Exploring the factors that that contribute to a life of contentment
Since Aristotle told his students — among them Alexander the Great — that “happiness is the best, the finest, the most pleasurable thing of all”, philosophers have wrestled with the question of how to find contentment in life.
In our modern, rational world, we tend to look to statistical models and empirical sources for answers. Since Richard Easterlin of the University of Southern California pioneered the use of “well-being surveys” in the 1970s, a thriving academic industry has grown up in the territory he marked out.
The central puzzle is the apparent failure of developed economies to satisfy all the wants of their citizens. Economists and philosophers in past centuries correctly predicted a future of unprecedented material prosperity. But they also prophesied the dawning of universal contentment and freedom from unfulfilled desire — and in that their hopes have been thoroughly disappointed.
Surveys around the world throw up some quirks: most Nigerians say they are happy, even though many outsiders regard their country as impoverished and corrupt. But on the whole a pattern emerges: people get happier as they get richer, up to a certain point, and then they stop.
In the US happiness seems to have been declining slightly since the 1970s, particularly for women. In 1972-76, 36 per cent of American women described themselves as “very happy”; by 1994-98 the figure was 29 per cent., The first country to enshrine the pursuit of happiness as a founding principle seems to be one of the less successful at providing it.
Within countries, income counts. To that extent, the old saying that “you cannot buy happiness” is clearly wrong: rich people are happier than poor ones. But it seems to be income relative to the rest of society, rather than in absolute terms, that is important.
Many other factors matter, too: health, above all; marriage, which seems to make both men and women happier; and having a job. Age is important: the young and the old are happier than people in their thirties and forties. A healthier lifestyle increases well-being, as does joining local groups and organisations. These correlations do not prove causation, of course. But they sometimes point to it: it seems that smoking, for example, makes people unhappy, rather than just reflecting unhappiness.
Not everyone accepts these conclusions. Daniel Kahneman of Princeton University, a psychologist who was one of the winners of last year’s Nobel Prize for economics, argues that responses to questionnaires cannot be trusted. He has proposed the idea of “objective happiness” — a measurement of how happy people really are, regardless of what they say. But here we enter deep waters. Can we be happy and not know it?
Certainly, the survey data can be erratic. Ask people how happy they are after first asking them about their love life, and you tend to get gloomier answers. But defenders of the surveys say their data are corroborated by more objective measures. People who report themselves as happy tend to be seen as happy by their acquaintances; they smile more often and they experience less severe physiological responses to stress. When wired up with electrodes on their heads, they also show more activity in the left, “happy” side of the prefrontal area of the brain and less in the right side.
Intriguingly, researchers have found one man who exhibited almost no activity at all on the right side: a Tibetan monk. Prof Kahneman concludes that happiness is a skill that can be worked on.
If you do not feel ready to begin years of meditation, try aiming for easier targets. Cut out junk food and eat more vegetables and brown bread. Stop smoking and take some exercise. Spend more time with your friends and less at work — but not so little that you get fired. Mix with people who are worse off than you, and forget about the ones who are better off. Get married, if you can, and stay. married. Go to church, or the synagogue, or the mosque, and do some voluntary work. Winning the lottery would probably help. If all else fails, move to Iceland, the happiest country on earth.
And if you are a 40-year-old divorced American woman, at least look on the bright side: things probably cannot get much worse.