Can I be happier?

Guest post by Niamh Shaw

Its one of those big questions, isn’t it? Too big for me to even attempt an answer. I’ll leave it to a far wiser mind than me, such as Gandhi, who said “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony”. Nicely put. I’m certainly flying very far from this kind of harmony, and yet I would say that, in general, I’m a fairly happy person.

So What Is It To Be Happy? It appears to be such a subjective and imprecise question and yet, many scientists are attempting to define, in objective terms, the meaning of happiness.

Pete Cohen, a UK Life Coach & psychologist thinks he has cracked it, claiming that Happiness can be neatly summarized in his mathematical equation, modelled from data gathered from over 1,000 interviews:

Happiness = P + (5xE) + (3xH)

P stands for Personal Characteristics, including outlook on life, adaptability and resilience.
E stands for Existence and relates to health, financial stability and friendships,
and H represents Higher Order needs, and covers self-esteem, expectations, ambitions and sense of humour.

The formula is based on a series of simple questions and expressed as a % score, where 100 is ‘top of the class’, A-grade, 100% happiness and 0 is, well, a pretty miserable state of mind, I guess. Needless to say, I couldn’t resist taking a stab at the test myself. So I did. Twice. Last week I scored 78. It was a particularly productive week for me, where I ate well and all my buses arrived on time. Today I got soaked walking up to the butchers, slipped on the stairs and I ran out of hot water in the shower with a head full of sudsy shampoo. I just got a score of 62. Does this mean that I’m not as happy today as last week? Well, based on the formula, yes, but deep down, I know that as irritating as it is to have soap in my eyes, or to have to slosh home in cold, drenched socks, I know that I’m still fairly content with my life. How I’m feeling at any moment is fleeting, and my scores appear to fluctuate accordingly. Surely, my state of happiness must be influenced by a whole lot more than what is described in this neat little formula?

It seems that there are indeed more factors to consider. James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, suggests that in social groups, happiness is infectious and spreads like a plague. Fowler reports that a person’s happiness is not just an individual experience or choice, but rather, is dependent on the happiness of others to whom a person is connected with, both directly and indirectly. In addition, work colleagues do not affect happiness levels, suggesting that happiness is related more to a social context. The findings suggest that clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals.

And, not only is it immediate social ties that can have an impact on happiness levels. It seems that the relationship between people’s happiness can extend up to three degrees of separation – to the friend of one’s friends’ friend. So maybe I had a miserable day today because one of my friends texted her miserable mate. It’s plausible, I suppose.
Overall, people who are surrounded by happy people are likely to become happy in the future, the researchers said. Although they noted that close physical proximity to happy people is essential for happiness to spread. A person is 42% more likely to be happy if a friend who lives less than half a mile away becomes happy, but the effect is only 22% for friends who live less than two miles away and this effect declines and becomes insignificant at greater distances.

And it happens in the world of e-friendships too. Scientists who have studied millions of tweets on Twitter say they have found that happier people tend to tweet together, as do people who are less happy, with few tweets linking the happy and the unhappy. Led by Psychologist John Bollen of the University of Indiana, they tracked 102,000 Twitter users over six months, and specifically measured the emotional content of the tweets as reflected in the presence of positive or negative words from a lexicon previously established by psychologists. From this they could assess the “subjective well-being” of the users through their tweets. The researchers indeed found that happier people – those recording a high subjective well being – tended to be tweeting and receiving tweets from people who were also happier. The same was true for those who were less happy.

And now it seems that our notion of happiness is also influenced by the country we live in. Last months Scientific American MIND reviewed the work of Psychologist Ed Diener of the University of Illinois and his son, psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener. They are on a worldwide quest to understand happiness by assessing how individuals are faring on various indices of well-being, economics and health, among other measures, making up the Gallup World Poll. The poll covers approximately 155 countries, a representative sample of 98 percent of the world’s population. Diener reports that countries vary enormously in happiness, suggesting that society and culture can play a big role through the importance they place on positive emotions and beliefs about how to achieve a state of well-being.

And lastly, your personality type could hinder or help your state of happiness, depending on where you live. Psychologist Ashley Fulmer of the University of Maryland, along with Diener and their colleagues, surveyed more than 7,000 people from 28 countries to examine how personality and culture interact to affect well-being. The researchers found, for example, that being extroverted enhances well-being only if most people in the culture are similarly outgoing. Likewise, an extrovert in an “introverted” country such as Japan or a religious person living in a “nonreligious” country such as Sweden is less happy than a person whose personality is a good match for the society. “Fitting into your culture is very important,” Diener says.

I’m not sure if I’m any closer to understanding what it is to be happy. But hanging out with and tweeting happy people, and bonding with my friends and family won’t do me any harm either. If nothing else, it will put a smile on my face. I will tweet my latest Happiness score next week- I’m expecting an ‘A’.

Niamh Shaw is an actor, theatre-maker and former full-time scientist and researcher. Her one-woman Science/Art show, ‘That’s About The Size Of It’ was performed at ABSOLUTE Fringe earlier this year and will tour in 2012 as part of the Dublin City of Science Public Engagement Programme. You can find her on twitter @Dr_Niamh_Shaw.

Top Image: Camdiluv / Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “Can I be happier?

  1. Very Interesting, I always though that Happiness was “egg shaped” but in reality Happiness is in the mind and is there for everyone, “expect little and always give” and you will be content


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