Yours is likely different from mine, and from that of every other person. Some people call it a sense of well-being or optimism, maybe a meaningfulness in life. Whatever it is, we know we want it, and that it’s a good thing.
Happiness has long been associated with good health, but the proof has been weak and often conflicting. For example, a 2011 study in Applied Psychology found that subjective well-being predicted better health and longer life. On the other hand, a subsequent paper published in 2015 in The Lancet found the opposite: having better health in the first place makes people feel happier. Where lies the truth?
Various studies have connected happiness with lower heart rate and blood pressure, with reduced levels of stress and even to a stronger immune system. Happy people are also better at looking after their health — they are more likely to exercise and eat well.
There are some interesting findings in the study of happiness. First, happiness is not about money… up to a point. The idea that ‘money can’t buy happiness’ has become hackneyed, but it does contain a message. Researchers have found that happiness indeed does increase with growing income, but only up to about $75,000 annual income for a person or family. After that, the link is lost and well-being no longer increases with income.
How about happiness being age-related? Some findings suggest that happiness declines in mid-life, around age 40 for women and 50 for men, irrespective of their circumstances, or where they live. It seems that the ‘happiness curve’ is u-shaped, higher early on and again later in life.
That relationships are important to happiness will surprise no one. Indeed, social and personal relationships appear to contribute to a sense of happiness, health and longevity. Having a good network of friends, family or others close to you seems to boost self-esteem and helps generate a sense of purpose which in turn contribute to health both mental and physical.
Research has also found that experiences can make you happier than possessions. In the long run, people are happier because of experiences rather than material possessions. That is the result of a fading joy after the initial acquisition, of say a new car, as we become accustomed to seeing it every day. On the other hand, experiences continue to provide happiness through memories long after the event occurred. The new convertible might have been pretty nice, but how about that hot-air balloon ride with your new partner?!
The idea that experiences matter more should also guide policy-makers. Consider the benefits of a municipality with more parks, bike trails and accessible playgrounds: making experiences easier can contribute to a happier population.
Consider these three suggestions. First, forget about the neighbours and their ever-so-green grass. Social comparison makes for a poor happiness strategy. As we accumulate more and better things to ‘compete’ with the Joneses, we are really just setting up a perpetual dissatisfaction cycle and chasing happiness that we cannot catch.
Second, share your skills by volunteering. It turns out that giving back to the community and helping others is linked to greater levels of happiness.
And finally, make note (literally) of the things that are good in your life. It will remind you that you are probably happier than you think.
Written by Dr. Paul Martiquet is the Medical Health Officer for the Sunshine Coast and Powell River.