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What makes us happy?

Byline: By Rin Simpson Western Mail

Is contentment dependent on our boys winning today? A good job? Money in the bank? Chocolate on tap? Rin Simpson looks at the surprising results of our first national happiness survey

WHAT do you think makes us happy? Today, for example, our rugby side take on Australia in an absolutely crucial World Cup clash in Cardiff.

If we win - it's always "we" isn't it? - the whole nation will be going to work on Monday morning with a collective smile on their faces. Vast quantities of victory-toasting alcohol will be downed in pubs and bars around the country. Celebratory hugs will be exchanged between friends, relatives, and complete strangers. And if we lose? Well, it doesn't bear thinking about it.

But let's say we romp home emphatically, though. For a relatively fleeting moment in time, we will feel an all-consuming sense of happiness. But how real will that emotion be?

Does this kind of national elation constitute real personal happiness?

Happiness is something humankind has strived for since time began, the holy grail of emotions which underpins most things we do every day. It is an elusive state, different for everyone, triggered by the smallest of things and dependent on so much.

So, after thousands of years of searching, have we found it? Are the people of Wales in 2007 happy?

If so, why? And if not, why not? How would we change our lives if we could, and what do we think happiness is in the first place?

The Western Mail Happiness Survey asked these questions and more than 200 people from across the country gave us their views.

The good news is that we seem to be a pretty happy bunch on the whole.

Asked to score their level of happiness out of 10, the average response was 7.52 - slightly above the UK's score on the "life satisfaction index", compiled by the World Database of Happiness.

Men and women were fairly equal, their happiness levels coming in at 7.61 and 7.49 out of 10 respectively.

And age didn't seem to make a lot of difference either, the lowest score being 7.2/10 for the 18-29 range and the highest being 7.9/10 for the 30 to 39-year-olds and the 60 plus bracket.

When it comes to what actually makes us happy, though, the answers are as varied as the individuals giving them.

According to the study many of us like the simple things in life - a take away and a DVD with a partner, cuddling a grandchild, their favourite sports team winning a game. Like today, for instance.

It's not often you can attribute one emotion to an entire nation but, last Saturday, it's safe to say that most people in Wales were relatively happy, at least by the final whistle. After a rather nerve-wracking first half, which ended with Canada up eight points, Wales' first World Cup match ended in joyous victory, with five tries ensuring that the nation could end the day on a rather more positive note than was sounded at half-time.

Across the country those fans not lucky enough to be in Nantes itself were celebrating in pubs and living rooms, raising toasts and generally enjoying basking in the moment.

Rhys Evans, a 35-year-old fan from Cardiff, was left drained by the emotion of the day.

"Like every typical Welsh rugby fan I was really happy during the game... when they started doing well," he said.

"Before the game you're nervous and tense to the point of pacing around like you're on a hot tin roof. During the game you're just sitting on the edge of your seat.

"Then something happens. You suddenly realise it, the try is on, you're going to score.

"You see it, the players see it, the crowd senses it at the same time and everyone reacts in the same way, the volume increases and you're feeding off each other, the players go for it and you're jumping up and shouting your head off.

"What's almost unique about it is that it's that instant euphoria. In virtually a split second you can go from losing to winning.

"It's the unexpected nature that makes it unique, as opposed to watching your kids in the school play or going on holiday where you expect to be happy. With sports you may hope but you don't expect, so when it does happen it's hugely gratifying.

"At the end of the Wales game on Sunday I turned to the guy next to me and I said 'I'm exhausted'. It was just nervous exhaustion, not knowing if it was going to be a day of abject misery or not."

Clearly there's a lot of emotion involved in a game of rugby, but is the elation of Wales winning the rugby a good definition of the word happiness?

Professor Ruut Veenhoven, director of the World Database of Happiness and editor of the Journal of Happiness Studies, defines happiness as "the subjective enjoyment of one's life as a whole".

He divides satisfaction into four parts, based on how much of our lives are affected by the feeling and how long it lasts.

"Instant satisfaction" doesn't last long and only affects part of our lives. If it continues it can become "domain satisfaction". "Peak experience" describes that which affects life as a whole but is passing in nature.

It is only when satisfaction is enduring and affects our lives as a whole that it is truly "life satisfaction", or happiness.

For some respondents in our survey, they prefer the more emotional satisfaction that comes from being loved and understood, feeling complete and fulfilled.

For a few happiness is simply being Welsh, and for one it is "singing Hen Wlad fy Nhadau flat out in a crowd" (there's that rugby vibe again!).

Others have philosophical answers, based less on environmental factors and more on a general approach to life.

"Happiness is getting what you want, and wanting what you get," said one respondent.

Another added, "Happiness is realising there are things in life that you are not able to change and accepting that."

A third said, "Happiness is having just enough - just enough happiness to make you smile, just enough sadness to appreciate what you have, just enough money to be comfortable, just enough time in your life to relax with those you love."

Although everyone's idea of happiness is different, there were some common themes which came out of the Happiness Survey results, the strongest of which is relationships.

Spending time with friends and family was a clear favourite on the list of things that make us happy, with 97.4% of people choosing this option.

And when it came to being unhappy, nothing makes us more so than having an argument with a loved one, which 89.2% of people picked.

Going on holiday also makes 90.3% of us over the moon, while job satisfaction at 84.1% was next on the list.

And financial worries are the biggest source of unhappiness after arguments, affecting 68.2% of us, with gaining weight coming in close behind at 61%.

Ann Thomas, a 27-year-old project manager from Cardiff, rated her happiness level as being 10 out of 10.

"I think it's an overall thing, everything is going very well in my life with work, friends, family, just everything - there's nothing to be unhappy about at the moment," she said. "It's probably the best time of my life.

"I've just had a promotion, I'm selling the flat I own with my flat mate and I'm going to be buying my first house so that's making me happy, and I've just started a new relationship.

"Even without the promotion, the house, I've got a job, I've got a family, I've got great friends, so I would still be happy.

"I think happiness is down to what frame of mind you're in. I do have some bad days when I'm feeling sorry for myself, it's all about how we're feeling on the day.

"But I'm just generally a happy person, I don't let things get me down."

Another person who sees himself as happy overall is 36-year-old Dom Capel, from Swansea.

Dom is a hairdresser - a profession which has, numerous times, come top of polls ranking jobs in terms of how happy the people who work in them are - and gets enormous satisfaction from his job.

"I definitely think hairdressers are the happiest people, one reason being that you're with people all day," he said.

"And it's not like being a doctor or a dentist where you're seeing people only when there's something wrong. You make people look as best as they possibly can, it's very rewarding, it's a very sociable job, you can enjoy your clients.

"And you have to be happy, you can't be a grumpy hairdresser, so even if you get up and feel grumpy you make yourself happy before you get to work. So because you're presenting that persona you become like that."

It's not enough on it's own to leave him completely satisfied, though - his wife Lara, 38, and children Tilly, nine, Finley, seven, and four-year-old Theo are the real source of his happiness.

"I work away an awful lot and I work in the fashion industry which can be very cut-throat, it's sometimes a nasty place to be, but my friends all say to me that I'm so secure and settled at home that it just washes over me," he said.

"I couldn't give two hoots if I ended up in the salon next week and never did a fashion show again in my life. I love what I do but my family are the most important thing to me at the end of the day."

Ann, Dom and the rest of the respondents in the Happiness Survey display many of the characteristics common to people who are considered officially "happy", according to the experts.

Professor Mansel Aylward has spent many years researching happiness at both Cardiff University and Harvard University in America.

"Happy people are those that are very usually in a long-term relationship, they're people who have a wide network of family and friends," he said.

"They're people who enjoy their work and look more at the satisfaction they get from their work and from the interaction with people than from the money. And they're people whose expectations are reasonable but not over the top.

"However, happiness is 40% to 50% determined by your genes," he continued.

"It's not a pleasant thing to know because it seems to follow that people who are unhappy might not be able to get any happier.

"But that isn't so. What it means is we all have a genetic component of happiness and what we have to do in life is try to make sure that isn't eroded by social circumstances and adverse factors.

"Nevertheless, there are people who are very lucky because they're resilient and have an innate sense of happiness which resides in their genetic make up."

If half of our happiness is down to our genes, that still leaves half that isn't, the half that relies on our environment, our relationships, our beliefs and our attitudes.

These things can drive up a person's level of happiness to the maximum potential of their genes, which is why so many of us believe that if we could just change our circumstances, true happiness would be within our grasp.

More money is one of the big factors we'd like to change, according to the Happiness Survey.

Some respondents simply said they wanted to win the Lottery, others explained they wanted more money in order to buy a bigger house or afford to have children or be able to give up work or help others.

One savvy respondent said, "If I could change one thing I would have more money. This wouldn't necessarily make me happier, but would make my life easier which, in turn, would make me happier."

Losing weight would be the best change for another group of those who replied, moving abroad would make others happy, while one woman just wanted a garden to grow veg and let her kids play in.

Other wishes included having children, finding a soul mate, healing a sick relative, or bringing back a loved one now deceased.

But research at both Cardiff University's Unum Centre and Harvard University shows that these changes may not have the desires we hope they will.

"People who have won big sums of money on the Lottery or the pools, in six to nine months they're no happier than they were six months before they won the money," said Dr Aylward.

"And probably more bewildering is that people who have had a very severe trauma like paraplegia, severe illness, their happiness is the same level a year later as before the trauma."

He continued, "The human mind is the only animal mind that can actually think about the future, can predict or think it can predict the future.

"What we fail at, unfortunately, is to predict how we will react to something. So we think we'll be made happy by things, but when we achieve them we aren't.

"When you ask people what brings them happiness, having children is very high on the list, marriage is very high on the list, money is very high on the list. But actually children, for example, when you have them, can be very difficult and can cause major problems.

"Yet people still think it's worthwhile to have children. It's a false belief but if we didn't have it we wouldn't reproduce. So there are certain inbred false beliefs that have been put in us by evolution because otherwise we wouldn't survive."

There are some things that we do need for happiness, the basic components of life that cater to our wellbeing and without which no amount of rugby wins or sunny days will make us happy.

At the Centre for Wellbeing, part of the New Economics Foundation in London, measuring happiness - or "wellbeing" - and the factors that influence it, are central to informing and influencing public policy.

"Wellbeing is people's experience of their quality of life, which includes how happy and how fulfilled they are but also includes their social wellbeing, like how they feel about the place they live and their relationships," said Nic Marks, director of the centre.

"The problem is that the word happiness is contested in terms of its meaning, so in a policy context people don't always think of happiness as a public issue.

"Some people say it's a private space and therefore not something that the government should intervene in. Whereas we would argue that people's happiness is partially related to government policy and the government should be thinking about what its impact is on people.

"That doesn't mean it has to take responsibility for people's happiness but if, for example, its policies are making people miserable that's not good.

"Our core work is around promotion of the idea that wellbeing should be considered as one of the ultimate outcomes of policy and secondly creating contextual indicators of wellbeing that people can move towards."

The scientific community have, naturally, taken a leading role in the study of happiness, but in an increasingly self-aware society even the lay person can have a go at understanding what makes us happy.

Psychologist Dr Clive Wood is beginning a new class at Cardiff Centre for Lifelong Learning later this month, called Positive Psychology, Mental Health and the Meaning of Life.

"Positive psychology is flavour of the month, it's the new buzz," said Dr Wood.

"It's an attempt to look at the psychology of positive emotions, of things like high self esteem, joy, elation, contentment. Over the last 10 years that has been defined into a science.

"There's a big debate about what a mentally healthy person is. Obviously they don't suffer from major illness or major anxiety or OCD, but is it something more than that?

"Is a mentally healthy person one who is competent, one who has a purpose which, if not drives them, at least helps to steer them through their lives?

"Philosophers have discussed the meaning of life for years," he continued.

"Some people may say I'm a happy person since I discovered Jesus or since I started working with the environment or whatever.

"But you don't have to have an objective meaning, you can create one. For example you might say I'm a scientist so the meaning of life is making more discoveries.

"It doesn't matter if the so-called meaning is subjective or even 'real' or 'not real', the question is do we need something that drives and shapes our lives and makes us feel significant?

"We contrast that with people who believe there's no sense and no meaning and it doesn't matter what we do, which leads to a sense of existential despair.

"My course is on positive psychology and happiness but it goes beyond that and looks at what is the happy person? What is the mentally healthy person? And do those things depend on finding meaning?

"Or can you be happy and aimless?

"There's very good evidence for the contrary. Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and Holocaust survivor, was in Auschwitz when he noticed that some of the prisoners succumbed very readily to death and some were very resistant.

"The ones that resisted death were the ones that had something to live for - 'after the war I'll be free' or 'after the war Poland will be free'. Frankl was writing a book and, for him, meaning was to live long enough to share these ideas, this book, with the world.

"So it would seem that having a purpose, a sense of something to live for is very sustaining."

If happiness can be found, then it is likely that the older we get the happier we will become, and the Happiness Survey backs up this theory.

Although there isn't much of a difference, there's no denying that the 60 plus age range comes at the top end of the scale, while the 18 to 29-year-olds were the least happy overall.

At 82, Richard Guppy, who lives in Cwmbran with his wife Maureen, has learned to find contentment in the simple things.

"I think I have become happier as I've become older and I think one of the reasons is that, as you get older, you cease wanting up to a point," he said.

"When you're younger you think 'I need to get on in life, I need to achieve this', but as you get older you lose those aspirations. So you might be happier because you've lost the pressure.

"One of the keys to happiness is a happy marriage, a good marriage because happiness comes with it. Today so many people jump into divorce that they don't give it a chance.

"And another thing, of course, is as you get older you have got grandchildren and that gives you comfort because you know that something will live on after you.

"Simpler things give me a lot of pleasure as I get older. Happiness is not having money or getting a new car and all the trappings. You get to appreciate simpler things - the garden, the fields, wildlife. It's a happier time, although I wasn't unhappy in my younger days.

"Another thing that gives an older person a lot of pleasure is giving something back, whether it's time or money or whatever. Helping others - it gives you a lot of pleasure to help others as small as the helping is."

One thing is certain, Richard's outlook on life has changed since he was a young man.

"I always used to say to people 'set your sights high - you probably won't achieve what you've set out to but you might achieve something lesser which is still very good'," he said.

"Now I would say 'stop wanting'. Because everybody wants. Don't think to yourself 'I wish I had a Porsche and I've only got an old Ford'. If you do that, if you stop wanting, you'll be surprised at what you do get." Spending time with family and friends puts a smile on your face: Spending time with family and friends puts a smile on your face

MEN may be from Mars, women from Venus, but both love spending time with friends and family.

More than 97% of women and 98% of men said spending time with friends and family made them happy, with 72% and 62.5% respectively listing it as the thing most likely to make them happy.

Both also are made happy by going on holiday (women 91.2%, men 87.5%), job satisfaction (women 85.7%, men 79.2%), getting a raise or promotion (women 80.3%, men 62.5%) and participating in hobbies (women 63.9%, men 83.3%).

But there were differences and, yes, you got it, shopping was the biggest. Buying a new pair of shoes or browsing for a new outfit makes almost 64% of women happy but only 29% of men.

Losing weight was another area of difference, with 63.3% of women feeling happy after shedding a few pounds, compared with 27.1% of men.

When it came to the thing that made people most happy above other things, the big difference was in participating in hobbies, which 18.8% men but just 2% of women picked as number one. The top three things that make us more happy than anything else are... Spending time with friends and family 62.5%Participating in hobbies 18.8%Going on holiday 10.4%

Spending time with friends and family 72.1%Going on holiday 15%Losing weight 4.8%
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Sep 15, 2007
Words:3624
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