The Greatest Gift that I Possess

These are boom times for the happiness industry.

Walk into any high street bookshop and you’ll find shelves and shelves on the art of happiness, the science of happiness, defining happiness, measuring happiness, making yourself happy, and (if you’re in a really big bookshop and looking really hard) the occasional anti- happiness alternative, doing its best to ‘big-up’ the advantages of being melancholy !

But it would be wrong to imagine this sudden interest in happiness is just a passing self-help fad. Happiness is currently a hot-ticket item with sociologists, economists, management theorists, public health planners and, not least, politicians.

Our happiness matters.

Whether you label it subjective-satisfaction, positive psychology, fulfilment, or well-being, all the research shows happiness has a significant effect on both our own lives, and on those around us.

Repeated studies have shown that being happy makes us less likely to suffer from mental health problems, less likely to be obese, improves our immune system, makes us less likely to be ill, increases our resilience to stress and ultimately makes us live longer. The happier we are the more sociable, cooperative, energetic and even productive we are likely to be.

What’s not to like ?

Obviously we should all be trying to make ourselves happier.

Unfortunately we’re not always that good at knowing how to do this, either as a society or as individuals.

Take money. Most people would consider that having more money is likely to make them happier, which is generally true – but only up to a point. Money brings better food, better health care, better education, and better housing, but once these things have been achieved ever increasing amounts of money produce relatively small further increases in happiness, because our aspirations simply rise in tandem with our income – we simply find ourselves wanting more. Satisfaction is elusive. This is referred to as the hedonic treadmill.

Once our income has reached a certain level, the effect of other factors such as time spent with friends, our social connections, our work satisfaction, our surroundings and environment, and the amount of time we have available for leisure, all have a far greater effect on our happiness than additional income. When you were happiest in your life? Is that when you had the most money?

Lack of money can make us unhappy, but lots of  money doesn’t by itself make us happy. GDP has been increasing in the UK and the US for several generations, but we’re no happier now than we were in the 1950s !

The bad news seems to be that our societies objectives of constant economic growth and ever greater material wealth, are unlikely to make us any happier. In fact the time we devote to working to generate more and more wealth for ourselves, could be far better spent (from a happiness perspective) simply socialising with friends or pursuing hobbies.

In a world of limited resources, this would seem to be a significant message.

It’s certainly something that’s caught the interest of several of the world’s leading politicians, including Nicholas Sarkozy and David Cameron. The UK Office for National Statistics has recently created a well-being knowledge bank, the aim being to better measure indicators of societal well-being, and support policy making designed to make us happier.

In the 1970s the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan decided to start measuring Gross National Happiness, as its key progress indicator, instead of Gross Domestic Product. Bhutan is certainly a country facing a number of problems, but a lot of people are paying close attention to how their experiment with happiness economics is working out.

For most of us though the more pressing question is – how can I be happier ?

Since the time of Epicurus, various thinkers and philosophers have attempted to determine what constitutes ‘the good life’. How should we structure our lives to maximise our happiness ?

Ultimately this is something we’ll all have to work out for ourselves, but most of the world’s ‘happiness experts’ would agree there are several common elements: lots of social contacts (especially close friendships), working towards and achieving log term goals, active leisure pursuits and exercise, being part of something bigger than ourselves, and perhaps most importantly, our mental attitude.

The good news is we can be more happy simply by changing our thoughts.

‘Happiness Guru’ Shawn Achor, was until recently Head Teaching Fellow at Harvard for their popular ‘Positive Pyschology’ course. In his book the Happiness Advantage (Amazon US, UK), he argues convincingly that we can actively change our underlying habitual thought processes, so as to be more positive, optimistic, and ultimately happier. Happiness can be learned and developed he argues. I can’t help thinking this is something I should pay more attention to.

I’ve a  final video clip to leave you with, and try to link all this together – San Francisco hotelier Chip Conley gave an excellent presentation to TED last year, sharing his insights on happiness learned both from the Prime Minister of Bhutan, and a cleaner in his hotel.

He concludes that the role of governments and companies, is not to create happiness (which of course they can’t), but instead to work to create the conditions in which happiness is more likely to emerge in people’s lives.

That sounds like good advice for all of us.

Photo by fdecomite


  1. Were the 1950′s that good? Lets not forget that homosexuality was illegal in that decade, the unhappy case of one of the greatest minds in computing, Alan Turing, demonstrate that for some the decade was decade of misery. Turing was given the choice between imprisonment or probation conditional on his agreement to undergo chemical castration. He finally killed himself by ingesting cyanide, definately not happy. But in comparison to the 1940’s at least no one was dropping bombs on your house.

    Why is the 1950’s looked upon as a golden age? It’s clear people were less tolerant, on average less well educated in the 1950’s more people are educated to university level now than in the 1950’s, it’s unfortunate that increased education is probably not correlated to happiness at all and that is worrying if government gets really serious about happiness.

    • Fair points – the issue of happiness being subjective and relative is of course a fundamental weakness of happiness based economics.

      But surely policy making based on happiness is not necessarily any more or less fair, or tolerant, or protective of minorities and others excluded from ‘the system’, than policy making based on GDP ? That seems instead to be a human rights issue to me.

      Turing’s story was tragic, and was no doubt replicated many times during the period. Of course similar persecution continues in many parts of the world today, including several of our major trading partners such as Saudi Arabia and China.

      I’d argue strongly we must embed fairness, tolerance, and ‘love of the human’ in everything we do, whether we’re aiming for GDP or happiness !

  2. Make happiness THE indicator of the country’s wellbeing. I have long been a fan of this concept and wouldn’t it be interesting if policies were decided upon predicted happiness. New road schemes are considered against Annoyance! So why shouldn’t public spending?!

    Try these for size…..,29569,1631176,00.html

    • Yep, I agree.

      Clearly if we continue to make continual economic growth our ambition we’re going to be disappointed sooner or later.

      We’re going to have a world population of 7 billion come November, and probably another 2 billion before global population stabilizes. The idea that the world can provide for a further 8 billion people to adopt the current Western way of life, with all it’s energy/material/food requirements is clearly madness !

      I believe we need to ‘realign our sights’ both on a personal and cultural level, and move away from consumption as life goal.

      To be fair to the current government I think they ‘get this’, or at least I believe Cameron does. Shortly after becoming party leader in 2005 he supported the findings of the ‘Quality of Life Policy Group’, in which Zac Goldsmith was instrumental, despite quite a lot of internal opposition. Look at section 1.1 of their report:

      I plan to say a lot more about this subject – let me have any thoughts.

    • How can there be two Gareth’s?

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