What makes people happy? Happiness and what makes us happy has been the topic of research for a psychologist called Martin Seligman. He is the President of the American Psychological Association. In his research he looked at several factors which are conventionally thought to make us happy.
Despite the fact that purchasing power has doubled in the last 50 years in the world’s rich nations, overall life satisfaction has not changed at all. Very poor people do have a lower level of happiness but once a basic income and purchasing power has been reached there are no increases in happiness on a par with extra wealth. It would seem that materialistic people are not happy.
In his research which looked at over 35,000 Americans it found that 40% of married people said they were very happy against 24% of people who said they were divorced separated or widowed. Marriage does seem to increase happiness regardless of income or age. It was also found that nearly all very happy people are in a romantic relationship.
It was discovered that those with a lower level of happiness were those who spent more time alone.
It was recorded that women experienced depressive episodes more than men but at the same time they experienced many more happy times than men. So women are both sadder and happier than men.
Religious people were consistently shown to be happier and more satisfied with life than the non religious. They are also the more resilient to setbacks and have lower rates of depression.
Surprisingly this showed to have little effect on the findings. It is only where there are multiple or severe illnesses that people’s emotions are affected.
This would appear to have no real affect on people. Humanity is an adaptable race.
But interestingly these only make up about 8 – 15 percent of what makes us happy. Seligman’s view is that genuine happiness is determined by the development of “character”. Virtues such as wisdom, knowledge, courage, love and humanity, justice, temperance and spirituality are traits akin to this “character” building. Traits which often get overlooked in 21st century commerce I think. Largely because they are thought to be old fashioned. People who overcome obstacles and develop their talents and strengths feel better about themselves.
From my own observations and research there appears to be a growing tendency to give up as soon as the first major obstacle is reached. A trend I have noticed in young people (15 – 25years old) and regardless of social grouping. Obstacles, when faced, receive an opinion of “I can’t be bothered” or simply “I can’t do it”. Are they any the happier for avoiding such challenges? In the short term maybe but probably not in the long term.
Seligman concluded that real satisfaction and authentic happiness came from developing our strengths as it also brings the most success.
Does your past really determine your future happiness?
There are many people I know of who would say an emphatic yes to this. Older psychological research by the likes of Freud would also back this up. However, Seligman’s findings prove otherwise. For example, if the mother of a child aged under 11 dies then the child is only at a slightly higher risk of depression in adult life and only then if she is female. Divorce has only a marginal effect and wanes in later life. Seligman’s message is that what happened to us in childhood does not deliver our adult misery. What matters is the development of our personal strengths.
Can happiness be increased?
Research shows that people have a level of happiness or unhappiness that is part of their genetic make up. Research shows that people who win great sums of money on the lottery are only happy for as long as the celebrations last. It is my belief that it is not the money they have won that makes them happy, although it may relieve them of debts and so on, but it is the act of having won something that gives them the buzz and which they will seek more of. Conversely I think the same can be said of sadness and some depression. I say some because there is the evidence of some depression caused by chemical imbalance. It is the event that makes us sad or depressed. The more we dwell on it the sadder we become. In grief we are sad when a loved one dies. But to dwell on their dying excessively is to court depression whereas if concentration is put to getting on yet still not forgetting the person then the pain is lessened. This I have observed and experienced for myself. Excessive wallowing in grief and sadness is something that is perpetuated in a lot of modern media. Tabloid newspapers and soap operas being two of the main culprits in my opinion. What matters in the development of happiness and satisfaction with life is the development of personal strengths such as originality, valor, integrity, kindness and fairness.
In the west it is generally thought that it is bad to bottle up anger. That we should “vent our wrath”. Seligman discovered that it is in just such an act that we are more likely to suffer heart attacks. Blood pressure actually goes down when people bottle up anger or express gratitude.
Conversely, the more gratitude you show the better we feel. Seligman’s students held a “Gratitude Night”. For this students invited someone along who they wanted to thank for doing something for them publicly. The people involved were on a “high” for some time afterwards.
The 21st century offers us many quick roads to happiness. We don’t have to do too much to get a positive buzz. But this is really a hollow feeling as it demands nothing from us as people. It makes us spectators and not engagers of life. Responding to challenges and rising to the occasion is what Seligman believes brings us happiness. A view to which I can only agree.
The path to happiness is not easy but neither is it a mystical thing enjoyed by everyone else. Thanks to Seligman we can now see the paths easier. It is up to us, however, to get up and walk them.
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