I really, really want to win the lottery. I’m not greedy just two or three million would do. All the things I’ve ever wanted would be within my grasp – my dream house, three or four holidays a year, I wouldn’t have to work – I’d be so happy!!
Or would I?
The Science of Happiness is a fledgling amongst fields of research but has already turned up some very interesting findings. Researchers in Massachusetts tracked the contentment levels of two very different groups – recent lottery winners and recent sufferers of catastrophic accidents, who were now paraplegic or quadriplegic.
Clearly the moneybags are going to be cock and hoop about life while the accident victims will be thoroughly miserable…won’t they? Actually no, it turns out that what we think we know about happiness often differs from the reality.
The winners did show a happiness spike in the first year following their good fortune while the accident victims displayed a slump in the same period – but after that both groups, more or less, returned to the place they were at prior to their respective strokes of fortune.
The two groups were asked, to rate the amount of pleasure they obtained from everyday activities – small but enjoyable things like eating a meal, sharing a joke, receiving a compliment, meeting up with a friend. The results showed that the accident victims reported gaining more happiness from these everyday pleasures than the lottery winners.
What this shows is that we have a kind of mental ’immune system’ – that keeps us on an emotional even keel despite the ‘slings and arrows’ that life throws our way.
This was well expressed in 1642 by Sir Thomas Browne.
“I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity, and I am more invulnerable than Achilles; fortune hath not one place to hit me.”
Which is the happiest place on earth?
The United Nations publishes a yearly World Happiness Index which ranks countries from jumping for joy, at the top to downright miserable at the bottom. In most years Scandinavian nations vie for the top spot – the Danes and Norwegians have a cheery fight amongst themselves for top position on the table. The fact that this report is published at all is a positive development – indicating perhaps the beginnings of a shift in mankind’s priorities – from valuing the accumulation material wealth to the valuing of emotional wealth. Already the forward thinking nation of Bhutan, has adopted Gross National Happiness instead of Gross Domestic Product as their main development indicator.
New ways are emerging of measuring the all-round health of a nation that hint at this change in thinking. Sustainability is a relatively recently coined concept and is now being included in a further league table called the Happy Planet Index. This takes into account the cost to the planet of delivering a nation’s well-being.
Citizens in western countries of Europe and America might have relatively high happiness scores – but at a high cost to the plant. Costa Rica, on the other hand, tops the Happy Planet Index. Costa Ricans, in fact, have higher well-being than of those who live in many rich nations, including the USA and the UK, and live longer than Americans. This is achieved with a per capita Ecological Footprint that’s just one third of the size of the USA’s.
To put it simply Americans tend to be happy, but at a high cost to the planet – Costa Ricans also tend to be happy but at a much lower cost to the planet – they are sustainably happy. Costa Rica is a world leader in environmental protection, resources from the abolished army were relocated to fund social programmes and importantly they have a culture which values social networks of friends and family.
How can we be more like the Costa Ricans – Ways to Happiness
The publishers of the Happy Planet Index have identified five things that we can do in our everyday lives to increase our well-being.
We are social animals. We were designed to interact with others of our species and to do so make us happy, while a lack of connection contributes to depression. So find time to meet up with friends and family – you’ll be making them happy too!
There are few things that can improve the mood like exercise. Most people are able to incorporate a brisk walk (or a least just a leisurely stroll) into their daily routine. If you can carry out the walk in the woods or a park so much the better – being in and amongst nature is yet another proven mood booster.
A lot of our mental activity isn’t constructive, and often has downright negative effects. Many people go about their daily business with heads that are often crammed to the brink with negative thoughts about the past – which can’t be changed – or thoughts about worrisome futures outcomes which probably won’t materialise. Clearing your mind of this harmful mental chitter-chatter leaves you in a much happier place – the present. Be aware of what’s going on in your surroundings. Take time to dwell on the little sights, sounds, smells and feelings – be in the moment.
If we make the effort, life can be a continual voyage of discovery – there are always new things to learn, new skills to acquire, new hobbies to dive into. Taking a keen interest in things, being enthusiastic – keeping things fresh is a way to oil those wheels of happiness.
Whether it be a small ‘random act of kindness’, doing voluntary work or simply being a good person – doing things for other people is mood enhancer. Feeling good about yourself – does just that – it makes you feel good!
…as the people at Happy Planet Index put it – happiness need not cost the earth.
The easiest way to give yourself an instant pick-me-up is by the very simple turning up the corners of your mouth – more commonly known as smiling! Research has shown that smiling is a two-way process. You smile when you’re happy, but equally the very act of smiling sends ‘good vibe’ signals to the brain.
So, to end with a quote from Louie Armstrong – that esteemed sage of happiness.
When you smilin’, when you smilin
The whole world smiles with you.
Yes when you laughin’ oh when you laughin’
The sun comes shinin’ through.
Top image ‘Definition of Happiness. Nick Youngson – http://nyphotographic.com/