Connections, not possessions, lead to fulfilment
Imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. If the top step represents the best life for you, and the one at zero the worst, which step are you on?
Last month, the responses of thousands of people in more than 150 countries were published in the most comprehensive study conducted into that most sought-after of human feelings: happiness. According to the World Happiness Report, the people you’re most likely to find enjoying the best view from that ladder are in Denmark. While people around the world typically place themselves halfway on the fifth rung, the Danes are between rungs seven and eight.
This article is part of our supplement on happiness, which unites us all. For more happiness stories visit our dedicated page.
Those living in the UAE aren’t so far behind. With an average rating of 6.5, they rank 28th happiest in the world and the highest among Arab nations.
The UAE is one of only a handful of nations to have happiness as an official government goal. But it has begun to slide down the happiness ladder over the last half-dozen years or so.
Action is thus clearly needed to cheer everyone up – but what?
There’s never been any shortage of people touting quick ways to get happy. Yet surprisingly – given its global relevance – only recently have scientists started to take happiness seriously.
Over the past decade or so, there’s been a surge of scientific interest in understanding the causes of human happiness, with everything from lab experiments to genetic analysis being used in the search for answers.
And the results often fly in the face of what most of us believe.
Perhaps the single most celebrated finding in happiness research is that money doesn’t buy happiness. Studies have shown that above a certain income – enough to give us the essentials of life, plus a few perks – money rapidly loses its happiness-boosting power.
The suspicion is if more money doesn’t bring people more happiness, then maybe they’re not spending it in the right way.
For many of us, more money means being able to buy more stuff. But research suggests if we’re looking for more happiness, we’d be better advised to splash out on experiences.
A 2010 study by Cornell University researchers suggests why. The problem with stuff – cars, clothes and bling – is that it triggers invidious comparisons. No sooner have you driven that long-craved Porsche off the forecourt than a Lamborghini rolls past.
But that’s not all. The researchers found another problem with stuff: people have a habit of buying it, only to fret about whether they’ve made the best choice. We could have treated ourselves to any one of six designer watches, so have we missed out by choosing the one we did?
In contrast, the researchers found that when it comes to experiences, we’re less bothered by comparisons, or about choices we didn’t make. OK, so our neighbours took the family to Paris; we chose Rome. Whatever.
Determined shopaholics should not despair, however. If you really must go shopping, research suggests the surest way of turning stuff into feel-good is to buy it for other people.
In 2008, a team led by Prof Elizabeth Dunn, of the University of British Columbia, Canada, cited evidence from surveys and lab studies showing that spending money on others brought more happiness than self-indulgence.
Intriguingly, however, the team also found that most people expected the exact opposite – with personal spending expected to be the surest route to happiness.
This disconnect between our beliefs about sources of happiness and what really works has become a familiar finding.
For example, most of us might think that coming into a fortune would transform our happiness, and in a different way from having a life-changing accident.
Yet in one of the classic studies of happiness in the late 1970s, researchers found little difference between people in the two groups. Victims of serious accidents actually reported getting more pleasure from simple things like chatting to friends than the instant millionaires.
Part of the explanation appears to be in the adaptability of humans to changing circumstance.
For accident victims, that’s a good thing; for big lottery winners, something of a let-down.
But the finding also hinted at another common theme in many studies: happiness lies in our connections to others.
Married people have been shown to be happier on average than those who remain single. One reason is that married people are better-placed to cope with the vicissitudes of life, like sickness and unemployment – a problem shared, and all that.
Happiest of all are those who regard their spouses as their best friend and their marriage as a partnership.
This link between happiness and connectedness extends beyond relationships, however.
In 2014, a team led by Colin Capaldi, at Carleton University, Canada, published a review of studies into the impact on personal happiness of a sense of connectedness with nature.
Those who enjoy being outdoors and feel a sense of kinship with living things typically have higher levels of happiness.
But some studies have revealed significant genetic influences on our happiness levels.
This may help explain why the Danes top the world happiness table. In 2014, researchers at the University of Warwick, found that Denmark has an unusually low proportion of people carrying a gene linked to neuroticism and unhappiness with life.
It is still early days in the scientific quest to understand happiness. But it seems that Jean-Paul Sartre had it dead wrong. The French philosopher declared: “Hell is other people.” But science is showing that other people may be our most potent source of joy.
Robert Matthews is Visiting Professor of Science at Aston University, Birmingham. His new book, Chancing It: The Laws of Chance – and What They Mean for You, is out now.
Published: April 17, 2016 04:00 AM