A State of Happiness

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A growing area of interest, at both organizational and state levels, is happiness. Proponents argue that focusing on monetary wealth is both unsustainable and ineffective, if the primary objective of a society is to increase the happiness and well being of all of its members. In fact, a study by Ed Diener and colleagues looking at the correlation between levels of wealth and happiness in the USA since 1950 has proved just this. The study demonstrates, whilst there have been rapid increases in wealth over the fifty year period, people’s reported levels of happiness have remained relatively stagnant. This is an all too significant and familiar failure across our contemporary global society. These failed promises of wealth are why countless governments, businesses and international organisations such as the United Nations (UN) have decided to look beyond traditional economic systems and theory to fields such as behavioural science, social psychology and neuroscience for answers. Their hope is that by taking a more psychological approach towards understanding happiness, they will be able to develop better public policies, institutions and implement systems that strive to create a happier and more cooperative society.

This pivot in focus is exciting, but it begs the question of why the pursuit of wealth has failed to deliver on its promise; why can’t money buy you happiness? In short, the answer is that it does, but only up to a point. The initial influx and benefits of wealth alleviate the scarcity effects which contribute to your stress and anxiety about money, as well as allowing greater freedom and a sense of security. As our wealth increases, however, its value to us slowly diminishes and the negative side effects associated with the attainment of wealth - such as social comparison, unhealthy competition, isolation and distrust - become increasingly prominent.

The other slightly inconvenient truth we have to come to terms with is that some people are just born with it; they have more “happy genes”, so to speak, that cause them to produce higher levels of the neurochemicals associated with stimulating happiness, such as serotonin and dopamine. Fortunately, however, there are many other, more malleable, determinants of our happiness which can be deliberately designed for. For example, whilst research has shown that income variation does have an influence on emotional wellbeing, it is of minor significance in comparison to other sources of joy such as close social relationships, a sense of equality within a community, a sense of personal purpose and relevance, , good emotional health during childhood, and high levels of trust.

The overwhelming influence of social and environmental factors on an individual’s state of happiness is fundamentally important, particularly with the growing trend in psychology and psychiatry of diagnosing those who are distressed or in a temporary depressive position, as clinically depressed. This is a point that the psychiatrist Neel Burton often makes, as he believes more and more people contemporarily are looking for bio-chemical solutions to pliable psychological issues caused by contextual influences such as isolation, social comparison or a lack of social significance.

The above-mentioned contextual influences are all by-products of the modern society we have developed, fixated as it is on the individual and technological. If we look at technology specifically, it has made social isolation all the more easier by offering us access to services at just the click of the button. It has also made social comparison, and its unhappy underbelly, easier by giving us constant access to idealised visions of our social world.

These two developments are concerning, but according to important thinkers like Yuval Harrari, they are but pin-pricks in relation to a much larger problem that is just around the corner - technological substitution. As discussed earlier, one of the major sources of human happiness is a sense of purpose and the feeling of usefulness within a social group. Proof of this is seen in comparing the happiness levels of employed versus unemployed individuals. Having a job, having a purpose, a sense of community and common vision to work towards are all seen to impact significantly on one’s personal wellbeing. Yet, these cornerstones of human happiness are increasingly coming under threat across industries, as low-cost, highly-skilled technology solutions supersede high-cost, error-prone human labour. We all to often look at the negative aspects of working, but without it life can quickly become superfluous, boring and meaningless.

Whilst this is worrying, it is vital to remember that our happiness is most significantly a manifestation of our social situation and reality, determined by the state of our society, something that it is entirely within our power to change.  And there are many reasons to be happy, or optimistic, too. The third annual World Happiness Report was recently released for 2015, and is becoming an increasingly important tool in government and policy design internationally. The UN has also taken a real interest in happiness, leading to predictions of it even being included as an area of focus at the upcoming global summit in September, and playing a significant role in the development of the new Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) objectives.

At a macro level, increasing happiness is of course easier said than done. Research into the science of happiness has given us a great understanding of its causes, function and determining factors, but designing policies and measuring the effects of these on the happiness of a whole country of diffused, diverse citizens is a different story.  At the moment the dominant measurement strategy is individual reporting. That is, say, simply asking people to rate their current feeling of happiness on a scale of one to ten, with ten being ones ideal state of happiness and one being their worst. These results are then cross-referenced against a host of variables such as social support, life expectancy, income and trust, perceived freedom and generosity. Surprisingly, this strategy leads to a relatively accurate interpretation of individuals overall happiness. However, as you can imagine, the respondent is still largely influenced by biases that have affected their emotional state at that particular time of asking, as well as the pre-conceptions and narratives surrounding happiness and their ideal world and state of being.

This has led to many scientists looking beyond this sort of reporting to more novel techniques that take advantage of contemporary technologies like wearables and other biomarker data-tracking systems. Measuring people’s heartrate using wearables for example, can give us a really good indication of cognitive strain, while measuring the cortisol levels in people’s saliva allows for a better understanding of their stress levels. Gathering all this biomarker data and combining it with the more traditional tools like reporting allows for a more objective, holistic measurement of a person’s happiness.

It is a tricky road ahead, but the hope is that by using modern social science and technology to sharpen the relevant tools, we can present governments with an accurate framework around which to design effective policies that can show realistic, real-time quantitative increases in the everyday happiness of us all. The pursuit of happiness has begun; watch this space.

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