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
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. Two different personality types have shown to be particularly conducive to happiness: emotional stability and extroversion1. Emotionally stable people are rarely worried; they are optimistic and recover quickly from negative experiences. Extroverted people tend to be social, enthusiastic and driven. All these features have been shown to have a strong positive effect on both life satisfaction and wellbeing. Individuals who consider themselves particularly kind and goal-oriented also tend to be slightly happier than average2. 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 get3.

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 status4. It is shown that people adapt fairly easy to diseases and physical handicaps, but that usually doesn’t have an impact on the mental health5.

Gender and age
The links between age and happiness are generally rather weak.6 Some studies suggest that people are somewhat happier as they get older. At least up to 70 years of age.7

Men and women tend to be equally satisfied with their life in most countries8. In some studies women’s average wellbeing is lower than men’s9. 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 background10. 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 11. 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 percent12. 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 fulfilled13. 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 common14. Yet one another reason is that people in more “fortunate” circumstances tend not to spend their time on as satisfying activities as those less fortunate15. 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.

Socioeconomic elements
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 effect16. 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 provides17. It’s possible that the negative effect is less pronounced for wellbeing than for life satisfaction18 19. An explanation is that people not 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 ethic20.

High income earners seem to be happier than low income earners. However, the connection tends to weaken higher on the income scale21. This correlates very well with the theory about decreasing marginal need. The connection between income and happiness is stronger for life satisfaction than wellbeing22. 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 life23. The effect of income probably depends on how it’s being spent. A large American survey found no significant relationship between personal consumption and happiness24. 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 income25.

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 them26. Our wellbeing increases when we spend time with friends – both introverted and extroverted people gain equal amounts of wellbeing from social activities27. Loving relations are also important. For example, married and common-law spouses tend to be happier than single people28. 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 relationship29.

Leisure time activities
People who are active during their spare time tend to be happier than people who spend their free time passively30. As well as the social activities mentioned above, people who get involved in charity are happier than average31. 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 television32.

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