If you’re an academic, there are research grants to study what makes people happy or sad, rises in pay as well as prestige for publishing the results (perhaps in the Journal of Happiness Studies) and speaking fees to be collected travelling the world lecturing on contentment. Paid consultancies to tell governments how to help the public (aka voters) be happier are a bonus.
There are now classes to tell you how to become happier by becoming more mindful, less ambitious or better at knowing what you want. Everywhere there are people who are happy to help you. The Internet is awash in books, articles, reports and columns, all produced by people paid to tell us how we can be happier – or at least less miserable.
Corporations recruit certified happiness consultants to help them make their employees happier and more productive. Delivering Happiness, for example, claims to be the world’s first coach-sulting company and promises to help you “create a happier culture for a more profitable business”. In case you’re not getting the message, it adds: “If your culture isn’t empowering your team to create their best work, you’re losing money.”
But it’s not only corporations who are looking for help.
We humans began worrying about how to be happy when we first started asking questions. Priests and philosophers have been cheerfully employed supplying answers ever since. Nice work if you can get it, although nowadays you’ll need a different kind of professional training.
Still, is happiness research good value for money? Will it make us any wiser or happier? And can we trust our leaders to do the job of what the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin, called the “engineers of the human soul”?
Sadly, no. It’s not that the research is completely wrong. It’s just not clear how useful it really is, even if, happily, it gives some of us something to do and others something else to read.
So what does the most recent research tell us?
Keep in mind that nearly all of the recent scientific research is conducted by psychologists, economists and statisticians (but not anthropologists, historians or philosophers) and what they study is subjective wellbeing. In a nutshell, they study the answers people give to questions such as, ‘How happy are you? Very happy, reasonably happy or not that happy?’ Or, ‘How happy are you on a scale of zero to 10, where 10 is very happy and zero is absolutely miserable?’ Not exactly the deepest questions – somewhat lacking in rigour. Nor quite what the ancient philosophers, from Aristotle to Zhuangzi, had in mind when they explored the idea of a happy life. We’ll come back to this.
Here are the main conclusions the research has come up with.
First, a lot of it’s in your head. Or, more precisely, in your genes. On the basis of psychological research on twins, the psychologists David Lykken and Auke Tellegen found that around half of your set point for happiness – the state you’ll return to between highs and lows – is inherited. Most researchers agree. Some people are genetically disposed to enjoy a higher level of subjective well-being. Luckily, that leaves 50 per cent somewhat within our control, although whether that’s good news may depend on whether you’re a ‘glass half full’ or ‘glass half empty’ type. (Whether you’re happy with your genes too depends on, well, your genes.)
If our ancestors had been happy with water, they might never have invented whisky and we’d have nothing to help us truly drown our sorrows.
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