The Secret of Happiness
Positive mental health and good relationships are the most important determinants of happiness
Money doesn’t make us happy. While people in wealthier countries do tend to be happier overall than those from poorer nations, the link isn’t strong or consistent. There’s also no evidence that people have become happier over time, even as wealth has increased considerably since World War II. Multiple studies across many countries show either a decrease or no change in wellbeing despite an increase in prosperity. Not only are we not becoming any happier, we are also very bad at judging what makes us happy. We tend to overestimate the value of work, money and material possessions, while undervaluing relationships. The consensus across all studies about the link between wealth and happiness seems to be that a minimum threshold is required for the basic foundations of happiness to be satisfied - such as food, clean water and shelter - but that, beyond such rudimentary requirements, there is little or no correlation between increased wealth and increased happiness. So if money doesn’t make us happy, what does?
The World Health Organisation reports that positive mental health is the single most important determinant of happiness, and that as many as 10% of the world’s population suffers from depression or some other form of psychological disorder. Furthermore, mental illness is a common occurrence in all countries and all regions of the world, with no significant difference between rich and poor nations. The WHO places great emphasis on pointing out that positive mental health is not simply the absence of disease or infirmity, but a ‘state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’. This includes the ability to learn, to feel and express a range of emotions, to form and maintain good relationships and to successfully deal with change and uncertainty. Happiness, therefore, isn’t derived from simply not being sick. To be happy we must find the right balance between the intellectual, emotional and social tools we need to successfully interact with the outer world, to meet our goals and to deal with any challenges we encounter. Only these tools, employed in appropriate balance, can enable us to cope with and fulfil our potential in life.
Science shows that such inner coherence is the natural state of all living organisms so rather than looking outside for what we don’t have in order to make ourselves happy, we should instead look inside to remove the causes of our incoherence. Critically, research confirms that outer-world attachments, particularly to material goods, are an illusory path to happiness. Central to this discovery are what psychologists call the ‘progress’ and ‘adaptation’ principles. In short, we receive a pleasurable dose of dopamine every time we take a small step towards a particular goal and another when we achieve it. In all cases the rewards are short-lived so the pleasure we receive from the journey overall is far greater than the pleasure we get from finally reaching our goal, which is invariably an anti-climax compared to the enjoyment we have had along the way. Furthermore, under the adaptation principle we very quickly become used to the new ‘thing’ we have acquired and discover that we grossly overestimated the depth and duration of the pleasure it would bring us. However, instead of learning from the let-down we have a strong tendency to simply set the bar higher next time and begin striving once again. It is for these reasons that happiness is only very loosely correlated with wealth and why money, beyond its ability to ensure the essentials in life, is rarely the path to personal peace.
However, some purchases are better for our wellbeing than others. For example, spending money on holidays with friends and family makes us feel much happier than buying expensive luxury items. Social activities and shared experiences bring us together with other people, while the way we use material goods is often to separate ourselves from others by expressing status or superiority. Extensive studies also show that the deeper the relationships individuals have, the happier they will be. Those in long-term partnerships are generally happier than those who aren’t. People who have strong friendships tend to enjoy lower levels of stress and live longer than those who don’t. Human activities most associated with happiness tend to be social, while those most associated with unhappiness tend to be solitary. Indeed in reviewing the findings of a Gallup World Poll on happiness, conducted in over 150 countries and with more than a million respondents, Daniel Kahneman concluded ‘it is only a slight exaggeration to say that happiness is the experience of spending time with people you love and who love you’.
If we wish to become coherent and happy, the learnings from science are twofold. First, letting go of attachments is essential. Second, we are social animals and much of our mental, physical and spiritual wellbeing is derived from the relationships we have with others. To build healthy relationships and thereby cultivate outer peace, we must first find inner peace but this can never be achieved if we are perpetually at war within ourselves, struggling for status or striving to have what society says we should have. In this, science concurs with spirituality in concluding that the only path to global peace and worldwide happiness is for sufficient individuals to proactively cultivate inner and outer coherence. In doing so, people will find personal happiness but could also cause cascading cultural change across the whole human system. By letting go of our preconceived ideas, our focus on winning and our need to always be right, we automatically clear out the detritus which causes our incoherence and allow our naturally coherent inner-self to emerge; bringing a clear, calm lucidity to our cognition and enabling a better quality of thinking at lower levels of effort.
Moreover, a further benefit of the cultivation of coherence is that it resolves our ultimate paradox - how to become more conscious yet less self-conscious. Self-consciousness and incoherence are mutually reinforcing. The more incoherent our lives feel, the more we become self-conscious that something is missing but often without knowing what we need to make us happy again. Our awareness of these anxieties can lead to behaviours such as hedonism or hyper-consumption, which may seem to fill the gap in the short-term but which actually exacerbate our unhappiness in the longer term. By contrast coherence serves to reduce our self-consciousness because by making us feel happy, we feel far less need to compare ourselves with others or to even consider how happy we are. Happiness and the feelings which sustain it, such as the security we derive from stable relationships, aren’t emotions we can actively pursue but are feelings which emerge as a result of the coherence in our lives. As such, they are like shadows which disappear when we shine the light of self-consciousness on them - the more we chase them the more elusive they become. People who feel coherent don’t tend to worry about their relationships or regularly review their own happiness because they are just so busy living life that such questions simply don’t occur to them. It is those who experience a gnawing sense of their own incoherence who tend to be more self-conscious, sometimes even proactively planning ways to increase their own happiness, unaware that the very act of doing so may push this goal further from their grasp.