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Happiness is an elusive quality

Feb 23, 2022 | Insights

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Happiness is elusive; better just to be content with who you are, define success on your terms, and contribute more to others than yourself.
We all want happiness for ourselves and others. However, a team from Tilburg University, Holland, has found that individuals in happier countries (as measured by the World Happiness Index) experienced lower levels of well-being. The cause, apparently, is pressure from peers to maintain happiness levels.

Happiness pressure diminishes well-being

Apart from the apparent paradox, this is maybe not surprising. We live in a relative world, and seeing happy people can make us feel left out and sad. So we react by attempting to be happier, further diminishing our well-being because we are no longer true to ourselves.
There is an alternative approach. Emma Seppälä introduces her book The Happiness Track by telling of her experiences as an intern at a major international newspaper in Paris. Her role gave access to all, from the editors on the top floor to the printers in the basement.

Happiness from self-defined success

Seppälä realised levels of happiness and well-being increased as she went down the building. The atmosphere in the editors’ offices on the top floor was tense, silent and not very healthy. Conversely, the blue-collar print workers in the basement were the happiest and healthiest. Here, the atmosphere was vibrant, funny, and almost festive.
And this was even though everyone had the same goal: to make and distribute the paper on time, every day.
In fact, Seppälä puts the difference down to the different definitions of success. The editors lived by unachievable myths around success, leading to burnout, whilst the printers accepted their position and lifestyle. They had enough and were enough, which for them was a success.

Happiness habits

Apart from taking a less relative approach to happiness and redefining our personal definitions of success, several habitual practices can generate happiness. These include:
  • Deep breathing for short periods
  • Regular exercise
  • Unplug and play
  • Listen deeply and respond positively
  • Record good things in a gratitude journal
  • Hug a loved one
  • Give or accept a random act of kindness

Intermittently happy, permanently content?

Unlike Guido (played by Roberto Benigni) in the hilarious and moving 1997 film Life is Beautiful, we are unlikely to be crazily happy all the time. In fact, such a state of affairs is probably so challenging that all but a few of us even aspire to perfect permanent happiness.
Instead, a more realistic aspiration might be contentment, probably not so different from the printers in the basement at Emma Seppälä’s workplace.
All in all, ‘happiness’ comes down to defining success on your terms, accepting that you are content with who you are and what you have and focussing on others more than yourself.

Dejonckheere, E., Rhee, J.J., Baguma, P.K. et al. Perceiving societal pressure to be happy is linked to poor well-being, especially in happy nations. Sci Rep 12, 1514 (2022).

Seppälä, Emma. The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success. Little, Brown Book Group. Kindle Edition.


Photo by Tina Witherspoon on Unsplash

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