Americans who’ve spent time living with poor people in Africa comment on their happiness and lack of complaining, even when dealing with prolonged hunger. For example, a development expert commented in her book, “I was awestruck by the Ugandans’ ability to endure suffering and still embrace great joy.”
UNICEF conducted a large survey of young people, aged 9 to 17, about 10,000 youth in 17 countries, from 1999 to 2001. In East Asia and Pacific, the young people said they are happy most of the time (52%) or sometimes (47%). The happiest were younger and urban kids, and those in Australia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam–but low in China. What made them happy is contact with family and friends. They felt sad when they’re scolded or punished, as for doing poorly in school, when they’re left alone, and thinking about death.
In Europe and Central Asia, two-thirds of the young people felt happy most of the time, more so in Western Europe (80%) than in transition countries (60%). Those in two-parent and more well-to-do families were more likely to be happy. Like Asia, causes of happiness were being with friends and family, followed by doing well in school and playing or having free time. Like Asia, being scolded caused unhappiness, as did getting poor marks in school, and problems or quarrels at home. They worry most about family problems, doing badly in school, and economic problems. Other worries included the environment, politics, war and future employment. Despite their worries, 60% believe their life will be better than their parents and 43% believe life is better today than a decade ago, but 26% believe it is worse–especially in eastern countries.
In contrast to the other areas, one third of kids in South American don’t often feel happy. Unhappiness increases with poorer families, kids who are black or indigenous, and in the Caribbean. What upsets kids is family problems and quarrels, school problems, and money worries. The saddest news they had heard recently was most frequently natural disasters. Other responses were hunger, war, child abuse, delinquency, and violence. However, 76% think the quality of their lives will be better than their parents.
Scientists created a Wellbeing Index of countries with 87 measurements, including how long people live, health care, the environment, and education. The Index has been used to compare 180 countries. About two-thirds of the countries have low happiness ratings. Three Scandinavian countries had the highest rating levels: Norway, Denmark, and Finland. For 30 years, Denmark has topped international happiness surveys. Ask an American how it’s going, and you will usually hear “great.” Ask a Dane, and you will hear “Det kunne være værre (It could be worse).” “Danes have consistently low expectations for the year to come,” a team of Danish scholars concluded. Another study ranked the happiest nations as the Scandinavian countries, Canada, the Netherlands, Switzerland and New Zealand, with the US in ninth place. Based on a large Gallup Poll, researchers found happiness rises with increased income up to $75,000.
Economist Mark Anielski developed another economic model of happiness he calls Genuine Wealth. In his book, The Economics of Happiness, he provides examples of the Genuine Wealth model. The World Values Survey of almost 90% of the world’s population concluded,
The extent to which a society allows free choice has a major impact on happiness. Since 1981, economic development, democratization, and increasing social tolerance have increased the extent to which people perceive that they have free choice, which in turn has led to higher levels of happiness around the world, as the human development model suggests.
Bhutan’s government has a happiness policy as guide to policy decisions and a wealthy city in China called Jiangyin strives to create happiness for its residents. The project aims to make the government responsible for meeting five targets around jobs, incomes, the environment, culture and health.
What makes young people happy? More than 100 questions were asked of 1,280 Americans ages 13-24 in 2007 (by the Associated Press and MTV). Like people of all ages, relationships are the greatest source of happiness. In this order: spending time with family (73% say their relationship with their parents makes them happy), spending time with friends, and boyfriend or girlfriend. Money was not high on the list, nor was sex. Having highly educated parents has a more positive effect on happiness than income. Comparing groups of young people, 72% of whites said they’re happy with life in general, but only 56% of blacks and 51% of Hispanics agreed.
When asked to name their heroes, nearly half mentioned one or both of their parents, with Mom a bit out in front—as with our youth respondents. Most want to be married and have kids. When I asked my college students about their happy childhood memories, family trips are often mentioned, along with other fun shared activities. A study of teen boys in South Korea by Dr. Jee Hyan Ha found that the heaviest cell phone users were the least happy, trying to make themselves feel better by texting others.
Studies of US adults also found that money does not buy happiness: the average person’s income more than doubled between 1957 and 2002, but the percent of people who described themselves as “very happy” remained the same. Poor people are less likely to be happy than people who have their basic needs met, but wealthy people aren’t happier. People who have social networks live longer than lonely people. Married people are happier than those without a partner.
Kids seem happier, as studies show they laugh a lot more than adults. We laugh when illogical things are linked, as comedians often do in their performances. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud believed laughter is an escape valve for feelings. Women tend to laugh more than men and men are the best laugh-getters, states Robert Provine in Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. It’s good for our health, increasing the healthy function of the tissue lining the blood vessels, reports a 2005 study at the University of Maryland.
We have a genetic predisposition to be happy or not so happy, affecting as much as 50% of the way we respond, according to the Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart. Events such as winning the lottery or becoming disabled don’t change this pattern over time. About 10% of our attitude is shaped by our situation, and 40% is our thinking patterns, and half is genetic. Cell biologist Bruce Lipton even believes we can change our genes with our beliefs. Lipton explains in The Biology of Belief (2005), “Repetition creates a filter which alters genes.”
Scientist Candace Pert, PhD, explains the biology of happiness: She believes happiness occurs when our system flows without blocks. Our emotions are associated with biochemicals called neuropeptides, which are received by cell receptors as a ligand, like a key in a keyhole. Being in love creates very different chemicals than being depressed; the former enhances the immune system and the other diminishes it. Pert discovered, “Only when our systems get blocked, shut down, and disarrayed do we experience the mood disorders that add up to unhappiness in the extreme.” Pert writes in Molecules of Emotion: “I believe that happiness is what we feel when our biochemicals of emotion, the neuropeptides and their receptors, are open and flowing freely throughout the psychosomatic network, integrating and coordinating our systems, organs and cells in a smooth and rhythmic movement.”
The implication is we need to understand and express our feelings by journaling, meditating, keeping a dream journal, engaging in therapy, exercising, etc. Breathing deeply can free up repressed emotions as it moves body armoring (a concept developed by Wilhelm Reich that blocked energy creates physical blocks in the muscles which prevent release of energy). To switch from negative to positive thinking, even in the face of challenges, use what therapists call “cognitive restructuring” or positive self-talk. Appreciate the lessons of strength, patience, compassion, or whatever you learned from a difficult problem. Remember, “The disasters of life are often the genius of the unconscious, forcing our egos into a new experience of the self.” Shehroz reports, “I told a friend during his troubled times that ‘trouble itself is a teacher’ and he wrote that down in his journal. He says now he looks for positive lessons from every trouble he goes through.”
Martin Seligman is the author of more than a dozen books and father of the Positive Psychology movement, which studies the processes that contribute to optimal function of individuals, groups and institutions. Seligman says that “happiness-building exercises” can increase contentment because they can change a person’s memory and perception of the past. To boost your own happiness factor, add to your gratitude list daily, write a letter to someone you’d like to thank, and set aside time for your favorite activities. Taking time to be quiet and listen to the higher self provides us centered calmness as well as answers. His website includes free tests you can take to identify your strengths and your happiness and depression levels.