How can we become happier?

One of the most important conclusions of happiness research is that there are many variables that play an important role in people’s happiness. Personality, living standards, activities and cultural factors have proven to be significant. Below follows a short summary of the most important factors. It is important to consider that nearly all these studies were conducted in Western countries. The results can therefore not be reliably generalized to all countries and cultures.

Personality / psychological outlines, morality and cognition
Research gives a fairly unambiguous picture that for those of us who live in rich countries, psychological factors, especially our personality, are by far the most important factor in how happy we are. Our personality affects how we think, feel and act. Most tests concerning the development of a persons full potential are related to coaching-purposes and are so far not very significant in psychological research. However, tests evaluating personality traits are widely recognized. Highly beneficial for positive emotions are emotional stability (neuroticism), an open mind and extroverted behaviour (extraversion)1. Emotionally stable people are rarely worried; they are optimistic and recover quickly from negative experiences. Extroverted people tend to be social, enthusiastic and driven. They are more active in their spare time and have a characteristically high rate of interaction with friends and colleagues. All these features have been shown to have a strong positive effect on both life satisfaction and wellbeing. The character trait of emotional stability can make a person react more routinely and less negatively affected to setbacks, bad experiences and the general adversities of life. It has been shown, on the other hand, that intelligence or rhetorical talents have no influence on this.

Neurotic behaviour is counterproductive for the subjective experience of happiness. It can be triggered by childhood traumata or post-traumatic stress after extreme experiences like war or especially bad accidents. Continuous stress can also evoke serious somatic or even psychological disorders. „People under stress are more susceptible to illness, depression, anxiety, low self-confidence, and dissatisfaction than people not experiencing stress. Along with symptoms of depression, stress is the best predictor of low evaluations of quality of life“2. Stress can not only occur because of a lack of time-management, excessive labour, problematic family-structures or psychological pressure, but can also be evoked through a bad conscience, caused by the observation of one's misbehaviour on a moral and customary level by oneself or others. Obviously, everybody is exposed to the pressure of social norms and the culturally dominant, general ideas about morality in their surroundings, as well as to the unwritten and written laws there. Judgments and estimations of the personal future – which can reach from resignation to optimism - are an important dimension of the quality of life aspects, because of their effects on the present behaviour (see Spellerberg (1996) for more details) 3. Therefore, general happiness in life also ought to be measured in correlation with a person's perception of the past and his or her current expectations of the future, for example as far as five years in the past and five years into the future4.

Many scientific results show that one's own perception significantly influences the subjective quality of life (mainly in the present time). It does so, for example, by the way of comparison with friends or neighbours or by assessment of the achievement of personal goals and adaptation to one's individual circumstances (including perception). Some researchers, like Ruut Veenhoven, put more emphasis on the affective parameters because they are easier to prove empirically and because perceptual science has so far been unable to explain why different conceptions and evaluations of a good life exist in different cultures5.

Individuals who consider themselves particularly kind and goal-oriented also tend to be slightly happier than average6. In many studies the variation between people in these different personality categories is 40-50 percent genetically determined. But although personality is partly congenital, studies show that it changes during a lifetime. For example, women tend to become more emotionally stable the older they get7.

Socioeconomic elements and social comparison
„The market culture teaches us that money is the source of well-being. Many studies show that people are not very good at explaining why they feel good or bad […] and, accepting the conventional market ideology, they believe that the source of happiness (or misery) is money” (Lane, 2000, S. 72)8. It is altogether too often accepted – as already explained – that more income is equivalent to more happiness. It is straight-forward to assume that people with more money can afford more products and services, which increase their personal level of happiness. This effect is reinforced by parts of the mainstream-media reporting on the “rich and beautiful”, which then results in social comparison and suggestions that everybody needs an expensive car, a big house and so on in order to experience happiness. A relatively recent study by E. Diener and S. Oishi on the basis of the World Values Surveys, together with the research of Easterlin, shows that income is only weakly linked to subjective satisfaction. The relative position of oneself in comparison with the income of others is by far more important than the level of income itself, as Glatzer (1992, S. 61) also resumes. Please see sociological research in the field of subjective self-evaluation as well9.
Even being at the very top of the income-pyramid does not necessarily mean having a more positive attitude towards life, as a study by the London School of Economics indicates, which showed that the rate of depressions and suicidal tendencies among the high-earners is higher than in other parts of society.

Of all socioeconomic factors, unemployment clearly has a negative effect on happiness. It leads to a lower life satisfaction and doesn’t involve a so called selection effect10. The negative effect isn’t necessarily due to the lower income of the unemployed; it seems more linked to the lack of a social network, and of the self-confidence and the feeling of meaningfulness that a job often provides11. It’s possible that the negative effect is less pronounced for wellbeing than for life satisfaction12 13. An explanation is that people don't just take into account how satisfied they are when they value their life, but also social norms and social expectations. One paper found a stronger negative connection between unemployment and life satisfaction in regions where people tended to have a strong work ethic14.

High income earners seem to be happier than low income earners. However, the connection tends to weaken higher on the income scale15. This correlates very well with the theory about decreasing marginal need. The connection between income and happiness is stronger for life satisfaction than wellbeing16. As with unemployment, a reasonable explanation is that our material conditions as well as our health affect how satisfied we are with our lives, not just how happy we feel. So does a higher income cause more happiness or does happiness make us earn more? The connection between happiness and income goes in both directions. In a longitudinal study, researchers found that people who were happier early in life tend to earn more money later in life17. The effect of income probably depends on how it’s being spent. A large American survey found no significant relationship between personal consumption and happiness18. However, spending on friends and charity had a positive effect.

What about the connection between education and happiness? In most countries there is a correlation between happiness and our level of education. The correlation is usually weak, however, and often depends on people with a high level of education also having a high income19.

Health
Many studies show a strong connection between subjective general health and happiness. Some scientists have therefore concluded that health is the second biggest factor in determining happiness, after personality. However, subjective health measures are strongly influenced by how optimistic or pessimistic we are, and don’t fully reflect our “objective” health status20. It has been shown that people adapt fairly easily to diseases and physical handicaps, but that usually doesn’t have an impact on the mental health21.

Gender and age
The links between age and happiness are generally rather weak.22 Some studies suggest that people are somewhat happier as they get older. At least up to 70 years of age.23

Men and women tend to be equally satisfied with their life in most countries24. In some studies women’s average wellbeing is lower than men’s25. Women on average more often experience negative feelings and symptoms of depression. Earlier studies suggest that women’s susceptibility to depression can’t be explained by their socioeconomic background26. Perhaps it can be explained by biological differences, or the reason could be found in the difference between women and men’s socially constructed gender roles 27. Neither of these hypotheses has been confirmed yet.

Living conditions
Research shows that within a given country, the standard of living affects the variation between people’s happiness by 10-15 percent28. This might seem surprisingly low. However there are many reasons why it plays such a small part. One is that most people in the wealthy and developed West have achieved a basic level of material resources beyond which more resources have less impact. Maslow’s need-hierarchy theory is relevant in these cases - other needs, for example self-fulfilment, become more prominent when material and social needs are fulfilled29. Another reason is that we quickly adapt to changes in external conditions and, as our living standard increases, what we consider an acceptable living standard also increases. Research on how different events affect our happiness shows that that sort of adaption is very common30. Yet another reason is that people in more “fortunate” circumstances tend not to spend their time on as satisfying activities as those less fortunate31. In the USA, for example, high income earners tend to spend more time working and commuting to work than those who earn less. For both groups, commuting and work are associated with reduced wellbeing.

Social relations
Social relations play an important role in our happiness. In a study of very happy people, researchers Seligman and Diener found that good social relations was the most important thing to them32. Our wellbeing increases when we spend time with friends – both introverted and extroverted people gain equal amounts of wellbeing from social activities33. Loving relations are also important. For example, married and common-law spouses tend to be happier than single people34. However, a part of this connection could be based on a selection effect. Happy people are more likely to find a romantic partner and build a satisfying relationship35.

Leisure time activities
People who are active during their spare time tend to be happier than people who spend their free time passively36. As well as the social activities mentioned above, people who get involved in charity are happier than average37. On the other hand, people who spend a lot of time watching television tend to be less happy than average. Physical exercise, social intercourse and sex also have higher immediate benefits on our happiness than passive activities such as watching television38. The Better Life Index of the OECD39 includes among other things a measurement of the time-units, that are daily available for relaxation (including sleep), meals and free-time-activities (free-time-activities are meant in the sense of the principle of Work-Life-Balance). If there is not enough time for healthy nutrition, sufficient sleep and relaxation (regeneration), health problems and dysfunctions can be the consequence, which in turn can lead to a diminishing of the quality of life.

Genetic and biographic factors (drastic events in life)
Leiber (2006, S. 132)40 describes in detail that extensive use of the right hemisphere of the frontal lobe favours a tendency towards negative feelings and even a susceptibility to psychological illnesses like depression, while a stronger activation of the left hemisphere of the frontal lobe often leads to more positive attitudes, openness and trust41. In the current state of research, it is generally assumed that such distinctive personality traits as e.g. openness are essentially genetic and can be inherited. Thus, whoever has a genetic disposition towards emotional stability42 , together with an open personality (extraversion) and exhibits these traits in life, will with high probability report a higher degree of satisfaction in surveys than someone who shows no such characteristics43. The behavioral geneticist David T. Lykken found a genetic imprinting, which can be changed by learning and behaviors (see more clear in Pinzler, 2011, S. 24-25)44. He thus indirectly points to the Hebbian rule of learning, which says that emotional habits can be acquired. By certain forms of training, like e.g. for attentiveness and relaxation, negative emotional patterns and behaviour can increasingly successfully be recognized, unlearned and replaced with positive feelings. So genetics has significant influence in infancy, which then steadily decreases. Therefore the influence of genetics on the capability to be happy can not be assessed by exact statistical data.

The factor of faith (religion)
Confessions of faith and membership in a religious community are often accompanied with
optimistic feelings, social activities and a decrease in stress. Thus it is not surprising that several studies show that religiousness marginally increases the average satisfaction with one's life (see also Veenhoven, 1984, p. 325 and Diener et al., 2004, p. 7)45. It is also assumed that in the perception of the believers, the effect of negative circumstances in life can be somewhat mitigated. Additionally, the confidence in being able to control one's life better increases with the intensity of faith. In following the moral rules and norms of the religion, the individuals often gain reassurance concerning their behaviour, as well as safety through membership in a (religious) group (see socio-psychological group dynamics) and it is easier for them to create a personal idea of the meaning of life. A study cited in König et al. (2001, p. 111) by Kosmin et al.46 shows that religious persons are less often subject to symptoms of depression than non-religious persons. One can assume that this is explained by the safety that a religious group offers.

Psychographic factors and meaning of life
The famous psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl, well known for his psychoanalytic Logotherapy, examined the human search for meaning and called it Self-Transcendence. This term serves as a description of a positive result in the individual search for meaning together with long-term emotions of happiness. His model - similar to Maslow’s idea - is all about self-fulfillment and personal goal setting in life, so that one creates his own meaning of life which includes ethical norms and benchmarks for the whole process and way of living. Personal aims in life define a proper and meaningful way of life and provide people with opportunities for life planning and structuring. Our hopes, wishes and thoughts then follow these goal settings and create a bigger sense47. „Happiness and life satisfaction, two spheres of subjective experience of concern to psychologists articulating a vision of the good life, are influenced in deep ways by the goals that people are committed to“ (Emmons, 2003, S. 122)48. A life completely without goals is one without meaning and therefore negative emotions like senselessness might occur more often.

These models of self-fulfilment include two levels of betterment synchronously: Not only an individual gain of knowledge regarding self-understanding and cognition, but also an insight in personal attitudes and behaviours combined with reflection and hence a growing self esteem. For happiness based on biography (see Mayring, 1991, S. 90)49 , and thus characteristics, habits and behaviours, a person need positive experiences in life, which establish the basement for positive moods, attitudes and life satisfaction. Furthermore a non-egoistic way of living is beside the other aspects a requirement for automatically increased feasibilities of more happiness and positive life experiences. Self-esteem and optimism are the core and the result of the personality traits.

Quality of the society
Direct democracy and many political participation possibilities increase the quality of life through the chance of having the power to influence the society and government. Besides that the increase in control of the policy makers and political actors provides the ordinary people with some kind of authority as well: „The more extensive the direct-participation possibilities of the citizens, the higher their self-reported life satisfaction“ (Frey et al., 2008, S. 65)50, as studies on 6000 citizens in Switzerland have shown (not dependent on their different wealth or educational level). In the nowadays already classic literacy Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society (1989) by the political scientist Ronald Inglehart one can find tables with observations of the increase of life satisfaction during democratic evolutions in European states. The longer democratic institutions in the particular countries exist, the higher is the average life satisfaction curve.

Nature protection is another important point: Weimann (2012, S. 57)51 describes, that air and water pollution can have a negative effect on life satisfaction. In the German socio-economic panel (SOEP) scientists have found more evidence that air pollution can reduce life satisfaction in general (see Schmitt, 2013, S. 21)52. Green environments in bigger cities and parks therefore play an important role in urban planning procedures: „Students who can see greenery out their classroom windows do better than those who cannot. A hospital window with a green view similarly sees patients cured faster, and there are many other studies linking green spaces to better health, performance, and life satisfaction” (Helliwell et al., 2012, S. 73)53.

Inflation can have an influence on life satisfaction as well. The higher the inflation rate is, the more the money loses its value and especially the low income class and unemployed persons can then buy less products which causes negative effects on the life satisfaction.

Strong financial imbalances in general will strike a society hard. The Bertelsmann Foundation has examined the relation between huge income gaps in different OECD countries and their statistical life satisfaction rates. The report (Bertelsmann Stiftung, 2010, S. 10)54 states, that social justice is an important pillar of the stability and legitimacy of independent states. Similar descriptions are made by the epidemiologists Pickett und Wilkinson (2009, S. 18) : “If we want more quality of life and happiness then we need not more economic growth anymore and instead more psychological and social well-being in our societies.” The higher the social injustice is, the more negative effects can be seen, such as more teenage pregnancies, more violence, a higher depression rate, more stress symptoms, beside other things which show a correlation. The OECD itself has similar outcomes (OECD, 2001, S. 52-56)55: More solidarity and trust in societies and the lower the social injustice, the less psychological diseases are diagnosed and the less violence occurs.

Other fields of studies of a good society which increases the quality of life are: Well-developed inclusion of immigrants, good infrastructure and administration, which are both related to positive effects of improvements for a better life satisfaction whereas corruption causes the opposite. In these areas of study more research has to be made.

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  • 41. Relying on the work of the neurologist Richard Davidson and the psychologists Ed Diener and Richard E. Lucas.
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  • 47. Several studies revealed that people with straight goals have been more successful in life and happier as well, because they have seen mostly not problems, just challenges and new possibilities for their life and development (see Veenhoven, 1984, S. 312). This goes hand in hand with mostly positive emotions, depending of course of the individual situation and the kind of goals (goals regarding health and social bonds are more powerful and spread much more energy and positive feeling than monetary goals for the far future).
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