As a life coach, the pursuit of happiness is my calling. No matter what people’s surface problems or concerns are – be it business issues, relationship snags or personal growth – it all boils down to one question: How can you become happier? So, is there an answer? Is there a predictable, or at least universal, key to happiness?
In 2006, Adrian White and colleagues at Leicester University’s School of Psychology published a study that combined data from the World Health Organization and many other sources (http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2006-07/uol-uol072706.php) to create a “global map of happiness,” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/bsp/hi/pdfs/28_07_06_happiness_map.pdf). They looked at how people subjectively reported their own levels of happiness and compared them to variables such as income, age, social factors and so on.
To Your Health
According to their results, the top predictors of happiness were health, wealth (in terms of GNP, equality of income and access to resources) and the availability of education, in that order. In these ways, we are all alike. In order to be happy, we must meet a certain baseline of physical and mental well-being, have enough money and access to resources to meet our needs and have the education to take advantage of opportunities that come our way.
Interestingly enough, the happiest people in the world often have the highest taxes. Then again, in return for that expense people in these countries generally receive a high quality and quantity of three happiness requirements (health care, a large degree of cultural and social wealth and education) for free. (It should be noted that in this context, “wealth” refers to collective, societal wealth and not personal wealth. Many studies show that above an average sum of $20,000, money is often associated with a decrease in happiness rather than an increase.)
So Much Alike, Yet So Different
However, happiness studies have also found that what makes you happy can also depend on where and in what type of culture you live. For example, they found that in America, the freedom to express yourself rated at the top of happiness indexes. On the other hand, fulfilling family expectations rated highest in Japan. In Iceland, one of the happier nations in the world despite its long winters, the key seems to be frequent socializing, while the perennially cheerful Australians rate family connections highest.
Another indicator of happiness seems to be a function of expectations. Specifically, how your expectations of life match up with the reality. In countries where expectations were modest (such as Denmark), people are far happier than in places where the people have very high expectations (Greece, Italy). These findings suggest that it’s better to set your sites realistically and be pleasantly surprised by fortunate turns of events than it is to set them unrealistically high and face ongoing disappointment. So perhaps that Northern European stoicism has its benefits after all, while the sunny (and perhaps exuberantly exaggerated) optimism of the Mediterranean mindset could be setting the bar unreachably high.
So what do all these facts and figures have to say about humans and happiness? A simple strategy seems to emerge from the data that’s worth considering: Spend your time and energy focusing on staying healthy, maintaining a modest but functional income and getting an education. Focus on those things that matter to you, rather than worrying about what the rest of the world is doing. And keep your attitude optimistic, but realistic. Put these together and you have a recipe for happiness that’s valid across the world.
Thanks to to Your Finish Rich Plan for inclusion in the Rich Life Carnival.