The Gift of Happiness
Robert Holden was at the forefront of ‘Happiness’ research. Here, he reflects on how that topic – initially laughed off the agenda – has gained credibility and explains why happiness is important.
When I set up The Happiness Project, in 1994, the original goal was simple: talk happiness. In my training in psychology, philosophy and psychotherapy my teachers didn’t talk about happiness. We focused solely on the causes of unhappiness. This didn’t feel right to me. After all, how can you know what the causes are if you do not know what happiness is?
My goal, then, was to stimulate a conversation, so as to deepen our appreciation of what happiness is, its benefits, what enables it, and what blocks it. One conversation I focused on was the question of whether happiness is learned and whether it can be taught. To investigate this further, I created an eight-week happiness programme (which still runs today) called Be Happy.
Today happiness is a much more popular conversation than when The Happiness Project began. We are all talking more about happiness than ever before. The conversation is alive and well. Universities, hospitals, economists and governments publish new studies on happiness every week. So, what we have learned? And where does this conversation about happiness need to go next?
Let’s start with what happiness researchers refer to as ‘static happiness’. In a recent US study, it was found that when people in the 1940s were asked, “How happy are you?” the average score was 7.5 out of 10, whereas today the average score is 7.4 out of 10. In other words, in spite of all the ‘progress’ we appear to have made in the last 50 years or so, our happiness levels have remained mostly static. This tells me we need more conversations to clarify what real happiness is. For instance, we need to discern between pleasure, satisfaction and joy; and on my eight-week happiness programme we always begin by asking people, “What is your definition of a happy life?” and, “Are you living it?”
Happiness researchers have also found that most of us are only semi-happy. In 2006, I participated in a BBC documentary called The Happiness Formula. It reported, “the proportion of people saying they are ‘very happy’ has fallen from 52% in 1957 to just 36% today.” Clearly, research like this is questioning our most basic assumptions about what happiness is, and what we think will make us happy. That’s a good thing. An honest inquiry into happiness is an opportunity to rethink your life. It is one of the gifts of happiness.
Do you really know what makes you happy? This is the question both psychologists and economists are asking now. The evidence suggests we do not know. For instance, many of us believe that more money will make us happier. Some money does help, especially to cover the basics of food, rent, clothing, etc. After that, the correlation between more money and greater happiness is vague. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychology Association, and one of the founders of the Positive Psychology movement, concludes most forcibly: “The change in purchasing power over the last half century in the wealthy nations carries the same message: real purchasing power has more than doubled in the United States, France and Japan, but life satisfaction has changed not a whit.”
An inquiry into happiness challenges you to rethink everything. For example, almost everyone agrees with the idea that if their life circumstances improve, their levels of happiness will increase. This is the basis for almost every political and economic strategy the world over. And yet scientific research into happiness tells us this is wrong. New Zealand researcher Richard Kammann reports, “Objective life circumstances have a negligible role to play in a theory of happiness.” The same research concludes that your attitude and personal choices have a far greater influence on your happiness levels.
Another popular theory is that a better education will make our children happier. This has resulted in more tests for preschool children, more focus on regular exams, and more money spent on private education. Surely this increases happiness? “Sorry, Mom and Dad, neither education nor, for that matter, a high IQ paves the road to happiness,” states Claudia Wallis, who compiled a report called The New Science of Happiness for TIME magazine.
Happiness challenges us to rethink what is a “better education” for our children. I support the idea of happiness lessons for children at school, as pioneered at Wellington College by psychologist Nick Baylis and college Master Anthony Seldon [read his thoughts on this important topic in his article Stillness in Schools]. One opposing argument for happiness lessons at school is that children should not be “taught” happiness, but that they should be allowed to think about happiness for themselves. However, this is precisely the aim of these happiness lessons. The approach is inquiry, not dictation.
People who attend my happiness programme are always telling me, “I wish I’d learned this at school.” It’s time then for more conversations about happiness in school, and at home with our children. I encourage all my students and clients to talk more about happiness with their families. Why? Because one of the ways we evolve is through conversation. Drawing happiness with our children or talking about happiness with our partner helps us to clarify things, to heal, to come together, and ultimately to live a happier life.
And now, even governments and politicians want to talk about happiness. In Britain, David Cameron has commissioned a new survey called Measuring National Well-being. A new organisation called Action for Happiness [see what founder Richard Layard says about this new movement in his article A Better Way of Life] is working closely with the government to help create better social change in society. Again, some people are concerned that governments should not “tell us” how to be happy. I agree with this, but I don’t think governments are trying to tell us. Like us, they are simply trying to understand what happiness is, and how we can be happier.
In my latest book, Be Happy, I have written: “Your definition of happiness will influence every significant decision in your life.” It is essential, therefore, that individuals and governments alike keep happiness on the agenda because, more than ever before, humanity needs a better understanding of happiness. We have learned so much, about atoms and galaxies and other things, but we still do not understand ourselves very well; we still go to war too often, and there is still too much suffering.
I remain deeply committed to talking about happiness. Why? Because I believe that happiness is our true nature (it is the natural state of our Unconditioned Self), and for that reason happiness brings out the best in us, both individually and collectively. Happiness research has found a strong link between happiness and altruism, for instance. In a recent study by a Charities Commission, it was reported that the highest predictor of generous giving is not your income level: it’s your happiness level.
Good things come from real happiness. Happier people make better choices, which is good for society and the planet. Your happiness is a gift to the world. I believe this with all my heart.
For more about Robert Holden’s eight-week happiness programme, visit: www.happiness.co.uk