For many of us, the main aim in life is to become truly happy. We want to look back on our lives and (hopefully) be comforted by the fact that we were content, most of the time. But how do we know when we’ve made it? Is true happiness an instinctive feeling? Or do we need to actively search for it? Trying to comprehend and measure happiness is a difficult job. Fortunately, experts from a range of different fields have studied happiness and considered how to measure it, so we don’t have to.
The Politics of Happiness
Yes, this is an actual field of study. Although it was initially snubbed for being idealistic, the study has gained a lot of traction in recent years and is now often discussed by leading politicians. Most notably, Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern introduced a budget in 2019 specifically dedicated to happiness and wellbeing. And although you might have heard that money can’t buy you happiness, political academics would disagree. Bill Clinton was not altogether wrong when he stated ‘it’s all about the economy, stupid’, as it’s been found that money has a significant impact on individual happiness. This isn’t all that surprising, considering how money provides us with security and comfort. On top of this, being financially secure allows us to pursue our own definition of happiness, thereby allowing us to lead the best life for ourselves. But using money as a tool for measuring happiness isn’t always the best method. For a long time GDP was used as a measuring stick for happiness, but many argue that it is a flawed system, largely because it doesn’t take into account the negative implications of economic growth, such as climate change.
This is why Bhutan abandoned GDP and instead created a Gross National Happiness Index, to meet the wants and needs of the population, based on a (very, very long) survey. The politicians proved that they listened to the surveys responses by building policies around them. For example, foreign tourists are required to pay up to $250 per day when staying in Bhutan, as residents have expressed concern over the impact they play on the environment. Also proving that it’s not all about money is South Africa. The countries happiness policies are guided by the principle of Ubuntu. Ubuntu translates to ‘I am, because you are’, which means that we cannot exist alone. Our happiness comes from the community. The stark contrast between this ideology and the pursuit of individual happiness in Western countries shows how wide-ranging the politics of happiness really is.
The Psychology of Happiness
Psychologists have found measuring happiness to be a difficult task. There are debates around the definitions of happiness, and the measurement process is far more complicated than simply asking people ‘are you happy?’ However, there are a couple of largely agreed upon theories of how happiness can be achieved, the first one being freedom of choice theory. Developed by Ronald Inglehart, this theory posits that as long as minimum basic needs are met, we are free to pursue our own form of happiness. In this theory, the emphasis is placed on individual happiness, as it claims that we cannot easily measure happiness as the definition of the concept varies, depending on the individual. The other theory is based on positive psychology. Supporters of this approach assert that rather than try and fix aspects of our lives which are broken, we should instead focus on healing our own mental wellbeing. So maybe the old saying is true, and happiness really does come from within.
If you’re already interested in the study of happiness, it’s likely you will have heard of the World Happiness Report. This annual report, which is commissioned by the UN, measures the happiness of countries around the globe by analysing various factors, including the freedom to make decisions and life satisfaction. Since the first report in 2012, Denmark has consistently been one of the top three happiest countries, making it one of the happiest places on earth. This is in part down to the work of the Danish Happiness Research Institute, which has identified three pillars of happiness: Genetics, government policies and individual behaviour. Only by having these three pillars can we achieve true happiness. Not only does this account for the complexity of measuring happiness, but it creates a perfect balance between external factors affecting happiness and our own, individual responsibility.
Happiness, Religion and Spirituality
Although religions don’t have a specific way to measure happiness, a significant amount of evidence suggests that those who identify as religious tend to be happier than atheists. Of course, you should not try to force yourself to believe in something that you don’t, in the hope that it will make you happier. But this doesn’t mean you can’t take up some of their practices and habits. For example, religious people are reported to be far less likely to drink and smoke, which are two habits that have been proven to decrease happiness. Religious practices such as volunteering and fundraising for charities have also been proven to improve mental wellbeing and strengthen community bonds. So even if you are an atheist, you can still achieve the same levels of happiness as those who believe.
If you want to make a big change but you aren’t ready to try a religion, take some time to learn about spirituality. Although spirituality shares similar practices with a range of religions, it differs in the way that it does not believe and worship a specific deity. It is instead focussed on creating connections, both with the universe and with those around us. As well as encouraging practices which improve mental health, such as meditation, it also gives believers a sense of purpose in life, which they claim carries them through difficult periods of their lives. If you want to learn more about spirituality, here is a great beginners guide to get you started.
So How Do We Become Happier?
It’s clear that although there is no one way to measure or define happiness, there are lots of tips we can take from each of the different approaches. Whilst money is key to providing us with the security needed to pursue a happy life, we need more than just this to achieve true happiness. As well as satisfying our own individual happiness, working as part of a community is crucial to achieving happiness for all. And although happiness in part rests on factors which are out of our control, we do have some control over our well-being. Trying to achieve happiness takes work, but the rewards are so worth it.
Written by Siobhan Kelly
Siobhan is a recent Sociology graduate, with a passion for writing. Her degree has given her experience researching a range of topics relating to the Sociology of both physical and mental health. She has a particular interest in understanding how the effect that body image has on mental health.