‘Tis the season to be jolly again, and a good moment to check our happiness stock. Whether it is up or down may depend, according to various experts, on what country we live in, whether our income rose lately, whether we are recently married, rearing children or “child-free”, and whether we go to church — to name only a few variables in the happiness stakes. For teenagers, happiness levels should be high, given that exams are over, and about to rise with the appearance of the latest cellphone or iPod under the Christmas tree.
As children and teens know better than their elders, perhaps, happiness has a lot to do with anticipation. But even for adults, it is the prospect of a happy family celebration that makes the effort and often the tension of the run-up to Christmas worthwhile. Happiness, as researchers are now telling us, is perfectly consistent with a bit of strain.
They have discovered that what makes people happy moment by moment has little to do with their general sense of wellbeing or satisfaction with their lives. Ask mum when she is cooking the Christmas turkey in a sweltering southern hemisphere kitchen how happy she is and she may tell you to get lost. Ask her later when she is seated at the table collecting compliments on the delicious meal and — well, you will hardly need to ask. Her smiles will tell you everything.
The most important question about happiness, however, is the one you ask her next week, or next month, in this form: “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole these days?” When researchers ask this global question they get quite different answers to the responses people give about their passing moods. People tend to be happier than their bad moods indicate and less happy than their “highs”.
An interesting aspect of the research is how little difference money makes. As the consumerism rampant in western society shows, most people believe that material goods — and the higher income needed to purchase them — can make them happier. Yet surveys in richer countries where there have been large increases in real per capita income show that, on average, people are no happier with their lives than they were 40 years ago. [i]
Beyond a certain level, increases in income have little effect. Daniel Kahneman and colleagues in the United States found that although people with incomes over $90,000 were nearly twice as likely to report being “very happy” as those with incomes below $20,000, there was little difference between the high income group and those in the $50,000 to $89,999 bracket.
There are various reasons for this, but they boil down to the fact that material goods, after the initial burst of pleasure they bring, yield little joy to most individuals. The latest Xbox puts a smile on the faces of the kids for a couple of weeks, and after that they are as contented (or discontented) as they ever were. Something to keep in mind when doing your Christmas shopping.
Does this mean, as some scientists have suggested, that people have a “hedonic setpoint”, a fixed capacity for happiness that may even be genetically determined? [ii]This is not an idea all scientists are willing to accept, and there is one very obvious reason why: there are a lot of unhappy people in the world. In the rich world, that is. These are not just the people stuck in traffic jams at any given moment, but people who are chronically anxious and depressed, or angry and aggressive. Such people represent a burden on the health, welfare and justice systems, to say nothing of their subjective suffering.
In Britain, according to one expert, about 15 per cent of the population suffers from depression or anxiety, and more than a million mentally ill people receive incapacity benefits. Richard Layard, a member of the House of Lords, is an emeritus professor of economics and the government’s “happiness tsar”, as the British press like to call such people. His book, Happiness: Lessons from a new science, appeared earlier this year.
Lord Layard’s main lesson is, one gathers, that governments ought to pay much more attention to the wellbeing of people than to economic growth. Higher taxes on the wealthy (whose pursuit of higher incomes cannot increase their happiness anyway) should be used to provide proper therapy — not just drugs — for people who are depressed and anxious. This would require thousands more therapists but would benefit the sufferers and be cost-effective for the state in the long run.
Another of his ideas is to tackle incipient unhappiness early in life. To this end he has approved a pilot scheme for British schools in which teachers will give happiness lessons to 11-year-olds, using role play and breathing exercises — among other things — to teach the children how to build self-esteem and keep calm in the face of traumas like their parents divorcing. The teachers are being trained by leading American happiness specialist Professor Martin Seligman. Since at least 10 per cent of children in the UK are said to suffer from severe depression, this is certainly worth a try.
Predictably, not everyone is happy with the idea of the government making happiness obligatory, and increasing taxes to do so. It seems that the UK is following the example of Bhutan, where Gross National Happiness is an official goal. Tobacco is banned in the tiny Himalayan kingdom, no doubt decreasing the pleasure of many citizens while increasing their incomes and therefore their net happiness. At the same time advertising is banned, sparing them the temptations and frustrations of consumerism. According to one survey Bhutan is the world’s eighth happiest place.
Ranking countries according to happiness levels is one of the favourite tasks of researchers and polling organisations, but one should take the results with a grain of salt. In surveys that measure wealth, health and education, Denmark tends to come out at the top. According to one researcher a major reason would be that Danes have few children. “Children have a constant, negative effect on human happiness and the quality of marriage,” says Dutch sociologist Ruut Veenhoven. Hmmm.
A survey that emphasises ecological values puts Vanuatu — a rather poor, Pacific island nation — at the top, followed by Colombia — a country that has suffered a 40-year civil war. Perhaps they were surveying the flora and fauna in those places.
Another angle on this question is given by a recent poll on optimism that asked adults in 20 countries: Are you personally optimistic or pessimistic about the prospects for your own personal quality of life during the next decade? India and Saudi Arabia topped that poll, with 97 per cent of people optimistic, followed by Egypt with 93 per cent optimistic, then Mexico (88 per cent), Australia and South Korea (86 per cent). The lowest numbers came in France (52 per cent), Turkey (51 per cent), Japan (43 per cent) and Germany (42 per cent).

Well, economic growth outlook probably accounts for a lot of that. But there is another factor. Taken overall, 60 per cent of respondents who expressed optimism in the future also said that religion was very important to their daily lives. Conversely, 63 per cent of respondents who felt pessimistic about their outlook thought religion is simply not that significant. Now there’s an inexpensive alternative to Lord Layard’s 10,000 therapists: teaching children the reason for the Christmas season.
Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet.

[i] “Would You Be Happier If You Were Richer? A Focusing Illusion,” Daniel Kahneman et al, Science, Vol 312, 2006
[ii] “Well-being research: A measure of happiness,” Tony Reichhardt, Nature, November 22, 2006

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet