Six things science tells us about happiness

UBC economist on a bold UN mission

Struggling to find happiness? Consider the plight of John Helliwell, a University
of British Columbia economist who was recently asked to help the United Nations measure and improve global happiness levels.

Helliwell, a leading happiness researcher, is working with colleagues on a “World Happiness Report,” that will support a special UN meeting on April 2 in New York City. The meeting, the result of a unanimous UN resolution introduced by Bhutan, will document the current state of happiness around the world, and is part of a UN effort to improve life satisfaction with strategies grounded in science.

Universal happiness may sound like a stretch, but science offers some clear direction, says Helliwell, who began exploring social capital and well-being issues as a visiting professor at Harvard in the 1990s. “Time and time again, we find that people systematically overestimate the impact of material things and underestimate the positive impacts of social connections,” he says.

UBC Reports asked Helliwell to list some of the most important discoveries to date in the field of happiness research.

1. Money ≠ happiness

Does money bring happiness? Studies find that income does support life satisfaction, but mostly at low income levels, and not as much as people expect, says Helliwell, who first ranked the happiness of Canada’s cities in 2007. Positive social interactions have a much greater impact on well-being, he says.

2. Trust is a must

Helliwell’s research shows that working in an organization where trust in management is one point higher (on a 10-point scale) has the same impact on life satisfaction as getting a 30 per cent pay raise. But the importance of trust extends far beyond the workplace; trust in police and neighbours counts too. “When trust is high, people have the confidence to reach out and engage with the community,” he says.

3. Longing to belong

Like trust, a sense of belonging is another key indicator of happiness, Helliwell says, noting that your immediate surroundings are especially important. “Studies show that feelings of belonging at the local community level have twice the impact of those at the national or provincial,” he says. As for social media, a Canadian survey found that it is the size of your network of real-time friends, and not the online version, that supports life satisfaction.

4. Generosity pays off

If you are going to spend money on happiness, studies suggest spending on charitable donations or activities designed to serve a larger purpose. Donors and volunteers often receive greater personal satisfaction from their philanthropy than recipients, says Helliwell, a professor emeritus in UBC’s Dept. of Economics. In a recent study, cancer patients who counseled their peers received even larger benefits than those they were counseling.

5. Freedom brings happiness

While good health is important, the perceived freedom to make important life choices is also crucial, says Helliwell, a co-director of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research’s social interactions, identity and well-being program. It should come as no surprise that Denmark, which has the world’s highest self-assessed levels of freedom, also has the highest life satisfaction levels, he says.

6. Reach out

Small towns tend to outperform the big cities on happiness because it is easier to get to know neighbors, build trust and create a sense of belonging. “When people ask where to start, I say transform your elevator ride from a prison sentence to a social event,” he says. “Chat with neighbours and help carry their groceries. It’s easier to reach outside your comfort zone when you realize that you and the whole community are likely to benefit.”

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UBC Reports | Vol. 58 | No. 2 | Feb. 1, 2012

Social connections bring more happiness than money, says UBC economist John Helliwell. Darin Dueck Photograph

Social connections bring more happiness than money, says UBC economist John Helliwell. Darin Dueck Photograph

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“When people ask where to start, I say transform your elevator ride from a prison sentence to a social event waiting to happen.”

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