Happiness - experts discover what we all knew

Happiness - experts discover what we all knew

What makes us happy? Time spent with family and friends, and the beauty of nature. We all knew it already, of course, but now a group of Spanish researchers are backing up our common sense and experience with scientific findings.

The team, from the Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technologies at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, surveyed 678 individuals in their mid-20s to early 50s in the Solomon Islands and Bangladesh, two very low-income countries. Overall, participants remarkably high levels of happiness, particularly in communities with the lowest levels of monetisation. These were comparable to those found in Scandinavian countries, which typically come top in such surveys.

The investigators spent time in several small fishing communities. Participants were interviewed a number of times over a few months, with the help of local translators. Conversations, in person and with unexpected phone calls, were designed to elicit information about what constituted happiness. They also provided a sense of their passing moods, lifestyle, fishing activities, household income and level of integration.

“In less monetized sites, we found people reported a greater proportion of time spent with family and contact with nature as being responsible for making them happy,” explains lead author Dr. Sara Minarro, a postdoctoral research fellow. “But with increasing monetisztion, we found the social and economic factors commonly recognized in industrialized countries played a bigger role. Overall, our findings suggest monetization, especially in its early stages, may actually be detrimental to happiness.”

Where money was in greater use, such as in urban Bangladesh, happiness actually dropped.

“Our study hints at possible ways of achieving happiness that are unrelated to high incomes and material wealth,” says senior author Eric Galbraith, a professor in McGill University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. “This is important, because if we replicate these results elsewhere and can pinpoint the factors that contribute to subjective wellbeing, it may help us circumvent some of the environmental costs associated with achieving social well-being in the least developed nations.”

“This work adds to a growing realization important supports for happiness are not in principle related to economic output,” explains co-author Chris Barrington-Leigh, a professor in McGill’s Bieler School of the Environment. “When people are comfortable, safe, and free to enjoy life within a strong community, they are happy – regardless of whether or not they are making any money.”

The study, published in PLOS ONE, backs previous research showing when societies grow richer, there is no overall increase in happiness. Perhaps it should be no surprise then that rich Western countries are plagued with high levels of depression. The reason is partly due to money fueling envy, say psychologists.

One study of more than 1,200 Americans found those who valued time above money were actually happier. Another U.S. study of 2,000 millionaires found they would have to at least double their wealth to be truly happy.

It is not clear from the report whether the survey considered religious belief as a contributory factor to happiness, but it is found much more often in poorer rural communities than big cities, and also correlates closely with happiness and mental well-being.