Where is the happiest country in the world? One of the Scandinavian countries, or Canada perhaps? Maybe it’s a feisty nation such as Italy, Mexico or Brazil. Or could it be a nation known for its laid back nature, such as Australia, Jamaica or one of the island territories such as Maldives or Fiji?
The answer could not be further from the world’s oceans – in fact, it is the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan, sitting in a lofty perch among 7,000-metre peaks between China and India. Less than three quarters of a million people live there, mainly Buddhists and nature lovers, who live among natural beauty and, oddly for mankind, have only enhanced it. One example; it’s the only kingdom in the world that is carbon negative, actually taking in more carbon dioxide than it gives out through its rich forest of carbon sinks. One would find that its wealth represents less than 0.01 per cent of the world economy, but it’s still radiant and beaming. Better predictors for happiness are softer, more tangential aspects of life – health and exercise, positive thinking, volunteering and having pets.
Let’s take a moment of our lives that usually makes us happy – marriage. Our wedding day is usually at least in our top five joyous events, alongside the birth of our children and grandchildren, and maybe graduation, and certain birthdays and Christmases. We plan for it, we engage with it, we love it, and we live it.
Find guides to a successful wedding day and you won’t find the amount of money spent on the day anywhere. According to Psychology Today the keys to a successful day are focusing on form over content, on minutiae and overly intensive planning over the actual meaning of the day, and not being disappointed or distraught if the wedding doesn’t live up to their ‘fantasy idea’.
So you couldn’t afford the castle, or the luxury hotel, or the ten grand dress – so what? These guys could and did it bring them happiness? Or these? Or how about these two? The answer is no – in all cases the weddings were lavish and opulent, part of the overall package of these couples’ personalities. More poignant as a prediction of marital success are these questions: Were all or most of your favourite people present? Did you laugh and cry for the right reasons? Did you enjoy it?
The long-lasting memories of weddings are often the gentle moments alone for the bride and groom – the words in the car, the stroll around the grounds, the quieter moments as the day fades. It shows that most of the best things in life don’t cost much, or are free. Take a walk in your local park or forest, or along the beach, and see what you can find. Where nature is relatively untouched we tend to find peace and tranquility. According to research from the University of Utah described in Mindful, being in nature decreases stress both physically and mentally, with less moods and anxiety. The brain can rest and be less attentive to distractions such as mobile phones, while teaching one to be more generous and kinder to others. Whether it’s a trot through the snow or along a favourite country lane, a photograph of such times to be preserved on print, as wall art, in a calendar or even as a mug, can take you back to them.
Sharing the experience with others is also a way of boosting happiness. Loneliness and a general lack of companionship is well known as a destructive force to the human psyche, creating stress hormones that can damage the brain and heart. It plays its part in school life and employment, in social groups and old age, and largely creates the same effects in all groups. It’s recognised as such a social problem that groups have been set up to bring together those who suffer.
Therefore, for optimal happiness, we need cherished people around us, and not just on social occasions. A comment, a smile, a touch, a shared memory or reminiscence are worth their weight in psychological gold. It might seem strange, but you don’t actually even need to be necessarily doing anything with them, or even talking to them; it’s simply the psychological effect of being in someone’s presence that is the positive, rather than what occurs.
In its ten years, Twitter has allowed us to glimpse into the minds of people who we’ve never met and never will meet, through conversations, albeit constricted ones. Researchers at the University of Vermont used Twitters ‘Gardenhose’ API feed to analyse billions of tweets. This data was then used to build a ‘Hedonometer’, to analyse real time happiness at any one point across the social media network, going back several years.
It’s an amazing tool, giving a snapshot into the world’s general happiness at any one point by correlating use of specific positive or negative words with socioeconomic patterns. Unsurprisingly events such as the shooting of police officers and nightclub dancers in Orlando showed great outpourings of grief, but were almost matched by news such as Zayn Malik leaving One Direction. Those events that made us happy ranged from Mother’s Day and Halloween to same-sex marriage declared legal in the US. More than that, the data found that happy people tend to stick together, and travellers are happier than those who remain stationary.
What makes us happy? Some people are happier than others, even if their lives are similar. Some remain joyful when bad things happen, others remain morose when great things happen. Happiness is subjective and changing. In the end, happiness is what we make it?