They say happiness is a “flaky” concept. Is it? Is the idea of happiness too personal and esoteric to deserve much attention and interest? Is our aspiration for happiness too subjective and vague to give it much thought in our busy, day-to-day lives?
If happiness isn’t on your mind so much, you’re not alone. In fact, you’re just like most of us. You don’t have time for lofty ideas and speculations. As Ellis Grey from Grey’s Anatomy says:
The carousel never stops turning. You can’t get off.
But that’s a shame, isn’t it?! Happiness may call to mind nebulous emotions, but it is what we all seek in the end. So, maybe it does deserve more of our attention. Here is a bold thought: maybe happiness should become the official driver of our public affairs and society. What if we gave it priority in how we measure our prosperity, above and beyond economic growth? And what if our education systems were measuring happiness, above and beyond academic achievement?
This idea may be bold, but is not new. Since its birth in the small kingdom of Bhutan in the 1970’s, it garnered support and grew into a world-wide movement sustained by advances in the neuroscience of happiness.
In April 2015, the Sustainable Development Solutions Network – a global initiative for the United Nations – published its third World Happiness Report. This is a comprehensive document “harnessing happiness data and research to improve sustainable development,” that is “to help countries to achieve economic, social, and environmental objectives in harmony, thereby leading to higher levels of well-being for the present and future generations.” Even though it may not sound serious enough to you, it would be a mistake if you dismissed it. The introductory part of the report says:
Increasingly happiness is considered a proper measure of social progress and goal of public policy. A rapidly increasing number of national and local governments are using happiness data and research in their search for policies that could enable people to live better lives. Governments are measuring subjective well-being, and using well-being research as a guide to the design of public spaces and the delivery of public services.
How do governments measure happiness, a.k.a. subjective well-being?
The tools they use are based on surveys designed to assess people’s self-perceived quality of life. The surveys consist of two categories of questions, which I describe briefly below. The answers to these questions are subsequently converted into indicators of happiness.
- Broad self-evaluations that invite you to reflect on how satisfied you are with your life as a whole. These are designed to assess enduring, long-lasting effects of your emotions – their “stickiness” over time – and they correlate well with your life circumstances.
- Self-evaluations of your current emotional experiences. These are designed to measure your emotional life as it happens, by asking you to quantify your positive (e.g. joy, pride) and negative (e.g. pain, worry, anger) feelings at a recent moment in time (yesterday).
What does our happiness depend on?
According to the research and data gathered so far, our happiness depends on three groups of interconnected variables.
- Variables we have the least control over: gender, age, and place of residence.
- Variables we have some control over: economic status, our social capital, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make our own life choices, our generosity, and our freedom from corruption. The first three of these variables seem to have the strongest impact on happiness; unfortunately, our pursuit of economic capital (the individual good) isn’t always conducive to positive social relations (supporting the common good).
- Variables with a neurological basis, which we have some control over (there is increasing evidence they can be shaped by training and experience): our ability to sustain positive emotion, our ability to recover quickly from negative experiences, our ability to engage in empathic and altruistic acts, and our capacity for mindfulness.
The World Happiness Report 2015 is a mind opener in its entirety. But I’d like to spend a little extra time on Chapter 6. Its title is Healthy Young Minds: Transforming the Mental Health of Children, and it was written with a unique passion and urgency. Listed below are some of its main ideas.
- One third of Earth’s population consists of children (are under 18 years of age), and ten percent of them have mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, ADHD or autism. In the last 50 years the incidence of mental disease in children has increased. “These children are unhappy and disturbed – the quality of their experience is very poor. And the majority of them will also become unhappy adults…This is a massive problem.”
- As children grow and become adults, their minds develop in three fundamental ways: emotionally, academically, and behaviourally. “Studies show that the best predictor for whether children will become happy, well-functioning adults is not their academic achievement, but their emotional health.” And happy children show better intellectual development.
- There is significantly less awareness, prevention, and treatment of mental disease than of physical disease, in both children and adults. As they push for academic achievement, schools are not set to nourish and prioritize the emotional well-being of their students.
- The need for change is urgent. “If we care about well-being, then the well-being of children must be a top policy priority for communities and families, healthcare systems and schools. This is a matter of basic human rights.” What should be done? Here are some of the “action points” proposed in the report:
- Healthcare: We need “parity of esteem for mental and physical health”, which means health care for mental disorders should become as available as the health care for physical ailments.
- Community: We must recognize the importance of well-being for children and families, and we must learn to promote and support it through adequate training and community resources.
- Schools: Well-being must be given priority in education as an explicit learning objective and as part of the core curriculum; and students’ happiness should be measured regularly.
You may say that the ideas in this report are utopian or impractical, but I suggest you draw your conclusions only after you’ve read it all. As about me, I subscribe to its vision full heartedly and I am happy to promote it. Yes, I am happy – I’m not just saying it.