Science of Happiness

Want more happiness? Find out what the research and data tells us about happiness

by Chris van Ryn

“There's much more to life than happiness.”

Well, maybe. I still want it. And so, it seems, do most people on planet Earth. There are books, podcasts, YouTube clips, long-bearded gurus and more to teach us how to be happy. It remains elusive. Social scientists say we are living in an increasingly unhappy world.

Here are some reasons:

Social media erodes happiness. Interacting face-to-screen and not face-to-face is changing how we behave and who we are. The very sight of a phone, say social scientists, leaves us less authentically connected, less invested and less empathic with each other.

Creating an inauthentic screen persona to manage others’ perception of ourselves, then having to live up to your fictional self, erodes self worth. Believing others have a better life because they've managed your perception of them is equally bad for self esteem. Low self worth contributes to unhappiness. “Be yourself,” said Oscar Wilde. “Everyone else is taken.”

Buying things may make you temporarily happy, but in time, hedonic adaptation (our tendency to return to a baseline happiness) takes the lustre from material pleasures. Frequently, you are left with just "things" and more debt and less happiness. Happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.

But you need to be able to meet your basic human needs. The United Nations Happiness Index reports that people living in Scandinavian countries top the list of the world's happiest people. In Scandinavia, the government takes care of people's basic needs: affordable housing and food, free education, parenting support and access to health services. People feel… safe.

Maslow (Hierarchy of Needs) believed a person begins to maximise human potential only when basic survival needs are met. People who feel safe are likely to push out of their comfort zone, which is when growth occurs. Safety produces a psychological 'expansion' model; fear produces a psychological 'contraction' model with limited growth, anxiety, depression. Unhappiness.

What’s the relationship between happiness and money? Having too little money makes you unhappy. Having a lot of money does not increase happiness.

Teaching youth how to create wealth and manage money contributes to a happy and healthy society. Counterintuitively, research shows that giving money away enhances happiness.

What exactly is happiness?

Social scientists define happiness as having a lot of wellbeing in your life and with your life. You are happy in your life if you have lots of positive emotions (laughter, fun, pleasure, excitement) and not many negative emotions (sadness, anxiety, fear, anger). You're happy with your life, if you are, all things considered, satisfied with your present life.

There are moments where there is a disconnect between happy in and happy with your life. A mother of a newborn baby can be very satisfied with her life, but right now, in her life, there are a lot of negative emotions. Loss of sleep, dirty diapers, time poor etc.

Then there are people who are really happy in their life, as in, they experience a lot of hedonistic pleasure, but are dissatisfied with their life. Perhaps their career choice or relationship is not what they’d like.

If you can maximise happiness both in your life and with your life, you're doing pretty well.

Happiness, then, is a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions and the presence of positive emotions, making it an internal and not an external phenomenon. You don't become happy by arriving at some location synonymous with ‘happy’. You can only be happy. And that’s a choice.

What advice can be given if you’re a profoundly unhappy person?

Notwithstanding conditions that may require intervention, such as depression, you can intervene and improve your happiness. Here's how:

1: Focus on building social relationships:

Social relationships are necessary components for happiness. You can’t find happy people who don’t have a social network.

Chatting to strangers generates positive emotions and is powerful for wellbeing. A fleeting conversation with your Uber driver, the barista at your local cafe, the person next to you in the sauna, boosts your happiness.

Studies tracking individuals over decades show people with strong social connections suffer less from diabetes, heart disease or mental illness. Social connections are a major predictor of both physical and mental health.

Summary: If you want to be a happier person, focus on building social relationships. And taking a break from social media, studies show, reduces depression and anxiety.

2: Be other oriented:

The act of paying attention to other people over yourself, being the kind of person who gives to charity, volunteers and helps a friend improves happiness. Data shows even just intending to help somebody else, or thinking about somebody else's wellbeing will gladden your mind.

Summary: Helping others helps you.

3: Change how you see something:

Between the bookends of birth and death, everything in between is a narrative. The way an experience is framed, the story we tell about it, has a huge influence on happiness. How we choose to see events that happen in life can change our feelings about them.

Using different ‘vocabularies,’ a humiliating past failure can be framed as something that enabled you to acquire tools now integral to your success. Adversity can be framed as a catalyst for growth. Reframing changes your relationship from something that used to be a source of suffering.

Framing can be used in the present to shape future outcomes - a kind of prospective role play. You anticipate a scheduled meeting that is potentially stressful and think about it as if you're already looking back on it: “It was awesome! We had this amazing dialogue fleshing out facts and gained some valuable insights from it.”

Summary: If you want to change your world, change your mind.

4: Develop healthy habits:

Get enough sleep: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your lifespan. “There is no major system in the body, or operation of the brain, that's not wonderfully enhanced by sleep,” says sleep researcher and neurologist Matthew Walker. He recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night.

Get enough exercise: the simple act of walking to work, analysts noted in a study on centenarians in Okinawa, was key to longevity and wellbeing.

Breathe properly: researchers say a breathing cadence of six breaths per minute helps improve the automatic functions of the body by altering the biochemistry. To achieve this: inhale: 1, 2, 3, 4; exhale: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. How you inhale and exhale will affect your health and happiness. Practise this until you do it naturally.

Choose what you eat: consider eating a predominantly plant-based diet. Diet is the number one cause of premature death.

Summary: Physical choices have a huge impact on mental health and happiness.

5: Be where your feet are:

Stay grounded in the moment, the act of being present and mindful.

Summary: Consider walking meditation and mindfulness training.

6: Develop grateful practices:

All things, no matter how sweet, will inevitably decline. The fact is, we get used to things. In time, the pleasure fades. The power of gratitude is one way we can hack this. This applies to material things as well as to the people in our lives. Studies show the simple act of practising gratitude boosts life satisfaction.

The Stoics used 'negative visualisation' as a gratitude technique. Each morning, pause to consider that every certainty can give way without notice. Nothing is exempt from this rule. Your partner could die or leave you, you could meet with an accident, lose your health, your house, your job. Recognising that everything is impermanent (including your own life) encourages you to embrace whatever life you happen to be living and to extract every bit of delight you can from it.

Summary: Gratitude enhances appreciation and improves happiness.

7: Everything changes:

Good and bad things have less of an impact on our wellbeing than we think. Data shows that people return to a baseline happiness, almost regardless of what happens to them. We spend our lives switching things around to avoid pain or taking risks, because we're scared of a bad outcome. But, despite a possible bad outcome, most often, we’re going to be just fine. We don’t realise the power of our own psychological immune system. Things that brought us pain become, in time, less salient.

Summary: The invitation is to create a happier baseline.

8: Put your goals into perspective:

People think they’ll be happy when they get to a certain point on the landscape of their lives: professional success, say, or getting a partner. There's always some landmark we place on the horizon, and, when we reach it, we discover that, on some level, it was a mirage. There might have been some experience of heightened fulfilment upon arrival, but it's very short-lived. Then we begin focusing on the next goal. We think when we get to that goal, we’re done, we'll be happy. The goalposts constantly move.

Summary: The enjoyment is the journey, not the accolade at the end. Goals held too tightly can steal happiness.