Life lessons from global ‘happy’ study

Having a circle of good friends, yes, but being involved in politics? New academic research suggests there are obvious and less obvious ways to be happy. So can you choose a joyful life?

Depression and anxiety are often said to be the price recent generations pay for enjoying greater prosperity than their predecessors. Personal freedom a deluge of material possessions have not significantly increased levels of satisfaction, experts say.

But new research shows that there is an alternative to pampered gloom. And the answers provided by the World Happiness Database to the age-old question of how to lead a happy life range from the obvious to the rather surprising.

Friends, long-term relationships and pleasurable indulgences in moderation are part of the recipe. But so is being actively engaged in politics, and making sure that men and women are treated equally. Having children has a negative effect on how satisfied people feel during the exhausting early years, so becoming a parent is an investment in well being, not a quick fix.

Hilariously, researchers say you enjoy life more if you believe you are good looking, whether you really are a paragon of beauty or not.

Other findings contradict the self-help nostrums about finding your purpose in life. Professor Ruut Veenhoven, director of the Database project, found that people who talk about goals tend to be less happy, and that it was more important to simply be active and involved than to be constantly striving for meaning.

This might have surprised Viktor Frankl. Proponents of the modern science of happiness like to quote a line from his extraordinary book about surviving a Nazi death camp: ‘In the last resort everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of human freedoms, to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances.’ The title? Man’s Search for Meaning.

Frankl’s experiences were as extreme as any misery it is possible to imagine, but in those depths of suffering he was able to discover wisdom to help others: you can control how you think and feel about what happens to you, even when you can’t control the events themselves.

Hollow cheer?

Critics of the ‘happiness movement’ say it is absurd to advise the rest of us, with our humdrum lives, to adopt the coping strategies that were necessary in Auschwitz. In everyday life, is ‘feeling bad’ really to be avoided? Surely this obsession with avoiding uncomfortable feelings or running from emotional pain is just a version of hedonism.

You miss the point, experts respond. Too many people are experiencing unnecessary pain and suffering which can make an otherwise good life miserable. Yes, grief has a place, along with other appropriate reactions to the challenges life throws at us. But if we find ourselves feeling unequal to the task of enjoying our day-to-day life, we should use modern techniques to tackle this very modern problem, and be grateful that ‘ordinary unhappiness’ is now a curable condition.

You Decide

  1. ‘Happiness is bland and boring.’ Do you agree?
  2. Should a person aim to achieve happiness or concentrate on other things and hope that it comes naturally?


  1. Have a look at the Action for Happiness website and choose three actions to adopt.
  2. Choose a very happy nation and one that is less content, and write a comparative piece.

Some People Say...

“It is natural and necessary for humans to dwell on what threatens us.”

What do you think?

Q & A

The science of happiness? Oh come on!
A lot of academic research has now gone into which attitudes, skills and attributes make people and nations more satisfied. The idea is that this modern approach picks up where classical philosophy left off, in teaching us useful theories of how to live a good life.
It sounds a bit, well, joyless.
Fair enough. Some elements of the happiness plan can jarr: making sure you are generous so as to boost your own reward centres in the brain and get a good feeling, for example. In previous eras, we would have been told to help others because it is the right thing to do. So critics say all this is just a way of filling the gaps left by religiouspiety.

Word Watch

Viktor Frankl
Author of Man’s Search for Meaning, published in 1946, about his experiences of the Nazi concentration camps. He survived Auschwitz with his spirit and sense of self intact, and his writings about how this was possible have inspired readers ever since.
The pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain.
They didn’t mean to be funny, but the authors of the new study, the World Happiness Database, say it is appropriate to be sad about 10% of the time!
Ordinary unhappiness
Sigmund Freud, the inventor of psychoanalysis, wasn’t aiming to make his patients happy, just to bring them back from the extremes of misery. He famously described success as ‘converting neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness’.
Diligent and dutiful commitment to behaviour and attitudes that conform to a particular set of virtues or religious beliefs.

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