Thankfully psychology has begun to take an interest in the factors underlying mental health and happiness rather than focusing only on psychopathology and mental suffering. A lot of great research has emerged from this interest and we know more than ever about the correlates of well-being.
You might not be surprised to learn that, like most things, happiness is complicated. Its a subjective emotion involving sensations like pleasure and satisfaction, contentment, serenity, comfort, meaningfulness, optimism and hope. So, there are a number of ingredients involved in the recipe for happiness.
We know that basic needs like food, water, shelter and safety must be met, first and foremost. Without this, people have very little hope for sustainable happiness because survival becomes the overwhelming focus. We also know that beyond a certain point, money does not significantly contribute to happiness. Instead, relationships (love and affiliation), gratitude, altruism and kindness, forgiveness, optimism, esteem, a sense of meaning, and opportunities for self-actualization are all highly correlated with well-being.
Just as there is a process involved in producing the necessary ingredients to create a satisfying dish, the correlates of happiness must be intentionally planted and cultivated. There are no quick fixes and we should be suspicious when we think we’ve found one.
National Geographic recently published an article on The World’s Happiest Places based on the World Happiness Report. The Report identifies several common factors that account for three quarters of human happiness: strong economics, healthy life span, good social relationships, generosity, trust and freedom. These countries takes steps to provide basic needs and mitigate some of most common human stressors such as poverty, sickness, and social conflict.
They cite several countries in which happiness was rated highest in the world. The US isn’t one of them – the World Happiness Report cites declining social support and increased corruption as factors for the plummeting experience of wellbeing in the US since 2007. The world’s happiest countries have mechanisms in place that support the common factors of happiness, while the US increasingly focuses on the almighty dollar in the hands of a few and at the expense of the many.
Denmark offers subsidized education and healthcare and provides a robust financial safety net. Interestingly, it has one of the lowest obesity rates in the world. Costa Rica has an environment that can’t support huge industrial farms so it has remained a country of small property owners, resulting in less power inequity than in some other countries. Education, clean water, social security and health care are all priorities there. Singapore embraces traditional Asian values of harmony respect and hard work. The government ensures that everyone who works earns a good wage, lives in quality housing, and receives necessary health care. The accomplishments require enlightened leaders who play the long game rather than seeking instant gratification.
We will all be better off if more of us are happy. You’ve heard the saying, “Hurting people hurt people.” This means that we cannot be content with our own happiness alone. We can see this playing out right in front of our eyes in the US as we stray further and further away from what the research has shown. The good news is that many of the correlates of happiness involve relating with and caring for others, so if we are following the proper recipe, the fruits of our personal pursuit for well-being ripple out beyond us. Starting from within in this way, we become natural benefactors.
Happiness radiates like the fragrance from a flower and draws all good things towards you. – Maharishi Mahesh Yogi