6 lessons from the 2015 World Happiness Report
Happiness is having a moment. Long the focus of inspirational life advice like “Don’t worry, be happy,” it is now the subject of serious research and even government policies, as researchers noted in the 2015 World Happiness Report.
“Growing awareness of the possibilities for well-being-based measurement and policy have led an increasing number of national and local governments to use happiness data and research in their search for policies that could enable people to live better lives,” said the authors, a group of independent experts who prepared the report for the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.
In the report, “happiness” is the term researchers use to refer to subjective well-being, which is influenced by factors like physical health, financial security and social support systems. Well-being was measured through an individual assessment of quality of life: participants were asked to evaluate their lives on a scale from zero (worst possible life) to 10.
Although the report’s authors admit that this measure — and the study of happiness more generally — strikes many as simplistic, they said its implications are immense, noting how countries like Germany, South Korea and Great Britain, as well as communities like Santa Monica, California, are investing financial and political resources into the search for a more satisfied population.
The Sustainable Development Solutions Network works in partnership with the United Nations. The 2015 World Happiness Report is targeted at policymakers, who have the power to fund additional research projects or support social programs.
The report highlights six key determinants of subjective well-being — GDP per capita, life expectancy, social support, trust, perceived freedom to make life decisions and generosity — as potential areas for policies to center around, noting that they explain almost three quarters of the variation in life evaluations between countries.
According to happiness researchers, these national- and community-level suggestions also hold lessons for individuals, who can distill the report’s guidelines into easy-to-follow steps to a happier life.
Here are the six drivers of happiness, along with advice from well-being experts about the pursuit of happiness:
1. Budget with well-being in mind
In the World Happiness Report, GDP per capita was one of the strongest predictors of people’s life evaluations.
Beyond earning a promotion or coming into an inheritance, people rarely have an opportunity to increase their financial resources overnight. But they can control the way they spend the money they do have, said Jill Liberman, author of “Choose Happy: Your Go-to-Guide for Living a Happier Life.”
She said she likes to assess potential purchases on a “happiness scale,” buying only the items that bring positive energy to her life.
“Don’t buy things with the goal of impressing other people,” she said. Instead, focus on purchases that help you live out your passion or bring you closer to others, like a vacation or a meal with friends at a favorite restaurant.
Liberman’s philosophy of happiness includes planning something every day to look forward to, which requires creating space in her budget for little treats.
“Things like coffee with a friend or reading a new book … really affect someone’s happiness,” she said.
Her advice echoed previous research on the value of purchasing experiences rather than material goods. “Experiences tend to make people happier because they are less likely to measure the value of their experiences by comparing them to those of others,” reported The Atlantic in 2013.
2. Eat healthy foods and exercise often
Another key happiness influencer was healthy life expectancy, or the number of years a baby born in a given country can be expected to live in good health.
Because it’s driven by national health care policies and medical resources, the healthy life expectancy rate won’t change based on an individual’s diet plan or exercise routine, said Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University and the author of “Healthy Brain, Happy Life.” But the link between physical wellness and overall well-being can still inspire people to take their health seriously.
“Everybody realizes that exercise is good for the brain and body. Motivation is the big issue,” she said.
Suzuki’s book describes a variety of ways to trick the brain into getting excited about exercise, easing people’s journey to better health and higher happiness levels.
“One of my favorite pieces of advice is for people to choose a song that makes their foot tap. While that song is playing, climb the stairs or dance around your living room,” Suzuki said. “It’s one of those simple ways to get people moving.”
And putting good food in your body can encourage positive energy to come out, Liberman noted.
“Eating healthy affects a person’s mood and energy levels,” she said.
3. Seek out social support
In the World Happiness Report, social support, which the researchers defined as “having someone to count on in times of trouble,” had nearly as powerful an impact on life evaluations as GDP per capita.
In light of this finding, people should commit to finding opportunities to leave the house and connect with others, even when the couch and a new season of a favorite TV show is calling, Liberman said.
“You have to open yourself up to new people and opportunities,” she said, noting that the process doesn’t have to be uncomfortable. “Try socializing with people who have common interests,” by heading to a dog park with your puppy or joining a book club.
Julie Rusk, Assistant Director of Community and Cultural Services for the City of Santa Monica, echoed Liberman, noting that she and her team work to support and publicize the kind of events that convince people to get out and socialize.
Through her work with The Wellbeing Project, Santa Monica’s city-wide effort to boost individual happiness, Rusk has highlighted the way small habits like chatting with neighbors and smiling at strangers can boost happiness in big ways.
“We want (community members) to think about the small things they can do to improve their sense of feeling good,” Rusk said.
The Wellbeing Project’s website includes activity suggestions for people hoping to form new friendships in the community, which include hosting a block party, volunteering or spending an hour or two at a farmers market.
Rusk believes one of the initiative’s biggest strengths is its ability to promote events that get people out of their homes and into the community.
“Local government is particularly well-suited to think in some new ways about how to improve social connections,” she said.
4. Finding reasons for optimism
The fourth factor named in The World Happiness Report is trust, or the way citizens characterize their country’s government and business leaders. It was measured with survey questions on the presence of corruption.
Of the six determinants of happiness named in the report, trust in leadership is likely the most complicated to nurture at an individual level, because individual citizens rarely have the power to influence the culture that surrounds them, said Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist and happiness consultant.
However, she noted that people can work to support a spirit of optimism in themselves, balancing bad news with more hopeful messages.
“You can think about what you’re putting in your brain” and focus on nurturing positive energy, Lombardo added. “Where you focus your attention sets the stage for your day.”
5. Acknowledge autonomy
A positive mindset is also involved in the fifth determinant of happiness, which the researchers called autonomy. The term refers to a perceived freedom to live the way you want to live, including the ability to direct your own career path and follow your passions.
A sense of autonomy enables people to find their purpose in life and pursue it, which Rusk described as another essential aspect of living a happy life.
“I think there is very real empirical evidence that, as people live lives that feel purposeful, they are going to thrive,” she said.
6. Cultivate a generous spirit
The final variable included in the World Happiness Report is generosity, or charitable contributions to others.
Studies have long shown that donating money boosts individual well-being, especially when people channel their generosity to the causes about which they feel most passionate, as The Huffington Post reported in 2013.
In addition to pulling out their pocketbooks, people should be inspired by this finding to be more generous in general, including with their time and attention, Lombardo noted.
“True happiness is about purpose and meaning and connection and contribution,” she said, highlighting how her own pursuit of happiness has made her a more compassionate person.
“When I go to the grocery store, I always look at the cashier and say, ‘Thank you,'” she said. “It doesn’t take any time at all, but it helps people feel more connected.”
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