What is “happiness”? Why are some countries seemingly happier than others? How can we conceptualize the level of happiness and express it statistically?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines happiness as a state of well-being and contentment. In psychology, happiness is one of the basic, universally recognized emotions (Ekman, 1971). What makes us happy, however, is an intimate and subjective matter that varies through life. Attitudes towards happiness have changed throughout history (Veenhoven, 2012).

Because of its subjective nature and cultural differences, happiness is challenging to measure. Yet, since 2013, the Copenhagen-based Happiness Research Institute has studied well-being, happiness, and quality of life using qualitative and quantitative methods, exploring why some societies are happier than others. One of the aims of the research conducted at the institute is to incorporate subjective well-being into the public policy domain and improve quality of life.

Contentment was shown to have a beneficial effect on society on many levels. Happiness tends to predict longevity and is positively associated with cardiovascular health, reduced risk of stroke, better immune system response, stress management, and sleep (e.g., Chei et al., 20218, Steptoe & Wardle, 2005, Ostir et al., 2001, Cohen et al., 2003, Smyth et al., 2016, Steptoe et al., 2008). Work-wise, happy employees were shown to be more productive (Bellet, 2019), whereas happier doctors were found to make quicker and more accurate diagnoses (Estrada et al., 1997).

“Happiness tends to predict longevity and is positively associated with cardiovascular health, reduced risk of stroke, better immune system response, stress management, and sleep

Neuroscientific studies show that specific brain areas (amygdala, hippocampus, and the limbic system) supported by a cocktail of neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and endorphin) play an important role in happiness. As each neurotransmitter is coded by a specific gene, happiness is partially determined by genetic makeup (Nes & Røysamb, 2017). However, people are not restricted to their DNA and one can learn to be happier. Volunteering, exercising, immersing oneself in nature and gratitude are happiness boosters that can be incorporated into daily life (Lawton et al., 2021, Zhang & Chen, 2019, Chang et al., 2020, Bono et al., 2004). Money seems to help as well. A recent study on a U.S. cohort revealed that daily happiness and overall life satisfaction increased in a logarithmic manner with reported income (Killingsworth, 2021). The researchers speculated that money could buy happiness through mediators such as increased comfort, more control over life, or simply enjoying having money. Interestingly, happy young people were more likely to become wealthy adults later in life (UCL).

In recent years, knowledge of Danish Hygge, Swedish Lagom, Finnish Sisu, or Japanese Ikigai has highlighted how culturally relative the valuation of happiness is. For example, in China, Xingfu refers to a good life that is sustainable, sufficient and with meaning, the Canadian Joie de vivre translates to the enthusiastic joy of life, the Brazilian Saudade describes a romantic nostalgia for past happiness, and the Australian Fair go prizes an egalitarian society where everyone deserves a fair chance (Russel, 2018). Further, in Bhutan, Gross National Happiness philosophy focuses on prioritizing collective happiness and non-economic aspects of well-being (Russel, 2018). The importance of happiness is also evident in the United Nations’ celebration of the International Day of Happiness.

“Volunteering, exercising, immersing oneself in nature and gratitude are happiness boosters”

Interestingly, according to the World Happiness Report 2021, amongst the ten happiest counties, nine are European, with Finland, Iceland, and Denmark at the top of the list (Helliwell et al., 2021). The report ranked 149 countries based on respondents’ evaluation of factors indicating quality of life, such as GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom of choice, and perception of corruption. The ratings were compared to an imaginary country, Dystopia, inhabited by the world’s least-happy people.

The report also focused on the impact of Covid-19 on happiness, and how people coped with pandemic-related challenges. Findings show that the world showed resilience in the face of the devastation related to the pandemic, which can be explained by the fact that the pandemic affected everybody, creating a greater sense of solidarity. East Asian countries fared well on the 2021 happiness list, owing to strict policies implemented to control the spread of the virus. Likewise, Australia and New Zealand were rated highly, as morale was enhanced by effective, early government action. Further, the high rating of Nordic countries could be accredited to mutual trust and confidence in the government.

The initial effect of Covid-19 led to a mental health crisis. In the UK, the number of mental health issues increased by 47% during the pandemic. Further, people on furlough or redundancy indicating loneliness at the beginning of the pandemic were 43% less happy than those who did not report experiencing loneliness, which emphasises the importance of social connection and the sense of identity in the work environment in relation to happiness. Well-being during the pandemic was also associated with connecting with others in the digital world. Those who felt connectedness decline reported decreased happiness.

Happiness is an inside job; therefore, we can actively direct our attention to what is good and benefits our wellbeing. Importantly, successful approaches towards happiness cultivated by different countries and cultures can inspire one to learn how to be happy (see The Atlas of Happiness: the global secrets of how to be happy by Helen Russell, 2018).

By Adriana Michalak, a Public Health Pathways Contributor.

Ph.D. candidate at the University of East Anglia, studying early sleep and circadian markers of Alzheimer’s disease.

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