What is happiness about?
I stumbled upon this question again and again in my current term paper on “status goods”. Status goods are products that we buy primarily because they give us prestige and status. Thus, the new Chanel handbag, the new BMW, or the yacht is a status symbol, which is often associated with the buyers with happiness. But how can one measure happiness and satisfaction at all? And do status symbols make us really happy?
Are our genes to blame?
In fact, there are indications that many of our genes are also preprogrammed for our sense of happiness. In a recent study, researchers show that the processing of the messenger substance serotonin, which is one of our happiness hormones, makes up a large part of the feeling of happiness. We can hardly influence this with our way of life. This is a small component of our sense of happiness. But, a disorder is unlikely and often leads to depression. Situation-dependent factors such as our way of life have a very important and strong influence on our well-being.
Reader’s Digest magazine has conducted a worldwide online survey in ten countries with 6800 participants. Amongst others, Germany, the US, Romania, Finland, and Brazil took part. Participants should choose between family, community, faith, and work, identifying which of these four factors has the greatest impact on their personal happiness. In Germany, the family was the most important with 70 %, followed by 13 % faith, 9% community and 8 % work. In contrast, in the US with 32 % faith played the biggest role. Considering family, Hungary was the leader with 83 %.
Our life situation has the biggest impact on our well-being
We spend a lot of our time at work and, therefore, there is a great opportunity to influence our happiness. Above all, stress, pressure, mobbing, and discrimination have a negative effect. Positive effects are often flexible working hours, a good working atmosphere, and the opportunity to make independent decisions: autonomy and freedom. So, it is not surprising that worries about the job and unemployment can plunge us into misfortune.
Relationships are the balancing factor for so much. Our social environment is made up of friends, acquaintances, and our family. It has the biggest impact on our life satisfaction. Studies show us that it makes us happy to help others. The feeling of belonging to a group of people can make us happy, too. This is also a possible explanation of why people tend to buy status goods: By purchasing a status symbol, you personally add yourself to a particular group and differentiate yourself from another.
Knowing and standing by your own strengths and weaknesses also makes up a large part of our satisfaction. Furthermore, it makes us happier if we do not constantly compare ourselves with other people. Happiness can also be contagious – we surround ourselves with happy people, this can rub off on us, as shown by numerous studies.
What makes us happy?
According to a FORSA 2016 study, the 1000 Germans surveyed said that 77 % feel happy when their too-tight clothes fit again. 93% of respondents associate time with their loved ones with happiness. 9 out of 10 are looking forward to a full savings account and 85% say that hearing children laugh makes them happy. 2/3 see sports as a contributor to happiness – so do I. I love the feeling of soreness and being able to really pump myself out – I can not remember that I’ve ever come home from sports in a bad mood. I have already explained to you here that doing sports is also effective against depression.
Happiness and satisfaction can not be measured or counted as easily as money, temperature or meters. But there are several indicators for happiness. Each of us has our own moments of happiness and things that make us happy. This can be a hot bubble bath in a sea of candles, the first wearing of summer shoes after a long winter, butterflies in one’s stomach, the first kiss, or a walk on the dream beach during vacation.
What are the main study results?
The most important study on happiness is the Harvard Medical School’s long-term study in Boston Massachusetts, which has been running since 1938 (79 years!) and covers 724 Americans. Here you can see a presentation of the current director of the study and psychiatrist Robert Waldinger. The research goal is the search for what happiness means to the participants. It was divided into two groups, which are interviewed every two years and whose life stories, health status, and career development are analyzed: the Glueck Study and the Grant Study.
The Glueck study included 456 men who had grown up in the poorer areas of Boston. The Grant study included 268 Harvard graduates. Many participants have died in the meantime, but around 60 participants still live. A second-generation study with more than 2,000 children of the original participants is currently on its way.
Relationships have a big impact on our feeling of happiness
From this study we see: Love and friendship have very positive effects on our mental well-being and our health. An extremely large part of our happiness make interpersonal relationships. Good relationships make us healthier and happier. Again, quality is more important than quantity. It is also important that even quarrels and conflicts are part of a good relationship, as well as the feeling of truly relying on one another when it matters. The biggest sources of misfortune are loneliness and lack of relationships. This can be measured not only in perceived unhappiness, but also in health: The health status of unhappy people is measurably worse in old age, their brain functions tend to decrease faster and they die earlier.
What does this study show us? It shows us what many of us already know: What makes us truly and sustainably happy can not be bought with money. A dream vacation is not the same if you have to spend it alone. This is also shown by the “World Happiness Report” (WHR): Wealth is no guarantee for a happy life.
Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.Robert Waldinger
My personal lucky charms
The most beautiful memories in my life I have not done alone, but with friends or my family. Maybe it’s the Christmas time, which makes me a bit thoughtful, maybe my term paper put the idea in my head. At the end of the day, friendships and good relationships are the reason why we are happy and you should never take a friendship for granted. But we should never expect others to make us happy – that’s our own job!
Especially in the context of my term paper, I have always wondered what makes me personally happy. These are very different things: I love sunsets by the sea, the sound of the sea, and the sun on my skin. I love to see my little niece and my nephew and hear their carefree laugh. Time with my friends and traveling makes me very happy – especially the combination of both. Hugs, security, but also freedom and sport make me infinitely happy. Also, many things that we often take for granted play a big role for me as a “lucky charm”. Often, we realize our happiness when health and safety are missing. Material things are very unimportant to me. Let’s be honest: Does the fourth handbag really make us happier than the three before that? Even after 3 weeks?
The problem with prosperity
In 1978, Richard A. Easterlin showed that more income does not make us happier and even on the contrary can result from a certain, individual threshold. Then, we tend to realize that you cannot buy everything with money. He has shown in several studies and papers over the last 40 years that our definition of wealth, even at the national level, does not include life satisfaction. Thus, Easterlin shows that the gross domestic product as a measure of prosperity has quintupled in China in the last 25 years. On the other hand, the perceived life-satisfaction has not increased, has even fallen in the first 15 years, and has now reached its original level from 25 years ago. This shows that the gross domestic product as a measure of prosperity only takes the economic side into account. The individual, the human component is neglected.
All studies have one thing in common: Intimacy with other people, sports, social contacts, a demanding and promoting workplace and culture are our most important factors of happiness. So, if you do not know what to give your sweethearts to the Feast of Love: Spend some time with them, this is the greatest and truest gift of all.
Merry Christmas to all of you!
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Here’s the scientific evidence this blog post is based on
Bolino, M. C./Grant, A. M. 2016: The Bright Side of Being Prosocial at Work, and the Dark Side, Too: A Review and Agenda for Research on Other-Oriented Motives, Behavior, and Impact on Organizations, in: The Academy of Management Annals, 2016.
Easterlin, R. A. 1995: Will raising the incomes of all increase the happiness of all?, in: Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, Vol. 27, 1995, pp. 35-47.
Easterlin, R. A./Morgan, R./Switek, M./Wang, F. 2012: China’s life satisfaction, 1990-2010, in: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, Vol. 109, 2012, No. 25, pp. 9775-9780.
Fowler, J. H./Christakis, N. A. 2008: Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study, in: BMJ, 2008.
Minkov, M./Bond, M. H. 2017: A Genetic Component to National Differences in Happiness, in: Journal of Happiness Studies, Vol. 18, 2017, No. 2, pp. 321-340.
World Happiness Report 2017