Navigating the HAPPINESS terrain

I want to talk about the dreaded ‘H’ word. Happiness. And the pursuit of everything it promises, entails and stands for. Though in the midst of endless volumes of words

  • PublishedNovember 5, 2012

I want to talk about the dreaded ‘H’ word. Happiness. And the pursuit of everything it promises, entails and stands for. Though in the midst of endless volumes of words that have been said, sung, written, and thought, there really isn’t much I can add. No flashes of genius or glimpses of remarkable insight, at least not this time (sorry to disappoint). What I can say is that I, like probably every other human being on the planet, have worked tirelessly to chase this monster down. Or to earn this life’s, ultimate reward.

Within our brief time on planet Earth as fragile conscious beings, part of our intrinsic mission is to achieve this mystical state of happiness, or at the very least devour enough of it in a lifetime to enable one retire with a self-satisfied grin proclaiming, ‘Yes, I experienced it’. But when it comes to happiness – what it is, how it feels, how we achieve it, and what we can or cannot do to control how much of it we have in our lives, we, as a species, really are pretty bad at navigating it’s perilous terrains.

Let me take a step back and speak for myself because that is all I’m really qualified to do. I’ve been pretty bad at navigating the happiness terrain. Up until very recently the concept of happiness was either a prize to be found, and hence the hidden treasure of life, or a reward that is bestowed upon oneself. You either find it through hard work, smarts or pure luck, or the universe rewards it unto you.

Thinking that it was an achievement to be, well, achieved, was something that I could wrap my control-freak mind around, because then all I had to do was be relentless in finding it. And relentless, I was. To the last crystallized drops of a chilled pinot grigrio bottle, into the muscular arms of an imaginary lover making soulless promises into the night, and to the hazy collision of 4am bass beats greeting the falsetto chirps of sunrise.

Despite all my efforts I always seemed to come up empty handed. Then, I would begrudgingly begin to accept the notion that perhaps happiness was only given to those who performed exceedingly well in the ‘deserves to be happy’ scale of life. It was the bucket of gold at the end of the rainbow. The very, very, long rainbow. It was the heaps of shillings left under your pillow by the happiness fairies.

I thought that in order to be worthy of the gift of happiness one must either a) be an exemplary individual, based on actions, achievements, thoughts and feelings, or b) suffer so long and hard that you eventually use up your lifetime’s worth of ‘suffering credit’ hence the universe has no choice but to start deducting from your happiness credit. And as I was, am, and will always be far from an ‘exemplary’ individual, the question then became how much suffering and/or struggling has one to go through to become worthy of deserving happiness?

My perspective was clearly very skewed, so I’m not even going to bother addressing that question. But I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in struggling long and hard to experience something that feels so hopelessly out of one’s reach. The kicker is not that it is tremendously difficult to achieve happiness, because it isn’t. It is that we, perpetually happiness-starved creatures, are so bad at predicting what will or may make us happy, and are especially bad at recognizing and sustaining the happiness fairies when we finally have them in our arms.

So I’ll breakdown what I’ve uncovered, thus far, in regards to the complex triggers and pathways to subjective happiness and wellbeing. This is not about what happiness feels like, for that’s a whole other discussion. This is about what it is, what value it has in our lives (because our lives are not all about simply being happy) and what has been shown to stimulate it. My aim is to intrigue, educate, ruffle some feathers, provoke some internal discussion, and hopefully help you become just a little bit more aware of your own perspective on happiness.

We must first acknowledge the most important factor in determining happiness. And for that we can blame mum and dad. Or Grandma and Grandpa. Because genetics account for a whopping 50 percent of happiness! Simply put, some people arrive in this world with a predisposition to cheerfulness, optimism, and joy, whereas others are born with a predilection toward fearfulness, pessimism, and depression. This has been shown by studying identical twins reared in separate families, who, according to longitudinal studies, have an equal chance of being similar to the co-twin, in terms of personality, interests, and attitudes, as one who has been raised with his or her co-twin. Which means that any similarities between the twins are due to genes, not environment.

As for the other 50 percent, we can take around 10 – 15 percent of this and blame it on life circumstances. That is, the environmental and socio-economic conditions you were born into, such as being born into a wealthy household, a close knit family, or with access to education and upward mobility, all of which are pretty much out of your control when you come into this world. Granted the line between what counts as life circumstances and what doesn’t is very fine, for now let’s consider it as the environmental factors one is born and raised in.

Which leaves around 40 percent of happiness factors that are largely under our control, and determined by the variety of life choices we make as adults. It may not be the ideal 100 percent but it is still a pretty large 4-0. So what should we focus on to maximize this 40 percent of control?

A survey of more than 2,015 people conducted by a British research company revealed that people believe the following five factors are most likely to enhance happiness, and listed them in this order of importance:

1) More time with family

2) Earning double what I do now

3) Better health

4) More time with friends

5) More traveling

Yet research shows that when it comes to enhancing happiness the order of importance looks more like:

1) Better health

2) More time with friends

3) More time with family

4) More traveling

5) Earning double what I do now

Two elements stick out in this list that are worthy of debate: money and health. Obviously health matters, but it matters more than we think it does. On the other hand money, surprisingly, matters much less than we might think. That’s not to say that the richer aren’t happier; they are. But an increase in income only significantly increases happiness up to a certain point.

What’s the magic point? Here in America this would be an annual salary of $75,000 (approximately 6,393,750 shillings). A recent study by two Princeton University researchers, who looked at the data of approximately 450,000 Americans, found that as income increased, emotional wellbeing also went up, but the line flattened out from the $75,000 mark. “Perhaps $75,000 is a threshold beyond which further increases in income no longer improve individuals’ ability to do what matters most to their emotional well-being,” the study reported. Basically, beyond a certain point the effect that income has plateaus and becomes a lot less significant.

Yet $75,000 per year is a lot of money. In order to understand why money falls lower on the happiness trigger chain we would need to place a monetary value on the other big boys we should be paying attention to, because then it will be super clear what matters and what doesn’t. Think of the following process as a real-life game of Monopoly…

When it comes to life satisfaction, your health is perhaps the most significant individual factor, minus your genes of course. Granted, whether you were born with hereditary health conditions is part of the genetic lottery, for the majority of us our health is significantly determined by our day-to-day choices. Hence, moving from having very poor health to very good health makes a big difference. How much? According to studies this would be the equivalent of earning an extra $463,170 (approximately 39,485,243 shillings) a year. Now that is a lot of money. Just imagine that figure when you find yourself tempted to skip the gym and indulge in yet another plate of greasy chips.

After health the next most significant factor that correlates to an increase in life satisfaction is social interaction, which makes a lot of sense, being the social creatures we are. An increase in the level of social interaction is estimated to be worth up to an extra $131,232 (approximately 11,187,528 shillings) a year. Which, maybe surprisingly, is worth more than marriage, coming in at $105,000 (approximately 8,951,250 shillings) a year. So yes, go ahead and ditch the hubby or wife for a night, or two. It’s good for your health. But don’t forget your close friends and family, because seeing them regularly is worth $97,265 (approximately 8,170,260 shillings), and by regularly we mean multiple times a week, not a year.

That’s the good stuff, how about the bad stuff? Well if you don’t get separated, divorced, become a widow/widower, or go through a period of unemployment, then you should be just fine. But, unfortunately there’s a good chance you might experience one of the above within your lifetime. If you do here’s the nitty gritty of what it will cost you, expressed as the equivalent of losing a specific sum of money per year.

Separation – $255,000 (approximately 21,738,750 shillings) a year.

Divorce – $34,000 (approximately 2,898,500 shillings) a year.

(Hey divorce is a bargain, right?! Turns out that by the time people get the divorce they are happy to be moving on with their lives, and studies show that divorced couples tend to gain happiness from the dissolution of their marriage.)

Death of a Spouse – $308,780 (approximately 26,323,500 shillings) a year.

Unemployment – $114,248 (approximately 9,739,642) a year.

Let’s put this all together, shall we? First of all, get and stay healthy. Then find a nice boy or girl and settle down. But while settling down don’t abandon your social life, and ensure you make time for your close friends and family. Do get a job and work hard to make some money. But don’t worry about having to become a bazillionaire. However, absolutely do your best not to loose your job. And try not to get divorced, but if you do, make sure you skip the separation period and go straight to the divorce.

As for kids, you can go ahead and skip them. No really, you can. There are virtually no studies demonstrating a positive correlation between children and happiness, and most studies show a small negative correlation. Meaning that people with children are less (gasp!) happy. I do realize that stating that in this very magazine may cost me my job. But blame the crying, complaining, sick and stressful little human beings, not me!

Of course the problem with creating buckets of happiness factors like this is that it is judging standard of life based on a few focal attributes without examining the broader picture. We might perceive a newly divorced person as depressed or a lottery winner as happy, but if we expand the scope of focus to include many aspects of these individuals’ lives, we often see a different picture.

But if it’s really this simple to boil down the happiness factors, why are we so bad at deciphering what makes us happy? Firstly, one of the mistakes we make when thinking about the future is imagining it will be a little too much like the present. Sure, enjoying late night cocktails at a loud bar with strangers may make you happy today. But don’t expect it to make you happy five years from now. On the same note we’re terrible at accurately remembering how things made us feel in the past, so we make bad choices regarding the future. We overestimate how happy we will be on our birthdays, we underestimate how happy we will be on Monday mornings, and we make these mundane but erroneous predictions again and again, despite their regular disconfirmation. Do you dread going to work, going to the gym or to that family gathering? How do you really feel when you finally get there or after?

The other thing we fail to realize is just how good we are at adapting to circumstances. The universe gave us supremely strong skin and souls for a good reason. On average, most people adapt quickly to marriage, for example, within just a couple of years the peak in subjective well-being experienced around the time of getting married returns to its previous levels. People mostly adapt to the sorrows of losing a spouse too, but this takes longer, around seven years. People who become unemployed however do not fully bounce back, even after getting a new job. The point being that, as humans, we are born to adapt. And survive. And thrive.

Ok, enough of the stats, what can we realistically do to be happier? Stay tuned for Part 2 of these The Happiness Series… But for now, just remember: friends, family, marriage and a job. And just say no to kids.

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