20 Feb

In pursuit of happiness

beach 2
By Lorna Zischka

All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole?

1=very satisfied
2=fairly satisfied
3=neither satisfied nor dissatisfied
4=fairly dissatisfied
5=very dissatisfied

Life-satisfaction or ‘happiness’ questions like this one are becoming increasingly popular in surveys of public life. This is because of the suspicion that the standard, materialistic measures of welfare (GDP/income levels) don’t necessarily deliver a better life.  The logic goes that if money isn’t making us happy, why measure it as an indicator of wellbeing? Why not measure happiness directly? This sounds fair enough on one hand, unless of course happiness indicators generate their own problems in misdirecting our attentions…? In seeking answers on these issues, let’s start with income measures of wellbeing.

It certainly seems to be the case that although buying more ‘stuff’ can give us a short-term happiness boost, the feeling does not last. Research suggests that our expectations quickly adjust to our new status, and then we are left feeling no better-off than before… until the next input boost of ‘stuff’ that is, which is to put us onto a kind of materialistic treadmill. This isn’t the only complication: we can easily get so that more ‘stuff’ only makes me happy if my stuff is at least as good as or better than that of my peers. And since they probably feel the same, we all end up in a ‘stuff’ competition and are unable to feel content with the things we have if others around us have more. Some people are even driven to borrowing in order to keep up, so that today the heaviest consumer countries in the world are the ones where private borrowing levels are highest; it is not people in the neediest countries that have the biggest debts! Despite all the effort and sacrifice put into the accumulation of goods, life-satisfaction levels are dropping fastest in the most consumeristic societies! Once a country is outside the bounds of real deprivation (around only US$15,000/year income on average), there is no relationship whatsoever between that country’s average income and the average happiness of its population. A race for more ‘stuff’ doesn’t seem to be the way to happiness – not only because it doesn’t do the job efficiently, but also because its pursuit destroys the planets resources and is becoming increasingly unsustainable as a collective lifestyle. So then, what does lead to happiness?

Ask the average Brit and nearly 60% of respondents will mention some kind of relational connection as being most important to happiness – family first and also friends. No other factor comes even close. Health, the next biggest factor gets a mention by only 24% of respondents. Financial security and living conditions get far less mentions. (fig.1)


pie chart updated







Fig.1: Factors influencing subjective wellbeing
Source: Sustainable Development Commission, 2009

This gut reaction is backed up by plenty of evidence. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) came up with ‘five ways to wellbeing,’ which are a distillation of masses of evidence on what matters to happiness (fig.2).


Fig.2 Five ways to wellbeing.

Source: New Economics Foundation

Of the five factors, two are directly oriented to other people, giving and connections. And these two are also linked to one another – connections for example depend on giving time to people!

The relationships we have with others are certainly good for our own sense of wellbeing, but there are wider implications also. We live in an interconnected society and we could not even have a functioning economy without trustworthy interactions between people. When rules are fair, enforceable and where opportunistic people are not constantly trying to find loopholes, trust can flourish and with it, our ability to collaborate.  Collaboration is vital to our productivity, since our joint outcomes when we work together, each doing what we do best, is far greater than the sum of what we could achieve as separate individuals. Mutually beneficial and supportive relationships make us more secure too. What goes around comes around, and since we are not being capable of independence and self-sufficiency at all times, we do better in connected communities where we help one another out.

Having said all that, how did you feel when you first read the ‘happiness’ question at the beginning? Does the whole question of ‘increasing happiness’ turn your thoughts turn inward (what I need to make me happy) or outward (how can we make the world a happier place)? If your thoughts turned inward, it suggests there might be a flaw in ‘happiness measures.’

The psychologist Carol Ryff offers perhaps a more profound definition of happiness based on the ancient concept of Eudaimonia or ‘flourishing’. Eudaimonia emphasises ideals of belonging and benefiting others as one part of the big wellbeing mix; a concept which again enshrines the importance of relationships between people. Ryff pinpoints six items which are found to improve psychological wellbeing:

–          Autonomy
–          Personal growth
–          Self-acceptance
–          Purpose in life
–          Environmental mastery
–          Positive relations with other

So whilst a hedonistic approach to happiness might seek whatever maximizes my own personal pleasure for the moment, Eudaimonia emphasises wholeness as a person and within a society. Thus whilst a hedonist might value extra material goods or free sex or lying one’s way out of trouble because of the pleasure it maximises and the pain it avoids, Eudaimonia puts these things into the context of environmental damage or family break-up or a loss of trust in society. So some individual ‘good’ in the short term might have to be renounced for something of greater (and maybe communal) value in the long term. Enter then the concept of virtue. Virtue is about moral ‘goodness’. Wikipedia says in its definition, ‘personal virtues are characteristics valued as promoting collective and individual greatness’. Those exercising virtue contribute to a happier society.

There is an odd thing about virtues however. Researchers find that although virtues are instrumental in improving the wellbeing of society, they have to be exercised for their own sake. If the goal of a person is happiness, that person probably won’t find happiness by trying to be virtuous. However, if that same person loves virtue and is virtuous for its own sake, then they are almost certain to find happiness as a side-effect!

We’ve seen how important relationships between people are to human flourishing, and we can discover in study after study that giving people (people putting resources into relationships) tend to report higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction than those who just spend their money on themselves. So maybe instead of asking ourselves how happy we are, we should be asking ourselves what we are doing for others, to make them happy. That is the question that matters for a flourishing society!!

Lorna Zischka is a PhD student in Economics at Reading University.

Image by Sias van Schalkwyk