What makes us happy?
Scientifically proven insights on what determines our happiness are provided within ‘Happiness – Lessons from a new science’. The book is full of knowledge and sources for further reading. It contains sometimes unusual ideas of what we can do to live a more happy life. These claims are coming from a diverse range of research fields as for example psychology, neuroscience, economics, sociology and philosophy.
The ‘Big Seven’ causes of happiness
The book identifies seven areas which influence our level of happiness. Our level of happiness, it is argued, is always there and positive and negative influences cannot occur at the same time. We can either be happy or unhappy. Therefore, it seems logical that we can work either on decreasing our unhappiness or on increasing our happiness.
“Happiness begins where unhappiness ends”
The level of happiness we possess comes from within and is influenced by external factors. That means we are only partly able to influence our well-being in some of the seven causes. These are family, financial situation or income, work, community and friends, health, personal freedom, and personal values. On the one hand for example our genes are playing a role in how happy we are by determining the likelihood of diseases to break out. On the other hand we are free to choose our work, friends and environment.
How happy are we?
The most striking fact is that our happiness level over the last fifty years on average has not changed. People in the western world have become richer, have more purchasing power, can afford to buy more things – but their happiness has not increased. Layard argues that our need for social comparison hinders us from valuing what we have. We humans tend to compare ourselves to others and therefore become unhappy, because we realize that there are always people who have a bigger house, a faster car or simply more money. That is the phenomenon of the billionaire’s depression. Mental disturbance causes the greatest dissatisfaction for our health. So not only tend we to do the things wrong, we also do the wrong things. For example the crime and alcohol abuse rates are steadily increasing.
How can we become happier?
Taking part in the ongoing rat race and our human obsession for status prevents us from becoming happier. In other words: the world is too selfish. Or in the words of Layard:
“For our fundamental problem today is a lack of common feeling between people – the notion that life is essentially a competitive struggle”
The question Layard correctly raises is: “Why should I feel responsible for people?” In case the previously mentioned facts are not disturbing enough, the benefits of cooperation are for example provided. We can simply achieve more when working together. Win-win situations can be reached, where each party is better off. We humans possess the ability to agree on pursuing a “common goal even if it involves sacrifice of short-run advantage.” This, however, requires trust in others. Without trust we find ourselves in a prisoner’s dilemma.
A message to take away
“The greatest happiness comes from absorbing yourself in some goal outside yourself.”
If we are able to find a way that not only helps us achieve our own goals, but also makes other people better off, we can eventually become happier.
“We shall help those who can most benefit, and in addition we shall gain by enjoying their success.”
To conclude, in some extent we are able to influence our level of happiness, even if the circumstances are not optimal. We can make sense of the past, take a more optimistic outlook on the future, reflect on ourselves, focus on our strengths instead of our weaknesses or simply meditate. Within his book ‘Happiness – new lessons from science’ Richard Layard provides much more practical solutions which can be applied in our daily lives. All have the aim to increase our level of happiness.
About the author
Richard Layard is a leading economist. His work on unemployment and inequality for example provided the intellectual basis for Britain’s improved unemployment policies. He is also founder of the Centre of Economic Performance at the London School of Economics.
Layard states as a motivation for writing this book that he never accepted the common view of economics which explains changes in happiness with changes in purchasing power.
That might explain why he has co-founded the Action for Happiness organization, which encourages people to create more happiness for them and their environment. Richard Layard summarizes the advantages of a happy life in his TEDx talk answering the question of what should be our basic purpose in life and what kind of society should we live in.
What advice would you give to increase the level of happiness?
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