Why does happiness matter?
Does happiness matter? People react to this question in surprisingly different ways. Some suggest that there are far more significant things to worry about; others see happiness as vitally important and something that every human being ultimately wants in life. To explore this conundrum, we need to start by looking at what happiness actually means.
Happiness relates to how we feel, but it is more than just a passing mood. We are emotional beings and experience a wide range of feelings on a daily basis. Negative emotions – such as fear and anger – help us to get away from danger or defend ourselves. And positive emotions – such as enjoyment and hope – help us to connect with others and build our capacity to cope when things go wrong.
Trying to live a happy life is not about denying negative emotions or pretending to feel joyful all the time. We all encounter adversity and it’s completely natural for us to feel anger, sadness, frustration and other negative emotions as a result. To suggest otherwise would be to deny part of the human condition.
Happiness is about being able to make the most of the good times – but also to cope effectively with the inevitable bad times, in order to experience the best possible life overall. Or, in the words of the biochemist turned Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard: “Happiness is a deep sense of flourishing, not a mere pleasurable feeling or fleeting emotion but an optimal state of being.”
One popular misconception about happiness is that happy people are somehow more likely to be lazy or ineffective. In fact, research shows the opposite is true: happiness doesn’t just feel good, it actually leads to a wide range of benefits for our performance, health, relationships and more.
For example, economists at Warwick University showed different groups of people either a positive film clip or a neutral film clip and then asked them to carry out standard workplace tasks underpaid conditions. The people who were primed to feel happy were 11% more productive than their peers, even after controlling for age, IQ and other factors. Similarly, researchers at Wharton Business School found that companies with happy employees outperform the stock market year on year and a team at UCL has discovered that people who are happy as young adults go on to earn more than their peers later in life.
In healthcare, doctors who are happy have been found to make faster and more accurate diagnoses, even when this happiness was induced simply by giving them the small gift of a sugary sweet. In education, schools that focus on children’s social and emotional wellbeing experience significant gains in academic attainment as well as improvements in pupil behavior. Happiness has also been linked to better decision-making and improved creativity.
So, rather than success being the key to happiness, research shows that happiness could in fact be the key to success.
But it doesn’t just help us function better: happiness also brings substantial benefits for society as a whole. For example, a review of more than 160 studies found “clear and compelling evidence” that happier people have better overall health and live longer than their less happy peers. They are around half as likely to catch the cold virus and have a 50% lower risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event such as a heart attack or stroke.
Happier people are also less likely to engage in risky behavior – for example, they are more likely to wear seat belts and less likely to be involved in road accidents. Happier people are even more financially responsible, tending to save more and have more control over their expenditures.
But perhaps most importantly of all, people who are happier are more likely to make a positive contribution to society. In particular, they are more likely to vote, do voluntary work and participate in public activities. They also have a greater respect for law and order and offer more help to others.
There is even evidence that happiness is contagious, so that happier people help others around them to become happier too. An extensive study in the British Medical Journal followed people over 20 years and found that their happiness affected others in their networks across “three degrees of separation”. In other words, how happy we are has a measurable impact on the mood of our friend’s friend’s friend.
When it comes to the happiness of society as a whole, however, the sad truth is that in recent decades we have become substantially richer but no happier. The positive benefits of higher incomes have been undermined by rising inequality and falling levels of trust and social cohesion. We’ve also reached the point where mental ill health is one of our greatest social challenges – causing more of the suffering in our society than either unemployment or poverty.
This is why increasing numbers of policymakers and leaders are now calling for measures of progress to be based on human wellbeing and happiness, not just economic factors such as growth in GDP. Here in the UK, the government has introduced a program to measure national wellbeing, and influential figures – including former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell – are calling for wellbeing to become the overall measure of prosperity and the main guide to public policy.
This shift towards prioritizing happiness is important because this also reflects what the majority of people want. In a YouGov poll commissioned by Action for Happiness, a majority (87%) of UK adults said they would prefer a society with the “greatest overall happiness and wellbeing”, rather than the “greatest overall wealth” (8%). The findings were consistent across all regions, age groups and social classes.
So happiness does matter – the scientific evidence is compelling. The pursuit of happiness is not some fluffy nice-to-have or middle-class luxury; it’s about helping people to live better lives and creating a society that is more productive, healthy and cohesive. As Aristotle said: “Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”
Of course, being happy is not some magical cure-all. Happy people still get sick and lose loved ones – and not all happy people are efficient, creative or generous. But, other things being equal, happiness brings substantial advantages.
Perhaps the most powerful insight of all comes, not from the research, but from the responses I’ve heard from many hundreds of parents when asking them what they want above all for their children. Nearly all say something like: “I really just want them to be happy.”
Happiness is the thing we want most for the people we love the most. That’s why it matters so much.
Mon 3 Nov 2014 06.00 GMT
Published on “The Guardian”