What Makes Us Happy Will Help Us End War

November 11, 2009

“A wealthy man is one who earns $100.00 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband.”
H. L. Mencken


                            What Makes People Happy?

The following summary of what does and does not make people happy is based on the book Happiness: Lessons from a New Science by Richard Layard. His book incorporates years of cross-cultural studies by numerous investigators that reveal common human traits with respect to happiness.


Happiness - Richard Layard

At first thought one might expect that happiness, like love, can’t be measured. But in fact, self-reporting schemes do allow us to assess how happy people think they are. And that, after all, is what is important. How happy do people consider themselves?

For years researchers have given surveys to people from countries all over the globe, asking how happy people feel at the moment and what makes them happy in general.

For example, Harvard students were asked to choose between two possible worlds and asked which they would prefer. Here are the choices:

In the first world, you would get $50 thousand a year, while other people get $25 thousand (average).
In the second world, you get $100 thousand a year, while other people get $250 thousand (average).
The majority of students preferred the first world. The same result is found across classes and cultures.

What this simple study shows is that we feel wealthy in comparison to those around us, regardless of how much we actually make. Whether you’re happy depends on how your income compares with the norm. If you earn an average or higher income, you are likely to be happy with your financial condition. If you fall well below the average, you are more likely to rate yourself as not happy. And the measuring stick we use is people around us: not paupers, film stars, or corporation heads.

This is why economic growth does NOT improve happiness: as incomes rise, the norm by which we judge our own position also rises. The United States, for example, is the richest country in the world, but because we compare ourselves to those around us, U.S. citizens are not any more or less happy than people in less wealthy countries.

Moreover, the happiest people are those who always compare down, not up. When things are looking miserable, mothers often tell their children to consider others who are even less well off. These mothers are teaching a lesson in happiness.

For example, in the Olympics, bronze medallists rate themselves as much happier than silver medallists.

Olympic Medals

Olympic Medals - China 2009

Why? Because the bronze medallists have a medal. They are comparing themselves to all the others who have no medals at all. They likely didn’t expect to beat the top competitor. Silver medalists, on the other hand, compare themselves to the holder of the gold, feeling unhappy because they were close—but not quite up to winning the gold.

“I complained that I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”

Based on these studies, we might be surprised to discover some of the things that do not relate to happiness. These include:

Education (except to the extent that it affects income)

Some of the things that do make us happy include:

Family relationships—these are more important than any other single factor
Financial situation, not luxuries, but how we stack up next to those around us
Work, when meaningful, can be more important than the money
Community and friends
Personal freedom
Personal values, our inner self and attitudes and philosophy of life

To create a world in which people are so happy that they cannot be moved to make war, we will need to:

  • foster connectedness to family, community, and friends,
  • create and sustain a large middle class (see Spread Democracy) where vast numbers of people can compare themselves down to others of less wealth and at the same time, realistically hope to move up,
  •  spread liberal democracy and the sense of personal freedom it provides (see Spread Democracy), and
  • teach our young people positive attitudes of mind. Teach them how to be happy (see Foster Connectedness).

abraham-lincoln-625“People are as happy as they decide to be.”
Abraham Lincoln


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