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What are the secrets from the happiest people on Earth? Some make sense: Be wealthy, married, and have a job. From there, though, it gets more complicated.
Happiness isn’t easy to quantify, but a lot of people have tried: Bhutan has its Gross National Happiness survey, global research company Ipsos has its annual world happiness poll, and now Columbia University’s Earth Institute has put out the first World Happiness Report, which has the ambitious goal of surveying the state of happiness in the world today and looking at how the science of happiness plays into it.
The report, commissioned by the United Nations Conference on Happiness (yes, that exists), contains over a hundred pages of musings on world happiness. Here’s an ultra-abridged version of the findings.
- Richer people are happier than poorer people on average, but wealth is only one factor in overall happiness. The same goes for countries, where factors like personal freedom, lack of corruption, and social support are more important.
- Unemployment obviously reduces happiness, but not because of what you may think. It’s not the loss of income, but the loss of things like self-esteem and workplace social life that lead to a drop in happiness. High unemployment rates can trigger unhappiness even in the employed, who suddenly become fearful of losing their jobs. According to the study, even low-quality jobs yield more satisfaction than being unemployed.
- In some countries, the self-employed report higher levels of job satisfaction than the employed. The study found a positive correlation between happiness and self-employment in both American and European data, but not in Latin America. The possible reason: Self-employment may be a necessity in developing countries where formal employment is not as readily available. When it’s not a choice, it doesn’t lead to happiness.
- Higher living standards correspond with increased happiness in some countries, but not all. In the U.S., for example, happiness levels have remained stagnant while living standards have risen over the past 50 years or so.
- Levels of trust (i.e. whether you think someone would return a cash-stuffed wallet) have fallen dramatically over time in certain countries–including the U.S. and U.K.–but risen in others, like Denmark and Italy. One explanation may be that overall life satisfaction has dropped in the former countries, but has risen in many continental European countries.
- Lack of perceived equality can reduce happiness. The report explains: “The most positive results are in an interesting time-series study using both the U.S. General Social Survey and Eurobarometer. This finds that in both the U.S. and Europe increases in inequality have (other things equal) produced reductions in happiness. The effect has been stronger in Europe than in the U.S. This difference probably reflects ideological differences: Some 70% of Americans believe that the poor have a chance of escaping poverty, compared with only 40% of Europeans.”
- Mental health is the biggest contributing factor to happiness in all countries, but only a quarter of mentally ill people get sufficient treatment in the most developed nations.
- Married people across the world (studies have been done in the U.S., EU countries, Switzerland, Latin America, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia) claim that they’re happier than single counterparts. A stable family life also contributes to happiness.
It’s not hard to conclude from these findings that gross domestic product is not the ultimate indicator of happiness.
The report sums it up well:
“GDP is important but not all that is important. This is especially true in developed countries, where most or all of the population has living standards far above basic material needs. Except in the very poorest countries happiness varies more with the quality of human relationships than with income. And in the richest countries it is essential not to subordinate the happiness of the people to the ‘interests of the economy,’ since the marginal utility of income is low when income is so high. The economy exists to serve the people, not vice versa. Incremental gains in income in a rich country may be much less beneficial to the population than steps to ensure the vibrancy of local communities or better mental health. “
Check out the full PDF here: http://www.earth.columbia.edu/sitefiles/file/Sachs%20Writing/2012/World%20Happiness%20Report.pdf
Denmark and other Scandinavian countries—which boast, among other things, strong social safety nets, shorter-than-average work weeks, and high rates of non-motorized transit—frequently top lists of the world’s happiest countries.
Photo by Eddie Codel
Imagine you open the paper tomorrow, and the headlines are not about the “sluggish economy,” but our nation’s quality of life. You turn to the business section, and find not just information about a certain company’s profitability, but also about its impact on community health and employee well-being.
Imagine, in short, a world where the metric that guides our decisions is not money, but happiness.
That is the future that 650 political, academic, and civic leaders from around the world came together to promote on April 2, 2012. Encouraged by the government of Bhutan, the United Nations held a High Level Meeting for Wellbeing and Happiness: Defining a New Economic Paradigm. The meeting marks the launch of a global movement to shift our focus away from measuring and promoting economic growth as a goal in its own right, and toward the goal of measuring—and increasing—human happiness and quality of life.
Not just for dreamers
Some may say these 650 world leaders are dreamers, but they are the sort that can make dreams come true. The meeting began with an address by Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley of Bhutan, where the government tracks the nation’s “Gross National Happiness”:
The time has come for global action to build a new world economic system that is no longer based on the illusion that limitless growth is possible on our precious and finite planet or that endless material gain promotes well-being. Instead, it will be a system that promotes harmony and respect for nature and for each other; that respects our ancient wisdom traditions and protects our most vulnerable people as our own family, and that gives us time to live and enjoy our lives and to appreciate rather than destroy our world. It will be an economic system, in short, that is fully sustainable and that is rooted in true, abiding well-being and happiness.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon cited Aristotle and Buddha in calling for the replacement of our current economic system with one based on happiness, well-being, and compassion. “Social, economic, and environmental well-being are indivisible” he said.
A History of Happiness
We’ve forgotten a lot of what we used to know about happiness.
President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica followed with a keynote speech that provided an explanation of why her country is one of the worlds most eco-friendly and happy nations, despite its relative poverty. Decades ago, Costa Rica eliminated its army, prioritizing spending on a strong education program, support for social security, and the protection of national parks that spur tourism.
From Finland to France, Israel to India, speakers of parliament, ministers of the environment, and other high-level officials followed with brief speeches about the need for a new economic paradigm to replace the current economy. The afternoon featured Vandana Shiva, Martin Seligman, John Helliwell, Lord Richard Layard, Jeffrey Sachs and other luminaries.
Helliwell, Layard and Sachs introduced the World Happiness Report, a study they prepared for the conference. The report found that money and economic growth have a relatively weak correlation to happiness; happiness is much more strongly associated with things like community engagement, having lots of friends, doing work you love, and feeling a sense of trust in others. Altruism, too, is essential; a world that makes equity, care, and compassion more possible will be a happier world. As the authors write:
The realities of poverty, anxiety, environmental degradation, and unhappiness in the midst of great plenty should not be regarded as mere curiosities. They require our urgent attention, and especially so at this juncture in human history. …if we act wisely, we can protect the Earth while raising quality of life broadly around the world. We can do this by adopting lifestyles and technologies that improve happiness (or life satisfaction) while reducing human damage to the environment.
Over the next two days, more than 200 people stayed to participate in working groups to discuss turning global happiness metrics into a reality. They presented their recommendations on the third day. These included plans for an inclusive movement, forging communication material for all audiences, collaborative development of the metrics for happiness, the formation of a UN happiness commission, and the inclusion of happiness and well-being as a UN Millennium Development Goal.
The meeting ended with a presentation by Susan Andrews, who is developing a metric for measuring well-being in Brazil. Brazilian youth, she explained, had been trained to conduct happiness surveys and taught to practice altruism and compassion. Neighbors had at first rejected the youth, but later embraced their efforts to measure the happiness of their community. The project culminated in the creation of community-based activities that are changing neighborhoods for the better.
Progress in the United States
Noticeably absent from the meeting were high-level officials from the United States. But that does not mean that nothing is happening here.
The Department of Housing and Human Services has convened a panel of experts in psychology and economics to figure out ways to reliably measure subjective well-being—a move toward government tracking and analysys of happiness statistics.
But some cities are beating HHS to the punch, using a survey developed by The Happiness Initiative, a U.S.-based nonprofit, which offers a subjective metric for happiness that can be used at a personal or community level.
In Nevada City, California, the city council is using the happiness index to gather data about people’s needs and preferences for a land development decision. In Eau Claire, Wisconsin, the city government is working with a local chamber of commerce, state university, boys and girls club, library, and other organizations to gather data and convene town meetings where residents can discuss ways to promote quality of life.
In Seattle, Wash., more than 2,500 people have taken the survey, providing data for a city report card—including many members of the city’s Oromo, Somali, Filipino, and Vietnamese communities, thanks to local immigrant organizations working to measure the well-being of their people. The results, they hope, will help the city think more strategically about promoting social justice; the community organizations are also using them to identify and ameliorate problems within immigrant populations. Vietnamese youth, for example, scored low on sense of community and trust in government, so the Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) helped them host a “Spring Off,” bringing people together to make spring rolls—but also to reduce isolation and create a feeling of empowerment.
“The project was wonderful in the context of working with our youth council,” says James Hong , Director of Youth and Community Engagement for VFA. It gave them the opportunity to get them involved at every level, which is rare. They were able to conduct the survey, reflect upon the results, decide on a project and then coordinate it all themselves. We want to continue using this model for youth council. There was so much learning and it was all very valuable.”
Nationally, more than 40,000 people have taken the happiness survey and received their own personal assessments of well-being. One woman, a New Yorker, said, “I thought my life was going pretty well. After all, I make a lot of money. But after taking the survey, I saw my low scores in community and culture, and this led me to think about what really matters to me.”
The global happiness movement may seem like a dream today, but it is a dream that is becoming reality.
Laura Musikanski wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Laura is co-founder and director of the Happiness Initiative and the former director of Sustainable Seattle. She is a lawyer with an MBA and certificates in Environmental Management and Environmental Law and Regulations from the University of Washington.
(CNN) — Scientifically, can happiness be an advantage?
Some people think if you are happy, you are blind to reality. But when we research it, happiness actually raises every single business and educational outcome for the brain. How did we miss this? Why do we have these societal misconceptions about happiness? Because we assumed you were average.
When we study people, scientists are often interested in what the average is. If we study what is merely average, we will remain merely average.
Many people think happiness is genetic. That’s only half the story, because the average person does not fight their genes. When we stop studying the average and begin researching positive outliers — people who are above average for a positive dimension like optimism or intelligence — a wildly different picture emerges. Our daily decisions and habits have a huge impact upon both our levels of happiness and success.
Scientifically, happiness is a choice. It is a choice about where your single processor brain will devote its finite resources as you process the world. If you scan for the negative first, your brain literally has no resources left over to see the things you are grateful for or the meaning embedded in your work. But if you scan the world for the positive, you start to reap an amazing advantage.
Now that there is research validity to these claims, the working world is starting to take notice. In January, I wrote the cover story for the Harvard Business Review magazine on “Happiness Leads to Profits.” Based on my article called “Positive Intelligence” and my research in The Happiness Advantage, I outlined our researched conclusion: the single greatest advantage in the modern economy is a happy and engaged workforce.
A decade of research in the business world proves that happiness raises nearly every business and educational outcome: raising sales by 37%, productivity by 31%, and accuracy on tasks by 19%, as well as a myriad of health and quality-of-life improvements.
Given the unprecedented level of unhappiness at companies and the direct link between happiness and business outcomes, the question is NOT whether happiness should matter to companies. Given this research, it clearly should. The first question is: What can I do in my own life to reap the advantage of happiness?
Training your brain to be positive at work is just like training your muscles at the gym. Sounds simple, right? Well, think about how easy it is to make yourself go to the gym. The key with any new resolution is to make it a habit. New research on neuroplasticity — the ability of the brain to change even as an adult — reveals that moderate actions can rewire the brain as you create “life habits.”
In The Happiness Advantage, I challenge readers to do one brief positive exercise every day for 21 days. Only through behavioral change can information become transformation.
• Write down three new things you are grateful for each day;
• Write for two minutes a day describing one positive experience you had over the past 24 hours;
• Exercise for 10 minutes a day;
• Meditate for two minutes, focusing on your breath going in and out;
• Write one quick email first thing in the morning thanking or praising someone in your social support network (family member, friend, old teacher).
But does it work? In the midst of the worst tax season in history I did a three-hour intervention at auditing and tax accounting firm KPMG, describing how to reap the happiness advantage by creating one of these positive habits. Four months later, there was a 24% improvement in job and life satisfaction. Not only is change possible, this is one of the first long-term ROI (return on investment) studies proving that happiness leads to long-term quantifiable positive change.
In a study I performed on 1,600 Harvard students in 2007, I found that there was a 0.7 correlation between perceived social support and happiness. This is higher than the connection between smoking and cancer. So if in the modern world we give up our social networks to work away from friends and follow celebrities on Twitter, we are trading off with our happiness and health.
Following up, I switched around the questions and asked how much social support employees provided (instead of received). The results were off the charts. Those high on provision of social support are 10 times more engaged at work and have a 40% higher likelihood of promotion over the next four years. In other words, giving at the office gets you more than receiving.
The greatest cultural myth in modern society is that we cannot change. My research proves that you can not only become more positive, but if you prioritize happiness in the present, you can reap an extraordinary advantage.
March 19, 2012, 12:11 pm
Giving improves physical and mental health, enhances communal bonds, spreads wealth—and best of all, it’s contagious.
Diana Rico | December 2011 Issue
Five years ago, I was coming out of Vidiots, my favorite video store in Venice, California, when I spotted him sitting on the ground against the painted brick wall. He was dressed in rags and his skin had that dusky look of someone long homeless.
“A dollar so I can eat?” He said it by rote, without looking at me; underneath I heard no hope.
I tucked my videos under my arm, dug around in my wallet and bent down to hand him some money. As I pressed it into his palm, I made eye contact, said hello and smiled. His whole face lit up.
“Bless you! Thank you!” His watery blue eyes had that luminous, raw fragility one sometimes sees in the mentally ill. I squeezed his hand. He squeezed mine back, then fumbled through some plastic bags on the ground. Pulling out a plastic necklace, he held it out to me.
“You are a queen! You are beautiful! Thank you! Here.” The necklace was of green beads with a fake jade pendant, Cleopatra-like. I hesitated; he had so very, very little, and I knew I would never wear it. But he was insistent. “This is for you. You are a queen.” I bowed my head, suddenly overwhelmed. This unexpected exchange was cracking my heart wide open.
“If you knew the power of generosity, you would not let a single meal go by without sharing it,” the Buddha said. Indeed, generosity is so highly valued in Buddhism that “giving is the first of the Ten Perfections that the Buddha taught about,” says James Baraz, a founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California and co-author of the new book Awakening Joy: Ten Steps That Will Put You on the Road to Real Happiness.
Giving—in Sanskrit, dana—was advocated by the Buddha because it “both acknowledges the interdependence we have for each other and is the active practice of letting go, which is where freedom from suffering lies,” explains Baraz. “When we’re giving without any sort of expectation, just because we’ve been moved, we’re awakening the natural gladness that comes when the heart opens.”
We’ve all felt the high that comes from giving, the “natural gladness” Baraz talks about. Recent science suggests there is a biological basis for it. In 2006, neuroscientist Jorge Moll and a team of National Institutes of Health researchers gave subjects some money and a list of causes to which they might contribute. They found that the mere thought of giving money to charity activates the primitive part of the brain associated with the pleasures of eating and having sex. Functional MRIs indicated that donating money stimulates the mesolimbic pathway, the reward center in the brain, which is responsible for dopamine-mediated euphoria…. CLICK ON TITLE FOR FULL STORY
Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.
But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn.
He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.
“He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, ‘Here you go,'” Diaz says.
As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”
The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, “like what’s going on here?” Diaz says. “He asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?'”
Diaz replied: “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money. I mean, all I wanted to do was get dinner and if you really want to join me … hey, you’re more than welcome.
“You know, I just felt maybe he really needs help,” Diaz says.
Diaz says he and the teen went into the diner and sat in a booth.
“The manager comes by, the dishwashers come by, the waiters come by to say hi,” Diaz says. “The kid was like, ‘You know everybody here. Do you own this place?'”
“No, I just eat here a lot,” Diaz says he told the teen. “He says, ‘But you’re even nice to the dishwasher.'”
Diaz replied, “Well, haven’t you been taught you should be nice to everybody?”
“Yea, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way,” the teen said.
Diaz asked him what he wanted out of life. “He just had almost a sad face,” Diaz says.
The teen couldn’t answer Diaz — or he didn’t want to.
When the bill arrived, Diaz told the teen, “Look, I guess you’re going to have to pay for this bill ’cause you have my money and I can’t pay for this. So if you give me my wallet back, I’ll gladly treat you.”
The teen “didn’t even think about it” and returned the wallet, Diaz says. “I gave him $20 … I figure maybe it’ll help him. I don’t know.”
Diaz says he asked for something in return — the teen’s knife — “and he gave it to me.”
Afterward, when Diaz told his mother what happened, she said, “You’re the type of kid that if someone asked you for the time, you gave them your watch.”
“I figure, you know, if you treat people right, you can only hope that they treat you right. It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”
Produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo.
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The young father stood in line at the Kmartlayaway counter, wearing dirty clothes and worn-out boots. With him were three small children.
He asked to pay something on his bill because he knew he wouldn’t be able to afford it all before Christmas. Then a mysterious woman stepped up to the counter.
“She told him, ‘No, I’m paying for it,'” recalled Edna Deppe, assistant manager at the store in Indianapolis. “He just stood there and looked at her and then looked at me and asked if it was a joke. I told him it wasn’t, and that she was going to pay for him. And he just busted out in tears.”
At Kmart stores across the country, Santa seems to be getting some help: Anonymous donors are paying off strangers’ layaway accounts, buying the Christmas gifts other families couldn’t afford, especially toys and children’s clothes set aside by impoverished parents.
Before she left the store Tuesday evening, the Indianapolis woman in her mid-40s had paid the layaway orders for as many as 50 people. On the way out, she handed out $50 bills and paid for two carts of toys for a woman in line at the cash register.
“She was doing it in the memory of her husband who had just died, and she said she wasn’t going to be able to spend it and wanted to make people happy with it,” Deppe said. The woman did not identify herself and only asked people to “remember Ben,” an apparent reference to her husband.
Deppe, who said she’s worked in retail for 40 years, had never seen anything like it.
“It was like an angel fell out of the sky and appeared in our store,” she said.
Most of the donors have done their giving secretly.
Dona Bremser, an Omaha nurse, was at work when a Kmart employee called to tell her that someone had paid off the $70 balance of her layaway account, which held nearly $200 in toys for her 4-year-old son.
“I was speechless,” Bremser said. “It made me believe in Christmas again.”
Dozens of other customers have received similar calls in Nebraska, Michigan, Iowa, Indiana and Montana.
The benefactors generally ask to help families who are squirreling away items for young children. They often pay a portion of the balance, usually all but a few dollars or cents so the layaway order stays in the store’s system.
The phenomenon seems to have begun in Michigan before spreading, Kmart executives said.
“It is honestly being driven by people wanting to do a good deed at this time of the year,” said Salima Yala, Kmart’s division vice president for layaway.
The good Samaritans seem to be visiting mainly Kmart stores, though a Wal-Mart spokesman said a few of his stores in Joplin, Mo., and Chicago have also seen some layaway accounts paid off.
Kmart representatives say they did nothing to instigate the secret Santas or spread word of the generosity. But it’s happening as the company struggles to compete with chains such as Wal-Mart and Target.
Kmart may be the focus of layaway generosity, Yala said, because it is one of the few large discount stores that has offered layaway year-round for about four decades. Under the program, customers can make purchases but let the store hold onto their merchandise as they pay it off slowly over several weeks.
The sad memories of layaways lost prompted at least one good Samaritan to pay off the accounts of five people at an Omaha Kmart, said Karl Graff, the store’s assistant manager.
“She told me that when she was younger, her mom used to set up things on layaway at Kmart, but they rarely were able to pay them off because they just didn’t have the money for it,” Graff said.
He called a woman who had been helped, “and she broke down in tears on the phone with me. She wasn’t sure she was going to be able to pay off their layaway and was afraid their kids weren’t going to have anything for Christmas.”
“You know, 50 bucks may not sound like a lot, but I tell you what, at the right time, it may as well be a million dollars for some people,” Graff said.
Graff’s store alone has seen about a dozen layaway accounts paid off in the last 10 days, with the donors paying $50 to $250 on each account.
“To be honest, in retail, it’s easy to get cynical about the holidays, because you’re kind of grinding it out when everybody else is having family time,” Graff said. “It’s really encouraging to see this side of Christmas again.”
Lori Stearnes of Omaha also benefited from the generosity of a stranger who paid all but $58 of her $250 layaway bill for toys for her four youngest grandchildren.
Stearnes said she and her husband live paycheck to paycheck, but she plans to use the money she was saving for the toys to help pay for someone else’s layaway.
In Missoula, Mont., a man spent more than $1,200 to pay down the balances of six customers whose layaway orders were about to be returned to a Kmart store’s inventory because of late payments.
Store employees reached one beneficiary on her cellphone at Seattle Children’s Hospital, where her son was being treated for an undisclosed illness.
“She was yelling at the nurses, ‘We’re going to have Christmas after all!'” store manager Josine Murrin said.
A Kmart in Plainfield Township, Mich., called Roberta Carter last week to let her know a man had paid all but 40 cents of her $60 layaway.
Carter, a mother of eight from Grand Rapids, Mich., said she cried upon hearing the news. She and her family have been struggling as she seeks a full-time job.
“My kids will have clothes for Christmas,” she said.
Angie Torres, a stay-at-home mother of four children under the age of 8, was in the Indianapolis Kmart on Tuesday to make a payment on her layaway bill when she learned the woman next to her was paying off her account.
“I started to cry. I couldn’t believe it,” said Torres, who doubted she would have been able to pay off the balance. “I was in disbelief. I hugged her and gave her a kiss.”
Associated Press writers Michael J. Crumb in Des Moines, Iowa; Matt Volz, in Helena, Mont.; and Jeff Karoub in Detroit contributed to this report.