Life is, to many people, mysterious and even miraculous. For us all, existence comes to an end proverbially rapidly. En route to death, and perhaps in contemplation of it, many will experience existential angst, cosmic loneliness and a search for meaning. Challenges and difficulties will be encountered by everyone. As former prime minister Julia Gillard remarked to her supporters after being deposed, shit happens.
Linking us all in the face of certain death and inevitable misfortune is the desire, and arguably the need, to be happy. Happiness is a notion we all grasp, but one that can be hard to define. It is a state that can be elusive – and then devilishly difficult to maintain. It is hugely important to the quality of our brief existence, and for many is central to the very purpose and meaning of life.
Today’s guest in The Zone is regarded as the world’s leading researcher into happiness, psychologist and author Professor Ed Diener, of the University of Illinois. He is one of the founders of positive psychology and has studied ”subjective wellbeing” for about a quarter of a century. The professor’s influence and disposition are suggested by his nicknames – Dr Happiness and Dr Happy.
He was recently in Melbourne, along with the Dalai Lama and others, to give a speech at the eighth Happiness & Its Causes conference, an annual event run by a range of organisations including Monash, Sydney, Deakin and RMIT universities, and the Brain and Mind Research Institute.
The full transcript of our conversation, and a short video statement by Diener, is here. He will be online today for an hour from 11am to respond to questions.
Let’s start with Diener’s definition of happiness. ”What we mean by happiness or subjective wellbeing is people’s evaluations of their life; how they feel about it and how they appraise it. … One way is to just sit back and think about life and wonder is my life as it should be – that is life satisfaction.
”Another way that people respond to their life and evaluate it is through their emotional system: I enjoy my life, I love my life, I am very happy and joyful. Or I am angry, I am depressed, I am sad and worried. And that means that you don’t like your life. So you talk about happiness as thinking and feeling going together … Emotions tend to be more momentary and come and go to some extent and life satisfaction is longer term, but both are about whether you really like your life.”
There is a difference between happiness and contentment; contentment is related to happiness but is more associated with an absence of worry, with an acceptance of circumstances. It’s what Diener calls a low-arousal positive state. High-arousal positive states include excitement, ecstasy and euphoria.
Happiness involves a melange of positive feelings, emotions and thoughts.
What is less evident, of course, is how one might successfully seek happiness. And there is no one-size-fits-all answer; it depends on the individual and on circumstances.
But through his clinical and academic research, Diener has identified some routes to happiness. He uses a range of methods including interviewing people and those they are close to, brain scans, immune response and cardiovascular performance (happy people are healthier) and cognitive testing.
”We find that every happy person has close, supportive relationships – without exception. This is very unusual in psychology. Without exception close, supportive, trusting, respectful relationships are crucial. You need to feel respected and respect other people. You can build those and you can build on those relationships by being grateful, by helping other people, by taking care of them and they are going to take care of you.”
Beyond the pivotal element of relationships, Diener and his colleagues have found other fundamental components of happiness.
One is to have a long-term purpose. He says one of the best ways to be happy is, paradoxically, to not worry too much about being happy, but to focus instead on a goal. Another common route to happiness, Diener has repeatedly found, is mastery of a skill.
Then there is discipline – forming mental habits that lead to a positive outlook on life. Yes, that is right: the world’s leading expert on happiness says we can choose to be happy. ”Over time you can start building a new mental habit that says I am going to look at the positive, and I’m going to see how I can overcome things and once I’ve done what I can do I am going to move on. I am not going to allow my mind to keep coming back to that.”
He says, too, there is a genetic element in happiness, but that it is not central, partly because people can indeed develop these positive habits.
He is not some unrealistically jolly academic, some proselytising Pollyanna, and fully realises that circumstances beyond our control can be a barrier to happiness. But he is saying the evidence shows that happiness is largely a function of outlook, and that we can get into the habit of not complaining unduly, of not criticising other people all the time, of not focusing on negatives.
This is directly related to resilience. ”Resilience is your ability to bounce back from bad things. All of us have bad things in our lives. Some of us have had worse things, but all of us are going to have problems … Resilience is the fact that, yes, those things bother you, and they make you sad briefly, but then you bounce back.
”How do you bounce back? You bounce back by saying these things happen to everyone and I am going to move on and I am going to deal with the problem to the extent I can. And what I can’t change, I’m going to live with and reset my goals and move on in life.
”The people who are able to say that are the people who are really going to be happy, because if we wait for no problems to happen in our life [that] is not going to happen to any of us, so none of us would be happy. So [resilience] is really the ability to move beyond problems.”
Marriage and children are not necessarily a source of happiness, the research shows. People experience a spike in happiness immediately after the birth of a child, but data demonstrates that parents are not happier in the long run.
Similarly, married people do not necessarily find happiness through their union. Divorce rates are clear evidence of this.
Diener says his research has important social and industrial policy implications . At a national level, he would like to see governments measuring subjective wellbeing. Many countries are setting up such measures, including Australia, as was examined in a former episode of The Zone.
At an organisational level, happy people are more productive and creative. They are also healthier; happiness and health work in a virtuous circle, each a cause and effect of the other.
”Companies with more satisfied and engaged workers have lower turnover, they have lower health care costs, they have more loyal customers … The workers are not going to quit as much, and lower turnover means that you have lower cost hiring new people and you also have a more experienced workforce.
”Happy people take fewer phoney sick days – that is, calling in sick because they want to skip work. The bottom line is that the share prices of the company, productivity, output; all those indicators are higher if you have engaged, satisfied and happy workers.”
It transpired during our conversation that Diener and I have both for decades been using the same test when evaluating whether we and others are happy.
It’s this: ask yourself or someone else what are the top 10 things you like to do. Then ask when you last did those things. While there can be compelling reasons why we are not doing what we like – caring for someone, investing time in study or other intensive projects – it’s often the case unhappiness is caused by neglecting to do these things.
Crucially, almost without exception those lists contain an overwhelming majority of pastimes that do not require money.
Which leads to a final, fundamental finding of Diener’s many have worked out for themselves but that many others, perhaps conditioned by relentless advertising, apparently have not: money does not cause happiness. Beyond a certain relatively low level, the accumulation of material and financial wealth does not add to wellbeing. It just wastes precious time and energy that could be spent on the relationships and simple pleasures proven to make us happy.