Sunday, 2 September 2007

What makes us happy - lessons for personal and public life

What makes you happy?
Do you know what makes you happy? I don’t really mean in the short term - obviously there are things that you enjoy and they put a smile on your face, but think long term - would you be happier if you changed anything about your life circumstances? What about your job, the people in your life, the kinds of relationships you have, how much money you’ve got...

The reason this matters to you is that it goes a really long way to defining how well you value your life, but more generally it should concern governments and all others in charge of the ordering of society because the only justifiable reason for government is to enable all citizens to flourish to their best ability, which means - be happy.

The amazing thing is that if we stop and think about this for a moment it is obvious that happiness is really important, but you can look and listen in vain to catch sight of it in public statements by politicians, economists, employers, or even religious leaders. In another post, I will consider why this is and what might be done about it, but for now I will concentrate on the basic issue of what makes us happy and the converse.
A lot is now known about the psychology of happiness and you can review the evidence yourself if you are interested: I strongly recommend the book by Daniel Nettle (see bibliography). In a nutshell, it is not what many people would first think, that is it has little (directly) to do with money. Indeed the evidence shows very little connection between income and wealth on the one hand and how happy people say they are, on the other. (As an aside, this has been used by many commentators to call for a redirection of public policy away from maximising wealth creation and towards goals that are more likely to generate happiness).

Evidence based on surveys of real people tells us about the factors which best explain differences in happiness level in the world as we find it. Hold on to that, since it implies a rather strong constraint on happiness - in a different world, we might all score very differently. Anyway, in the here and now, it is clear that being married (or having a long-term stable relationship) is worth a few points. Also being of high social status helps, though that is less influential. Having lots of nice things seems to have close to no effect whatsoever - so don’t waste your money on that - and the only really important difference that money has been seen to make is in cases where people have enough to ensure they never have to work again (for example lottery winners getting over £2M are consistently happier, less that that brings only short term improvements in happiness, more that £2M adds no additional happiness). Money appears to have a small indirect effect through social status, but on closer inspection of the statistics, it turns out that the main effect of status is through (at least the perception of) greater control over life and work choices. Higher status people tend to be their own boss more than lower. The converse of this is more striking - the principle factor in depression (pathological unhappiness) is a sense of powerlessness.

By far the strongest indicators of happiness are in fact nothing to do with life circumstances, but are internal psychological factors of a kind that we are born with and cannot shake off, any more than our height or the colour of our eyes. This has been taken by some to be a dismal conclusion, since it implies there is little we can do about happiness, either for ourselves, or as policy makers, for society as a whole.

Recall that the stable relationship was important. This can be generalised, for comparisons between different kinds of society also show an improvement in happiness as social relations become more stable and mutually supportive. This is of course the opposite of competitive - if we are constantly surrounded by competitors, then we are constantly stressed and are driven to find happiness by out-competing our rivals, but it is known that this does not work. By this means we are all caught on a treadmill with a carrot dangled in front of our noses - one that we can never get at. For this reason, in present-day modern society, so called ‘positional goods’ are sought after as a means of increasing personal happiness. You know, the sports car, big house, even the trophy wife and kids. Psychological research is clear about this - the happiness promised is elusive, we just become hooked on a life long search for something like the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.

Long term and meaningful happiness is to be found in good reliable and supportive relationships, a sense of worth in the work (or other activities) that you pursue and a sense of power over the life you have. This might mean freedom, but not the freedom to choose from 25 different kinds of breakfast cereal, nor the hypothetical freedom to do anything you want if only you want it enough, but the real freedom to be your self, rather than what your partner, boss or society demands).

People who find very little scope to be happier now may find that they are looking in the wrong places. On the other hand, it seems that present-day society is not exactly helping, with its emphasis on competition and the promise of happiness through doing better than the Jones’s. Indeed, there is a strong negative relationship between happiness and the level of inequality that is found in a society. In our society, personality best explains individual happiness, whatever our circumstances. But our society puts strong limits on the level of happiness we can attain. Indeed, it is likely that this limitation applies most strongly to those with the more neurotic personalities (the ones who come out least happy in the surveys). These are the people (and there are a lot of us) that are most vulnerable to the negative effects of competition and who would most benefit from a supportive social environment.

My conclusion, then is that for the individual, it is most important to seek good stable relationships with friends and family and to try to culture a sense of self-determination in all spheres of life. The extent to which any of us can do this is constrained by society - the culture of firms, communities and its overall assumptions. Policy makers should take good note of this - if they want to improve the lives of citizens, and especially those getting a raw deal, then they should re-orientate society to encourage stronger and more supportive relationships, even at the expense of competition and wealth.


Daniel Nettle - Happiness: the science behind your smile. Oxford University Press. 2005
Richard Layard - Happiness: lessons from a New Science. Penguin Books. 2005