Even if the world news is dire, your boss a sour puss and your bank account dwindling by the minute – there ARE ways to feel happy during times of crisis. National Geographic explorer and author Dan Buettner traveled the world to discover intriguing secrets of happiness. America, take note.
(c) By Bettina M. Gordon, Photos by David McLain, Gianluca Colla and Richard Hume.
Bettina Gordon: We all know the famous saying “Money can’t buy you happiness”. Usually this sentence is quoted by people who don’t have any. So here’s the question I always wanted to ask an expert: can money buy me happiness or not?
Dan Buettner: Yes, it can. Studies clearly show that money does indeed make us happy, but only up to a certain point. After analyzing over 450,000 responses to a daily survey of 1,000 randomly selected U.S. residents, two top scientists at Princeton University have determined the following: people assessed their lives to be happier and more content the more money they earned. But in daily life an annual income of about $ 75,000 is enough to generate a maximum of happiness that stems from your income alone. Beyond this number it does not make much difference anymore if you add one or another six zeros to this sum.
Bettina: Hold on. Does that mean that happiness does not significantly increase with a rising income, status and power? In other words: Donald Trump with all his billions, private planes, mansions and influence is not happier than … me?
There are two kinds of happiness: First, there is how you evaluate your life, how you think back and remember it. The problem is that we all only remember a small fraction of our lives and we tend to remember it imperfectly. Do you remember what you had for lunch last Tuesday? Me neither. We don’t remember most of the minutia of our lives. Secondly, there is how we experience our lives. And these are two different things.
So when it comes to evaluated happiness, yes, a billionaire is going to say that he is happier than a millionaire at the end of the day. But when you look at the experience of a billionaire’s life – he is not sure if this friend really likes him for who he is or only for the money; he’s got all kind of financial worries; tax worries; a more demanding spouse/partner; all the properties to take care of; and he’s more afraid of the market swings, then the experience is probably not better than that of a millionaire and a millionaire’s experience of happiness is not better than that of someone who makes less.
As I said, an income of $ 75,000 is enough to generate a maximum of happiness. However, this does not mean that we all need to make that much money to be happy. This number only refers to financial aspects and does not take into account all the other ways and factors that boost our happiness.
Bettina: So why do almost all of us chase the mighty dollar so fervently then?
There is something called the hedonic treadmill: We think we want the bigger house, the bigger car, the nicer clothes or the big promotion at work and we often get it. But, we overestimate the time span that these things boost our experienced happiness level. The reality is that new stuff wears out pretty quickly. After usually six to nine months you are right at the same happiness level that you were before you got the promotion, new car or new airplane. The happiness based on new things is just temporary.
Bettina: How did you choose the Happiness Hot Spots around the world?
Various scientific data measuring happiness all point to the same handful of places around the world where people experience the highest levels of satisfaction and well-being. In a quest to determine their unique lifestyles and secrets to happiness — and how to adapt these secrets to fit our lives — the National Geographic Society sent me on assignment to the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark; the Mexican state of Nuevo León; San Luis Obispo, Calif., where our team found arguably the happiest people in America; and perhaps most counter-intuitively, the highly regulated city of Singapore, which is the happiest of the four regions that are profiled in “Thrive – Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way.”
Bettina: Where I come from we have this saying “Happiness is like a bird, it flies to you.” You say we can learn how to be happy. How?
Only about 30 percent of your happiness comes from your genes, the way you were born. About 20 percent is influenced by our life circumstances. The much bigger percentage, 50 percent, of your happiness depends on you and on how you think and react to things every day. So you can stack the odds in your favor.
The true keys to happiness lie in the ways we think and behave, instead of what we have. It is much more powerful and long lasting to seek out experiences such as savoring a beautiful moment and taking a picture of it; thanking a friend; writing a gratitude journal; or performing random acts of kindness. Such habits add up to create an upward spiral that boosts happiness.
Bettina: You write we should rather invest in experiences than things.
If you are going to buy something for yourself or even a gift for someone else, it is still true that your happiness boost is only temporary and that life experiences like a cooking class, dance lessons, surfing lessons or a vacation boost your happiness while you experience them and create memories that can last a lifetime. A fun vacation can lead to great memories and stories you share for years. Displaying a photo of that great vacation will also give you a little boost of happiness every time you look at it. If you want to give money, give to a charity instead buying a present. It is also proven that people who give to charity are happier than those who don’t give.
Bettina: Besides survival, what’s the most significant basic need we have to fulfill to feel happy? Is it freedom or rather security?
When we look at the happiest places in the world, we find surprising results. Singapore, for example, is the happiest place in Asia. And it teaches us that we human beings are more hard wired for security, than for freedom. To feel secure gives us in general more happiness than having a lot of freedom. You cannot buy pornography or spit on the sidewalks in Singapore, but a woman can go out every time of the night and not feel anxious about getting accosted there. You can also let your kids play in the park without having to worry about them. It is also a place where people are financially secure. 90% of people own their own homes there. When it comes to happiness, financial security is three times more important than income alone. In general it is good for your happiness to have money, but toxic to your happiness to want money too much.
Bettina: We spend the majority of our time at work – how high does job happiness rank in the overall feeling of happiness?
Your job is the single most important factor when it comes to your happiness. It gives people a sense of worth, but also a social network which we would not have if it wouldn’t be for the job. So finding the right job is one of the most important things we can do to influence our happiness. By the way, the happiest people at work are also the happiest people at home.
One word of caution though when it comes to your job: One of the most dependable reasons for people in the US and in Europe to experience unhappiness is if they have a long commute to work. If you have a one hour commute to and from work you need to have an additional income of $50,000 to make up for that for your happiness.
Bettina: What are the top corner pillars for happiness?
As a rule of thumb, here are the most important predictors of your happiness: Do I have a good and engaging job? Did I marry the right person? This is hugely important. Do I volunteer and have the feeling that I am giving back? And the biggest one is where you live. Do I live in an environment that I feel good in; where I can indulge in my hobbies; connect to like minded people and live a modest active life style?
Bettina: Is an engaging job that pays little better than the higher paid one that’s less exciting?
In this case I quote Joseph Campbell: Follow your bliss! I think the money will follow. If you have a job that you are passionate about you tend to excel in it, you tend to reach a level of expertise and with the expertise the money comes.
You are more likely to enjoy a job over the years if it addresses your passions, values, and talents rather than simply giving you a big pay-check, office, or title. Money never brings us as much happiness as we think it will, as I pointed out before.
Bettina: What are the happiest professions?
It is not really possible to point out the particular jobs that are the happiest because it depends on a person’s abilities and passion. If you like to work with you hands, you won’t be as satisfied if you have to work as a lawyer rather than a carpenter or landscape architect. And vice versa.
In general, I suggest we look at the happiest place in the world, a city called Aarhus, in Denmark. The biggest success in happiness comes from setting your life up in a way that supports your happiness. Aarhus is a place where it is really easy to get an engaging job. Taxes are so high that a garbage man makes basically the same amount of money that a lawyer does because of their progressive tax brackets. Those making about $ 70,000 and more a year part with 68 percent of it through taxes. Status is not celebrated. If you show up in a fancy suit trying to show off, others will take you down. This is a country where people are engaged in furniture making and architecture, where people are mostly equal in status and not too many have too much and too many have too little. They also work only 37 hours per week and they take five full weeks of vacation each year.
Bettina: In America we hardly even take the few weeks of vacation we have.
A big mistake when it comes to happiness. Vacations lower stress levels, rejuvenate us, and give us time to pursue a wider variety of interests. Research also shows that the anticipation and preparation for a trip enhances happiness levels. So it is more beneficial to plan five weeklong vacations than one five weeklong vacation a year, for example.
Bettina: A lot of people attach their feeling of self-worth to the amount of money they have in their bank account. That´s a set up for disaster when the economy turns and you lose your job.
Losing your job is one of the most detrimental experiences ever, especially for a man. For some it is more dramatic than even a divorce, because you lose self-esteem, you lose your purpose and you lose the reason for getting up in the morning. And, it often means that people are losing their main social network. It is very tough to recover from getting fired or laid-off. If you look at Singapore, the happiest place in Asia, almost everybody there is employed. Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister and architect of the little island city/state located at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, is very sensitive to that. He is not a big proponent of welfare, he is, however, a big proponent for workfare. Everybody has a minimum wage, which means even if you run a little stand on the side street selling noodles, you will still make enough money to survive. They are very good in creating employment and thus overall a high level of well being.
Bettina: What advice can you give unemployed people to maintain happiness and a healthy outlook during those months of unemployment?
Volunteer. This is the best way to ensure high levels of well-being. As counterintuitive at it is – you might think I need to make money, I NEED to find the new job – but what you really should do is take the focus off your problems once in a while and volunteer. Many times you will find that the networking that comes from volunteering, getting out of the house, exercising one’s tools and one’s talents might later lead to a job. Volunteers are not only happier, they tend to lose weight, they tend to be happier people over all and it is addictive!
Bettina: When looking for a new job, what parameters should I look for?
Before you consider your next job, begin by answering some of these questions: How is this work important? What can I contribute? Does it excite me? Will it challenge me so hard that I will give up so little that I will get bored? Would I do this work even if I didn’t get paid? Would I think about my work even when I am not working? Can I achieve excellence at this? Does this work make me feel proud?
Bettina: Let’s assume I am not that thrilled in my current job, but don’t want to leave either. How can I boost my job happiness?
The number one determination if you are happy at your job or not is if you have a best friend there or not. So be proactive with the people that sit around you. Go ahead and make friends, find the one that aligns with your values, invite him or her to lunch, be the one who organizes happy hour or other social gatherings outside work. Proactively, find one or two people who you can become good friends with and that will make you a lot happier. In my office I have only people who share my enthusiasm for healthy and happy lives. Also, Healthways and Gallup polled about one million workers and discovered that the happiest Americans socialize eight hours a day. So jobs like travel agents, clergy, teacher, firefighter, they interact with people all the time, which raises their happiness levels at in general.
Bettina: You say that people should think twice before applying for a promotion. Why?
With a promotion, you have more responsibilities and your boss has higher expectations. You may need to work more hours. You may need to travel more. You may need to entertain clients in the evening or on weekends. You may not be the type of person who would consider these changes in your life a positive change, so your well-being may go down with this promotion.
Bettina: What was the most surprising fact that you discovered in your research on happiness?
That in certain Muslim countries, where there is no gender equality, women are actually happier than men. I think the conventional wisdom in the US since the 1960s is that women’s equality brings more happiness. It turns out that this is not always true. That’s surprising!
Bettina: For those of us with short attention span: What´s your best happiness advice in a nutshell?
Dan Buettner: Set reasonable goals for yourself. Seek out places where you can live out your interests. Find a modest house in a neighborhood of other modest houses, with neighbors you can call friends and sidewalks that let you walk where you need to go. Recognize your purpose in living each day. Take time to appreciate the arts. Find a job you love without worrying too much about the salary. Find hobbies that fuel your passions. Take six weeks of vacation no matter what. Set up your life so you’re physically active every day. Spend six hours a day with your lover, kids, and handful of TRUE friends. Meditate, pray or nap daily. And call your mother!
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