiest countries are the Northern European countries (Finland, the Netherlands), and a few Latin American countries (Mexico, Venezuela). They are a bit over an 8, with middle-happy countries like the UK and Australia around a 7.8.

It used to be somewhat of a puzzle to the scientific happiness community why several Latin American countries are so happy, happier than much richer and more peaceful countries like Japan and Germany. These Latin American countries typically have appalling crime statistics, particularly in terms of domestic violence, and do badly on education and the quality of government. Nevertheless, their populations are quite happy. And it’s not because they are into yoga, veganism, chakras, mindfulness, or the annihilation of free radicals via a detox seaweed diet. Typically, happiness is not found within oneself, but in positive interaction with others.

The story of the scholars on this is thus the same as the story of my Latin American acquaintances: they have a very rich social life. Friends and family really look after each other; the pace of life is slower such that people make time for each other; and there is widespread acceptance of the idea that the point of life is to enjoy it with others. So again: the permission to be happy around others seems key.

This was also the point of new research on migration: migrants pick up the happiness level of the place they join by picking up the social habits of those around them, and pretty quickly too (within a few months). They don’t need sleep therapy, a pill, harmony with nature, spiritual awakening, or karma with their breakfast. Just put an unhappy person in a happy culture and see them copy the social behaviour of the other monkeys. It is that simple. And the opposite is also true: if you want to punish someone, send your happy enemy to an unhappy country where everyone is miserable and alone.

And then, of course, there were the futurologists who were openly dreaming about sex with robots, happy brains in a vat, happiness measurement via twitter and movement-scanners, benevolent dictatorship by AI, and the colonisation of the stars by happy hybrid sentients. Happily flying pigs, as it were.

Futurologists, like Thomas Malthus 200 years ago, are usually spectacularly wrong, but some dreams come true and one of mine is that you will give yourself and others permission to be happy. And if you come from a very puritanical place that makes you feel unworthy of happiness and afraid of connecting, then might I suggest sleep therapy, re-birthing, 7 chakras, harmony with nature, spiritual awakening, mindfulness, seaweed detox, and karma with your breakfast? Sometimes that is what it takes to escape an unhappy culture for those not lucky enough to live in Denmark or Costa Rica. Namaste!

By Paul Frijters – Professor of Wellbeing Economics, London School of Economics (LSE)




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