The pursuit of happiness is as old as humankind. Only recently, science and researchers have begun to examine what exactly makes us happy. While money and material wealth can bring great happiness to people in poorer countries, wealth has not had such power in the Western world.
The search for happiness is fundamental and innate. Even babies respond with happiness or unhappiness to certain stimuli that our brains are wired to respond to.
Happy people are less likely to suffer from disease and health problems like heart attacks and more likely to have stronger bones and better skin.
But what is happiness about and how can you become happier?
The influence the brain has on happiness
Most believe that happiness is a mysterious phenomenal feeling or state being that can be measured and explained. But there are several scientific ways to measure happiness.
In most studies, the participants are asked simply how happy they are with their life in general. A question being asked is: How would you say things are right now for you? Would you say you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?
The data of such studies show that the average rate of US citizens' happiness hasn't significantly increased since 1945.
By using EEG, for instance, they were able to identify certain areas of the brain that were active when we were happy or encountered things that are assorted with increased happiness, like receiving a gift or compliment from people they like.
Such studies reveal that positive feelings such as joy, pride, or gratefulness usually come from the activity in the left frontal area of the brain. In comparison, negative emotions like fear, anxiety, or anger are linked with the right frontal area.
The EGG approach even works with infants; when they suck on sweet food, their left frontal brain area is activated. On the other hand, a sour taste leads to greater activity in the right frontal area.
It is even possible to directly induce human emotion. Experiments have demonstrated that stimulating the left front part of the brain with a strong magnet can automatically lift a person's mood.
Does happiness affect your health?
Being happy doesn't only put a smile on your face; it also benefits your physical health.
Whenever we experience positive emotions, our brains release certain neurotransmitters, also known as happiness hormones. They have been shown to affect many of our bodily functions positively.
Being happy results in greater levels of these hormones. It also leads to lower stress levels of the hormone cortisol. Cortisol has a negative impact on our immune system and causes us to age more rapidly, and actually thins our skin and weakens our bones. Increasing one's happiness means less and less stress which results in better health.
Happy people have a stronger immune system which prevents them from catching a common cold and other diseases. And if happy people do become sick, they tend to recover faster and also experience fewer symptoms than unhappy people.
It also decreases the risk of suffering from more severe health conditions. A Longitudinal study showed that happier people have a lower risk of a heart attack. There was also a lower risk of developing restricted blood flow in their arteries. That is a high-risk factor for heart attacks.
Exercise happiness tends to have an extremely positive effect on our health and general well-being. Many examples prove happiness doesn't just feel good; it is also good for your health
The choices you make
Think about the last time you made a decision. Ask yourself What led you to make that particular choice?
Like most people, you probably choose the option that leads to your greatest happiness and well-being. No matter deciding what to eat for dinner and what job to take, or your next holiday destination.
The pursuit of happiness is the desire to be safe and well. It is one of the main innate drivers of our behavior. This is developed over the course of human evolution, so our ancestors can differentiate between good and bad behavior for their survival and reproduction.
For instance, eating foods rich in calories made them feel happy, as did mating. Today, most of the things that bring us happiness are also eating, sex, good friendships were crucial for human survival, and the transfer of genes from generation to generation.
Similar to those things that cause us unhappiness, like hunger, thirst, loneliness, or being poisoned, was important for our survival. We developed emotions to signal that we should avoid situations that would cause unhappiness.
Taking fear helped our ancestors avoid dangerous situations such as facing a predator and preventing the risk of being killed. The ancestor's capacity to experience fear in their hostile environment was an essential survival attribute.
Both the pursuit of happiness and the voice of unhappiness were part of the survival strategy of our ancestors. The pursuit of happiness remains a strong element of our behavior today. Very few face the risk of being devoured by tigers.
Did the happiness of people increase over time?
As Western societies have progressed in many ways, we believe that our happiness has increased too. Yet since the 1950s, most people in the Western world haven't gotten any happier.
The average income in the United States has doubled since then as well as the average standard of living. But surveys show they haven't found that more people describe themselves as happy. Clearly, the increase in wealth didn't automatically lead to increased happiness.
This can also be seen in many European countries where the average income continues to grow, yet it doesn't appear to make people happier.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, statics state that crime has increased significantly. Between 1950-1980 crime increased by over 30 percent in most countries despite the strong economic growth and an exceptionally low unemployment rate of the times. This includes all types of crime like fraud, violence, car theft, burglary, etc.
Because of the increase in crime, people reported that they felt unsafe in their cities and trusted other people less. This decrease in happiness is evident that the disintegration of families was more common.
Why comparison and competition affect your happiness
Would you rather live in a world where you earn more than today but less than everyone else or where you earn less than today though more than everyone else?
Most people would prefer the latter choice to live.
Humans are a competitive species that compare themselves to their siblings, neighbors, and colleagues. The abuse figure on your patch doesn't really lead to greater happiness, but having a higher income than other people makes a difference.
This is because people who earn more than their colleagues feel more likely respected and valuable. In comparison, those who earn less than others tend to feel worthless and unhappy.
In a society where individuals are encouraged to compete with each other many people feel as if they are in a rat race. It is a seemingly endless pursuit where individuals try to outperform others who attempt to outperform them as well.
The result is no one gets anywhere.
Why does Money only bring temporary happiness?
Like every animal, humans quickly adapt to new stimuli, environments, and circumstances. We get used to new people in our lives like a new spouse, used to becoming parents, and also having a bigger house or a higher income.
It is the reason why winning the lottery, getting a bonus check at work, or finding a new job that offers more money only brings temporary happiness. Even though you archived something positive in your life, the good emotion you get fade when you become used to the new status quo.
Ultimately, you feel only as happy as you were before your fortune. Becoming accustomed to any gains in life, for example, the higher standard of living drives you to want more of everything just so you experience another small but temporary boost of happiness that will you long for the next.
As a result, you end up needing more and more just to maintain the same level of happiness. We are drawn to work more so we can earn more and consume more. This is all to maintain permanent happiness. But because we get used to everything we gain, this approach simply doesn't work.
Similar to any drug, a little kick or hit is a short life, and a simple high doesn't last forever. It cannot lead to permanent happiness. It is like the metaphor of trying to win a race by running faster than realizing you are actually running in a hamster wheel.
Or what Alice learns from the Red Queen: "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"
More wealthy doesn't always mean more happiness
On average, People living in wealthier nations of the Western world are happier than those living in poorer developing countries.
It shows in countries that once were much poorer but gained some wealth in recent decades like South Korea, India, Mexico and Brazile, and South Korea. In these countries, the average wealth increased so did the people's reported level of happiness.
The reason is simple being poor and fearing for your life because lacking the material basis to sustain your family is hugely detrimental to happiness.
Increasing people's income in extreme poverty leads to increased happiness because getting rid of this lack of basic needs for survival results in greater pain being lifted.
For example, if an increase in wealth means you don't have to worry about your children starving to death every day, it will relieve you from a heavy burden and dramatically increase your happiness.
But as you saw, wealth and happiness don't necessarily go hand in hand. Past a certain point, the positive effect of money on happiness comes to a halt.
The lesson is clear: in the poorest countries, money can increase happiness in the Western world, where most people have a satisfactory level of wealth, money isn't the key to archive the greatest number of happiness.
What is the key? How can we increase happiness in the West in the long term?
What are the key factors of happiness?
Since the World Values Survey asked more than 350.000 people in 50 countries about their general happiness. The result shows that the following five factors have the strongest influence on our overall well-being:
- Family relationships and close private life
- Our financial situation, especially for that at-risk poverty
- Work as something gives our life a purpose
- Community and friends as trust sources and belonging
- Our health is especially for people suffering from severe illnesses and cases of mental disorders.
Many studies indicate that family is the most important factor in our happiness more than our financial situation. For instance, those going through a divorce have become two times unhappiness than those losing 30 percent of one's income. Also, married people have been shown to live far longer and enjoy much healthier lives.
The work and social environment also have been shown to have a strong impact on our well-being. Losing a job is often a devesting experience leading to lower self-confidence and self-worth. These losses are far more impacting on someone's well-being than the loss of only income.
Our work and the community we belong to give our lives purpose. Ture companionship and a sense of belonging are two of the most positive things people can experience in their lives.
Aside from health, two other factors appear to have a big impact on personal freedom and personal value. People who live in stable and peaceful countries and are free to pursue their interests are happier than those living in restricted societies. And Humans who have their own personal values also appear to be happier.
For example, those with positive philosophies of life, such as religious people who value their life and appreciate what they have.
How politics can improve happiness
Even though martial wealth steadily increased, people haven't become happier in the last fifty years.
One reason might be that governments are simply pursuing the wrong objective. The central goal in all Western societies is economic growth in the past decades, while factors that are important for our happiness like family, friends, and health are often left out. Even though this belief has been outdated for a long time, Western governments still believe that people will be better off if the economy grows.
It seemed quite suiting when you followed the Second World War, where many people were poor and desired material wealth using a country's GDP as the main indicator of its population well-being. But in today's world, the health of a Western country's GDP doesn't correspond to the people's happiness, needs, and desires.
Politicians should attempt to discover what today's people actually need rather than satisfy the needs of long passed generations. The fixation on increasing material wealth should be abandoned. We learned that we already have almost everything we need for a happier life like family, social bonds, and meaningful work.
If this seems unrealistic to you, just take a look at the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. Since the 1970s, the main objective of Buthan wasn't the gross national product but the gross national happiness. Burhans wealth is redistributed in order to minimize extreme poverty and status competition among the population.
The result is that the people of Bhutan appear far happier than people living elsewhere.
Can taxes make you happier?
Most people probably answer no when asked if they agree that greater happiness can be reached by increasing taxation.
But consider what would happen if taxes were high and got higher the more people earned. The people would be discouraged from seeking happiness where it can't be found!
A higher progressive income tax would lead humans to work less and devote more time to their families and other proven sources of happiness. It would also discourage them from focusing on money which isn't the path to increased happiness. Higher progressive taxation would also reduce people's competitive drive and diminish their tendency to compare themselves to each other.
Working fewer hours and focusing less on money can enable greater happiness. We already work more than is good for us and spend too little time on things that truly matter for our well-being, such as spending time with family and friends. Higher taxation could cause many people to archive a much healthier work-life balance.
The higher taxation would make it useless to hunt for the next high, and therefore we would avoid the unhappiness that results from the fleeting pleasure we might gain. Higher taxes make the extra work necessary to win a small raise seem pointless. However, it makes it easier to spend more time outside of work.
The drive to compete with others in terms of income is a zero-sum game: When one gains the advantage, another loses, and the overall effect of happiness is zero. Taxes make it difficult to earn more than others effectively and put a stop to the rat race making greater happiness possible for all.
Where Government should focus on improving happiness
As mentioned, the primary source of happiness is family. It is why governments need to make, for example, a working environment more family-friendly by having flexible working hours and parental leaving and establishing mandatory child care in offices and so on.
A proven way to encourage people to spend more time with those who make them happy is to reduce commute time and switching of workplaces. Always being on the move makes it harder for people to have stable relationships and friendships and to belong to a functioning community truly.
The government could offer incentives that encourage people to remain close to family and friends. They should also try to minimize the unemployment rate because it causes unhappiness and damages self-esteem. Also, if people fear unemployment, they work hard to avoid it, which harms society as a whole. So governments that want citizens to be happy should ensure that the unemployed are offered jobs.
Politicians should also prioritize the prevention and treatment of mental disorders because they are one of the greatest sources of unhappiness and still don't get enough attention. For example, in the US, only 7 percent of health care funds is given to mental health; also, in European countries like Germany with 11 percent or the UK with 13 percent, the situation isn't any better.
Finally, the government should invest more in better children's education. Most important in-school lessons about moral values and emotional intelligence are known to increase happiness. It should be a mandatory part of education.
What is the Key to Happiness?
Happiness isn't given; it is something you can archive and isn't as difficult as you might think. You don't need to be swimming in money, visit all the wonders in the world, or go to expensive yoga retreats to feel great about life. All you need is the following secrets.
Early in life, you might be taught that happiness comes only after doing a considerable amount of great work and a huge success. But this lesson is responsible for many people's unhappiness because the equation actually works the other way around.
It leads to the first secret of happiness, which is success, and great work comes from people who are already happy. Happiness shouldn't be something you chase, like getting a raise at work is only 10 percent of personal happiness. The rest comes from within and is based on seeing the world in a positive light.
To recognize everyday happiness, you can do a 20-minute replay before going to bed. It is a simple practice that involves daily journal writing down at least one thing that made you happy during the day. This will not only help you recognize future moments of happiness. It will also allow you to relive happiness at the end of the day.
Another important contributor is motivation which is the second secret of happiness. Do things because you love doing them, not because of external goals and rewards or what other people think.
When your motivation is money or admiration, it is a never-ending cycle of unhappiness. Even if you reach your goal, it will only be a fleeting moment of happiest before you feel the need to set another goal.
Take an author who likes posting happy details daily for a thousand workdays on his blog. When the site becomes more popular, he sets new goals to want to reach one million and then ten million visitors. Then he wanted to publish a book that became a bestseller. But there was simply no end.
He was chasing happiness that didn't and couldn't last. So he resolved the problem by only doing things for the sheer joy of doing them.
How does your brain affect negative and positive thoughts
There is no escaping from negative thoughts. They show up no matter how positive your outlook on life is.
If you try to fight these thoughts, you may feel like a battle is raging in your head. Actually, this is not wrong; there is a battle between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex parts of the brain.
The amygdala is very old and is always on high alert, scanning every situation for potential problems and threats. While it kept people alive in the past generation, the amygdala still sets off alarm bells even when the threat is an upcoming presentation.
The prefrontal cortex, developed more recently, tries to counter these worries with rational thought and comforting logic. Still, the amygdala often wins the battle keeping us anxious and unhappy.
Another battle we constantly fight is a conflict between feelings of self-worth and doubt about how we are compared to others. This might happen when you see the neighbor's new car. First, you are fine, and then suddenly you feel miserable about your life because you can't afford a new car.
It might not always be possible to calm your amygdala when for example, making your public speaking debut, but there are reliable ways to deal with envy and discontent.
This is the third secret which is about putting things in the right perspective. So don't forget how lucky you are to be alive in the first place.
Remember that it is astounding that all the conditions necessary for human life developed on the earth came together. Out of the over 7 billion people alive today, there are 108 billion who have died, which means 14 out of every 15 people have ever been are deceased. Being alive is like winning some wild cosmic lottery.
Why should be productive even when retired
Do you look forward to hitting your retirement age and sitting back and enjoying the fruits of your labor? If you want to stay healthy and happy, the answer to the question should be "No!"
Retirement is a concept the Germans invented in 1889. It was the idea to open up the job market to younger people and let the ones let over 65 enjoy their final years.
It sounds like a noble idea, but it's no longer appropriate. While in 1889, the average lifespan was 67 years, today someone of the same age might still have a decade of healthy and active living ahead.
A study shows that healthy people have the desire to stay productive. And this is a good thing because being productive gives purpose and reason to get out of bed in the morning. The purpose is an important factor for happiness, and it is something people on the island of Okinawa in the East China Sea are familiar with.
The Okinawans have the highest life expected on earth without the concept or word for retirement. They have "ikigai," which roughly translates to "the reason to wake up in the morning and recognize it is vital to longevity and quality of life.
So don't let retirement steal your purpose in life, and remember that the fourth secret to happiness is staying productive and keeping your ikigai alive!
Why time is more important than money
It is a good feeling to be paid well for your work, but the dollar on the paycheck doesn't tell the whole story. An assistant store manager may earn less with $70000 per year than a Harvard graduate with an average of $120000 per year, but the store manager only worked 2500 hours per year while the graduate worked around 4250 hours per year.
They technically earn both 28$ per hour though the Harvard graduate works almost double the number of hours. So what do you value more the money on your paycheck or the time lost by working rather than doing things that you enjoy?
Time should be given a higher value in your life since we have little of it. You should acknowledge the fifth secret of happiness and overvalue your time.
It means being aware of how you spend your time and reconsidering how much your time is worth when you don't spend on things that give you purpose, meaning, and joy.
If you have trouble managing your time, try setting up a structure and divide your week into separate categories: Sleeping, Work, and Things you Love doing.
When you divide the 168 hours a week into those categories, you should get around 56 hours for all three. It should leave you well rested and feeling the benefit of a healthy work-life balance.
But for a Harvard student with 85 workweeks, it is a struggle to do anything other than work.
How to reduce your daily choices
Making decisions can be stressful and most average day is full of them. Also, every decision requires mental energy, which means it causes some level of stress. But you can reduce this stress and save time by increasing your productivity when you eliminate your choices.
For example, if you buy 30 identical pairs of socks, you don't need to choose, which saves time that adds up every week. It creates space to help you focus on things you really want to do that make you happy. This is what the sixth secret of happiness is all about.
To give yourself more time, you can also set yourself creative deadlines.
Say you have a writing assignment that is due in the week. You probably spend that entire amount of time researching and writing as well as worrying and procrastinating. But what if you made your own deadline of one week? It gives you no time to procrastinate, and you likely get to work immediately, and the chances that the quality of the work wouldn't suffer
Setting fake deadlines is just a way to make more time when it appears in short supply.
How to overcome your fear
When was the last time you crossed something off your bucket list? It's probably been a while. But what is stopping you from doing so? Usually, it is not the money or resources that prevent us from doing something. Rather, we set up barriers and fool ourselves into staying away from things that would make us happy.
The two typical barriers that keep us from happiness are the Can't do, and the Don't want to.
Thinking that you can't do something is an effective way to stop yourself from ever trying.
For example, Tom believed he couldn't swim because he had a bad experience as a child in the water, which led to creating this false belief that he couldn't do it.
There is another mind trick that convinces you that you actually don't want to do something. This creates a second barrier that often follows the first.
Tom came up with plenty of reasons to avoid swimming and told himself that it was a waste of time or there were other ways to exercise.
But such thoughts prevent you from experiencing the many joys life has to offer. Luckily, you can break through these barriers, which is the seventh secret to happiness.
Even it can be difficult to imagine yourself doing something that is unfamiliar and scary. Imagination is a crucial part of overcoming your fear. By using imagination and picturing yourself doing a frightening thing, your brain will start to get used to the idea.
The next step is to just dive in and do it. When Tom met his wife, a woman who loved swimming, he had to try it and overcome the barrier. He stopped thinking about excuses and signed up for a swimming lesson, and he never looked back.
Once he got in the water, his thinking changed, and a new belief formed he could swim. Soon after, he realized that he actually wanted to swim.
Why do you need to trust yourself?
If you have ever tried to be friendly with someone who is rude and hurtful, your problem is familiar with the pain and discomfort that come with not honoring your true emotions.
This brings us to the eighth secret of happiness be yourself.
The most important relationship you have in life isn't with anyone else. It is with yourself. But still, most people oversee this relationship and fail to live according to their true selves. They put on an act and do things they wouldn't do other than to either get respect from someone else to go up the career ladder.
To improve your authentic self, you can do the Saturday morning test. Asking yourself: "What would you do on a Saturday morning when you have no other obligations?" Do you love working out? Maybe you could become a personal trainer. Do you like writing? You can start writing for a blog or submitting articles to a magazine.
Whatever you answer, think it over and set yourself on the path to your true self. the more activities you find, the happier you can become.
The final secret to happiness is to trust your own thought and feelings and don't live according to the advice of others.
Every day you see ads, articles, experts, and friends that try to give you advice on how you live and be happy, and it isn't uncommon to run into such conflicts.
So if your wife or husband is cheating on you, one friend might tell you to immediately divorce while your mom tells you to try couples therapy and work things out.
Even a cliche like "good things come to those who wait" is contradictory.
Ultimately you are the only one who really knows your hopes and desire, and you are the only one with the right answers for your situation. To be happy, you can't always rely on advice from others; ask yourself what you really want and trust your feelings.
Wealth has steadily increased over the decades in the Western world, but people's overall happiness hasn't.To be happy, you need to stop chasing external goals like new cars or promotions, adopt the right mind, and have healthy habits.
So if we want to be truly happy, we need to stop focusing on acquiring wealth and start paying more attention to what actually makes us happier, like friends, family, meaningful work, and health.
For happiness, you need to realize that you already have everything you need. When you start doing things you love and being yourself, you can enjoy your life and live it to the fullest.