Ask most people what they really want in life and the answer that comes time and time again is ‘to be happy’. If it’s not happiness, they might say more money, better relationships or improved health – ask them why they want these things and the answer will generally come back to the same thing – I’ll be happier.
Your happiness is very important and it’s something many seek to find or improve. Type ‘happy’ into Amazon.com and you’ll get in excess two million entries on the subject. Through the work and research I’ve done around happiness over the past 15 years there is plenty of evidence that you can build your levels of happiness. I’m going to share some of those findings – ideas I live by – with you through this programme.
In this introduction to happiness, we’re going to look at what makes people happy – or rather, what doesn’t.
What makes people happy?
What makes you happy? You’ll probably be surprised at what actually brings long-lasting levels of happiness; it’s likely not what you would expect. It’s this discrepancy between what we think would make us happier and what actually does that contributes to many people not being able to raise their own long-term happiness levels.
Take a moment now to think of what exactly makes you happy… What things would you change in your life to make yourself happier?
Now, those things you think would make you happier – have those things happened to you before? If they have happened, how long did that happiness last?
Many people will find it difficult to say what makes them happy. For those who think they know – the top answers for most people are money, followed by better health or relationships.
What was on your list of changes – your job, something about your relationships, more money, better wages, losing weight, getting rid of a health problem, more time to do the things you enjoy, less stress? What would make you happier?
What we have learned about happiness over the past couple of decades has been surprising. The bottom line is that most of the things people believe will make them happy really won’t – at least not in the long run.
Certainly, when most people think about what makes them happy, they may think of what gives them pleasure – chocolate, a drink, buying something for themselves and so on… While these things bring pleasure, sometimes a lot of pleasure, their effects last only for a short time.
When talking about genuine happiness, as opposed to instant gratifications and pleasures, we would look at what makes you really satisfied with your life. What things bring that long-term sense of well-being and life satisfaction?
What makes us happy?
When we look at the things that cause people to be happy, they can generally be classified broadly into three major categories
- Life circumstances
- Behaviours and activities
Surprisingly, the one thing people believe has the biggest impact on their level of happiness doesn’t – people’s life circumstances, like their financial situation, their job, their relationships, their friends, family situation, where they live and all the other conditions of their lives, even their health
Incredibly, these life circumstances only account for around 10% of our overall happiness. Understandably, most people have trouble believing when they first hear this.
Even though we know these things do make us happy, the evidence shows they don’t make us that happy, and certainly don’t make us happy for that long. We get fooled.
And these are the things we mainly focus on, the things we want to change – and yet they only amount to around 10% of our happiness levels.
Certainly, things like buying a new house or car, or starting a new relationship, make us happy. Going shopping and spending money on ourselves gives us that feel-good factor. But what about three months from now, or six months from now? – is that feeling still there – or does your happiness level revert to where it was before?
Let’s look at money. Most people think they’ll be happier if they had more of it. Is that true? For most, it could get rid of some of the prime causes of stress – paying the mortgage, bills and those unforeseen expenses. But if it was the case that money makes you happy, everyone with money would be happy, and we clearly know that’s not the case; unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence of multi-millionaires being unhappy and even suffering from depression. A very wealthy client of mine once told me “money doesn’t make me happier, it just gives me more choices”.
Having said that, it’s fairly obvious that it’s hard to be happy if you live in total poverty; if you’re always hungry, cold, living in unsafe surroundings, if you always owe someone money… Below a certain income level, people are – by and large – less happy and less satisfied with their lives. But above the poverty level, things get complicated.
What we have discovered recently is that, above a reasonable living wage, an increase in wealth is associated with only slight increases in happiness. Higher earners were slightly happier – but there’s not a huge difference.
We’ve seen how money might increase happiness up to a point: having money fixes things that get most people stressed out. If the car breaks down, your insurance is due and you’ve just paid out for something else, you’ve got a health problem and need to pay to get it sorted, or you’re in the midst of a stressful divorce, which could cost you a small fortune, not only in the settlement but legal fees too; so, it’s not so much that money makes people happy rather it helps solve problems that would otherwise lower their happiness. So having a certain amount of money helps take the sting out of things that can cause us stress.
But, here’s the interesting thing – after people have enough money to not have to worry about the basic things in life, eating, rent or mortgage repayments, day-to-day bills and a little extra for unexpected costs – there’s no relationship between income and happiness. Having more money is not associated with having more happiness.
Difficult as it might seem, the average millionaire is no happier than someone on an average wage. Many people find that unbelievable. Yes, getting a pay rise makes you happier but only for a short time – so it’s not a lot of happiness for a long time, it’s a little bit of happiness for a short time.
Think about a time when you got a pay rise or some extra money from somewhere, and felt better – how long did that feeling last? What happened next? What about one month later? six months later?
If money really made us happier then you’d expect in a country like the UK or America people would be much happier than in countries like India or Pakistan, where average earnings are substantially less. But again we know that this simply isn’t the case. We’d also be much happier than our parents or their parents because we’re earning more, but that’s also not the case; even on a personal level, you’re likely to be earning more now than you were five or ten years ago – are you much happier because of that?
So having more money, a big house, nice cars and lots of material possessions don’t make people happier. Philosophers have believed this for hundreds of years but now scientific evidence proves it.
Lionel Messi, one of the richest players of all time, said “Money is not a motivating factor. Money doesn’t thrill me or make me play better because there are benefits to being wealthy. I’m just happy with a ball at my feet. My motivation comes from playing the game I love. If I wasn’t paid to be a professional footballer I would willingly play for nothing”.
Another thing that many people think would make them happier is being more physically attractive. They think their life would be better – just look at the amount of advertising spend on cosmetics, things to make you look younger – and increasingly so for men as well as women – and also the number of cosmetic surgery reality programmes on TV now.
What the research shows though, is that there is actually no relationship between physical attractiveness and feeling happy so you’re probably better off avoiding both the cost and the risk of most cosmetic surgery.
Many people believe otherwise, though, and put great emphasis and effort into trying to look more attractive – whether that’s continually being in a beauty salon, going to the gym or having cosmetic changes; although I would point out that going to the gym could be simply a health choice– and a very good one at that and one that would make you happier – but it’s the going to gym simply to get more attractive to feel happier that doesn’t work – at least for the long term.
As with shopping, raised wages, new houses or cars, people who have had cosmetic surgery mainly feel good about it for a short while, but soon revert back to their base happiness level – and that’s if the surgery went well.
So to summarise
In this module we’ve looked at the three things that influence our happiness – life circumstances, genetics, and behaviours – and found that the influence of life circumstances was surprisingly low.
We saw that while these life circumstances might bring us some temporary pleasure, the effects are generally not as big as we might expect and certainly don’t last as long as we might think they will.
Generally, the feel-good or feel-bad factor for most life circumstances are pretty transient – the effects of both are not as large, and don’t last as long, as we might think.
In the next module
We’ll take a look at the reasons behind some of these facts and we’ll explore a second factor to what make us happy – our genetics.
Your MYND exercise
If life circumstances and those instant gratifications and pleasures don’t contribute much to our long-term happiness, consider what might be the most important factors to your long-term happiness, life-satisfaction and well-being.