Where is the happiest place on earth? It’s not Hollywood, Monte Carlo or Qatar. It’s more likely to be Bhutan – a small landlocked country in the Eastern Himalayas in South Asia. It’s the first and, so far, only country to have officially adopted gross national happiness instead of gross domestic product as their main development indicator. They even have a Gross National Happiness Commission. According to the widely-cited study, “A Global Projection of Subjective Well-being” by Adrian G. White, Bhutan ranked eighth out of 178 countries. In fact, it is the only country in the top 20 “happiest” countries that has a very low GDP.
In July 2011, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution inviting member countries to measure the happiness of their people and to use this to help guide their public policies. The World Happiness Report – a measure of happiness published by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network – ranks Denmark at the top of its current list. This report measures a population-weighted average of variables that currently include: real GDP per capita; social support; healthy life expectancy; freedom to make life choices; generosity; and, perceptions of corruption.
So, what exactly is happiness?
A variety of biological, psychological, economic, religious and philosophical approaches have sought to define happiness and identify its sources. Various research groups, including those focusing on ‘positive psychology’ and ‘happiness economics’ are employing the scientific method to research questions about what ‘happiness’ is, and how it might be attained. Nowadays, happiness is a vague concept and can mean many different things to many people. According to positive psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of ‘The How of Happiness’, it is “the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile.”
The search for happiness is not new and neither is academic interest in the topic. As stated in the abstract of Adrian G. White’s paper, “In the UK interest in happiness was brought to widespread attention with the moral philosophy of Jeremy Bentham (1789) who argued that the purpose of politics should be to bring the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Political interest in happiness has not diminished in modern times. A recent survey (Easton, 2006) found that 81 % of the UK population agreed that the Government’s primary objective should be the creation of happiness not wealth.”
I doubt that many are feeling this at the moment, especially in the wake of Brexit and the US election which have brought about so much division and uncertainty to the political forefront. How can we find ‘happiness’ when so much of what is happening around us feels out of control? There is an excellent documentary on Netflix which addresses just that. It’s simply titled ‘Happy’. I encourage you to watch it.
One of the key messages in the film is that 40 percent of our aptitude for happiness is our own choice and only 10 percent is circumstance. What about the other 50 percent? Well according to Lyubomirsky, who conducted a study based on twins, it is genetic. Apparently, being a ‘glass-half-full’ or ‘glass-half-empty’ kind of person is in our DNA.
How can we achieve happiness?
the difference between having £50K annually and 50 million make no difference. In fact, research suggests an abundance of wealth can make people feel less satisfied.
I was interested to learn through the film that good and bad events are overestimated in terms of their impact on future happiness. Our feelings of joy and sadness generally don’t last and often people do well even when things are bad, and vice versa, as people can be unhappy when seemingly all is good. Research cited also considered the difference money makes to our happiness. When money buys you out of the burden of homelessness and hunger, this change makes a huge difference to your level of happiness. But once our basic needs are met, it would seem that more money has little impact. According to the film, the difference between having £50K annually and 50 million make no difference. In fact, research suggests an abundance of wealth can make people feel less satisfied.
The film warns of the ‘hedonic treadmill’. A concept that describes how we adapt to whatever wealth or material goods we accumulate, and will always want more. It is the enemy of happiness. According to psychologists, we all have intrinsic and extrinsic goals. The latter is focused on money, image and status, and these are diametrically opposite to our intrinsic goals; personal growth, relationships and desire to help others. Not surprisingly, people more focused on intrinsic goals tend to be more satisfied, less depressed and feel more vital.
It is how we spend our time, not our money, that makes the biggest difference to our sense of well-being. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of a best-selling book on happiness asks, “What makes a life worth living?” Noting that money cannot make us happy, he looks to those who find pleasure and lasting satisfaction in activities that bring about a state of “flow.” Sports, music, reading, time with friends, prioritising our enjoyment, learning new things and not getting stuck in a rut are important contributors to our well-being.
According to the World Happiness Report, Burundi in East Africa is the lowest ranked country for happiness. I recently had dinner with Dieudonné Nahimana, the director of Street Action, one of the charities that Quadrant Group supports. They help hundreds of street children in the capital, Bujumbura, and also run leadership and entrepreneurship training and peace events for young people across Burundi. It was a simple home-cooked meal with friends, and did wonders to lift my mood.
Dieudonné’s story is very heartening. He struggled to find a place to live after the murder of his father during the war in 1993. In the streets, he noticed that street children were one of the first groups to throw away the notion of ethnic difference in Burundi. This inspired him to set up the charity which has helped over 10,000 young people so far. In my role as a wealth adviser, I meet a lot of very wealthy people. However, Dieudonné is one of the happiest people I know. His inspirational story of building a life full of meaning from the most modest of beginnings has given me the clearest indication yet of how happiness can be achieved.
If you want to more about planning your finances to achieve greater happiness, please get in touch.
Further information about the charities we support, including Street Action, is available on our website.
This article does not constitute financial advice. Individuals must not rely on this information to make a financial or investment decision. Before making any decision, we recommend you consult your financial planner to take into account your particular investment objectives, financial situation and individual needs. Past performance is not a guide to future performance. The value of an investment and the income from it may go down as well as up and investors may not get back the amount originally invested. This document may include forward-looking statements that are based upon our current opinions, expectations and projections.