Happiness is now in vogue. During the past decade, there’s been an upsurge in studies on the subject of happiness by economists and psychologists alike. It’s the era of positive psychology, reflecting a switch from scrutinizing mental illness to pursuing mental awesomeness.
As scientists scramble to find patterns in what makes people feel best, it seems that, whether you look at money, stuff, or love, there is a science to what makes us happy.
Using the Game of Life board game as an analogy, let’s roll through life’s possibilities and find out which squares score us big fist pumps and which ones bring us lemons.
Pick Up a Card: Claim Your Personality
Personalities prone to guilt, anger and anxiety – classified as “neurotic” by psychologists – are less likely to be happy. Studies find that among personality traits, extroversion and neuroticism are the strongest predictors of life satisfaction, suggesting that temperament greatly determines life happiness.
In fact, some scientists estimate that cheeriness is 50% genetic predisposition. Life circumstances such as relationships, health, wealth, and work account for another 10%. But before you blame all your blues on heredity, happiness is still 40% reliant on attitude and how we choose to handle life.
That’s right, girlfriend (sassy snap).
🎲 Roll 2: Cheer Up! Get More Done
It pays to be happy. In experiments in which people watched a funny film, they immediately performed 12% better at mentally challenging tasks, compared to those who watched a neutral film and those who watched no film at all.
Better yet, studies show that happier people heal faster from wounds and are less prone to colds and other viruses. And because stress and anxiety is destructive to our bodies, happier people may even live longer.
Take 5 Steps Back: Revisit Childhood
What do kids really need to be happy: organic apple juice, or – mom forbid – an iPad Mini? Well, neither, it turns out.
According to research by the University of Essex Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER), the most important factors for childhood happiness are close friends, playing sports, and a stable home.
Other positives for a happy childhood are healthy lifestyle, a sense of community, and good behavior from other students during class time. Family wealth, on the other hand, is not such a big deal. According to researcher Gundi Knies, there is no association between family income and a child’s overall life satisfaction.
What about Maple Story and the digital life? Studies show that going online for up to one hour raises moods, but excessive computer use correlates with unhappy kids. Moreover, long hours of screen time keep kids from happier activities like playing with friends or playing sports.
🎲 Roll 1: The Dangers of Teenagerhood
During the teen years, hormones such as testosterone increase between 200 to 400% – making teens “prone to be a bit more bristly,” according to psychologist David Carey. Hormonal surges are part of the reason why teens flip flop between enthusiastic joy and door-slamming hate.
The teenage brain is a wild card. The prefrontal cortex – responsible for reasoning and impulse control – is changing, making teens “much more emotionally reactive and less able to think through interpersonal problems,” says Carey.
A teenager’s life is rife with stressors, like peer pressure and academic competition. Hence, biology and environment form part of the reason why teens report higher rates of depression.
Of course, being 15 is not always glum. Having a stable group of friends, especially friends whose moods are positive, can help a teen stay happy and depression-free.
🎲 Roll 4: The Difference between Earning $25,000 and $55,000
Does earning more money lead to greater happiness? We may think so, but research shows that around the world, income is a poor indicator of satisfaction with life. As economist Alan B. Krueger notes, “Much of what contributes to well-being happens outside markets.”
Money helps, of course, but only to an extent. Money increases happiness if it lifts us out of poverty and helps provide for our basic needs. Once people have achieved middle-class levels of wealth, however, increased income makes a minimal difference in happiness.
A jump in annual salary from $25,000 to $55,000 results in a 9% increase in life satisfaction – but not a double increase. After earning $75,000 a year, more money makes virtually zero impact on day-to-day satisfaction.
Conversely, focusing on money can be a curse. In experiments where people were primed to think of money, they become more anti-social. After spending time imagining a moneyed future, test participants were less willing to help a stranger. Looking at a photograph of money primed people to choose solitary activities over social ones.
More money may even deplete happiness. Around the world, wealthier people are more likely to report feeling stressed. A survey of working adults in Belgium revealed that wealthier individuals are less likely to enjoy life’s simple pleasures.
🎲 Roll 6: Buy Happiness – Get a Sports Car or Visit Fiji?
Whatever level of wealth is in your pocket, there are strategies for maximizing money’s happiness-buying power.
Given the choice between a material purchase and an experiential one, what’s your preference? Moreover, which do you predict will bring more happiness?
Material purchases like a shiny car or tomorrow’s smart phone brings massive initial excitement, but the hype diminishes over time. A great experience, however, gets entrenched in our memory, so the joy lasts much longer.
Adventure purchases, even small ones, become part of our life repertoire, contributing to our identity and personhood. We’re more likely to talk about having gone to Disney World versus owning a La-Z-Boy recliner, even though both cost about the same.
Experiences often have a social aspect, which also makes us happier. Think about dining out with friends. Unlike material things, experiences are personal and difficult to measure against another, thus saving them from the poison of comparison, which easily ruins the enjoyment of new clothes or gadgets.
🎲 Roll 4: Socializing – Your Golden Ticket to Happiness!
Around the world, the number one booster of happiness is spending time with close friends and family. People experience the best moods when socializing with loved ones. Playing with kids brings more positive vibes than almost any other common activity.
A sense of community and frequent community celebrations are among the greatest factors of happiness universally. This explains all our Christmas dinners, birthday bashes, Sunday potlucks, and keg parties.
🎲 Roll 3: Give away $5
Make no mistake – giving away precious time or money is not a bummer.
In an experiment in which people either spent $5 on themselves or on others, those who invested in others reported feeling more happy. The happiest people of all were those who spent money on others while sharing the moment together.
Pick Up a Card: Find Your Life Partner
Looking at data from the Gallup World Poll and two U.K. surveys, Helliwell and Grover believe that married couples are happier than singles even after controlling for prior life satisfaction. They also observed that being married has some protective effect against the slump that many people feel in their forties and fifties, also known as mid-life crisis.
One “side effect” of being happily married could be having kids. Although many parents say that raising children brings them the greatest joy and fulfillment, having a child actually depletes happiness. Data from the US General Social Survey suggests that for every child a parent has, happiness is reduced by 0.24% on average. The ages of high drama are especially rough: parents of toddlers and teenagers report the greatest unhappiness.
🎲 Roll 3: Choosing a Living Space
Don’t worry if your pad is not the best in town. A beautiful house increases satisfaction in the house itself, but does little to improve overall happiness in life.
A study of Harvard students randomly assigned to various types of housing showed that over time, we become accustomed to our circumstances and end up feeling no better or worse than before, regardless of being in a shabby dorm or a palatial commune.
Many people’s vision of a happily fulfilled life includes owning a home. Yet studies comparing homeowners and renters in Ohio did not find one group any happier, only that homeowners were an average of 12 pounds heavier.
Whereas home ownership and type of housing doesn’t necessarily determine your happiness, proximity to work will. Commuting – counted among the most unpleasant activities in our day-to-day lives – is a huge threat to happiness. Women in U.S. and France who commute 25% of the time are in a bad mood. In Germany, longer commutes correlate with lower levels of satisfaction with life. Long commutes affect both workplace and family happiness; commuters report being less content at work and less satisfied with their marriages.
Skip Ahead: Building a Fulfilling Career
Workplace happiness is growing scarce. In the US, only half of employees feel satisfied with their jobs. Worldwide, work engagement is low, with only 13% saying they are engaged, that is, psychologically committed and desiring to make positive contributions. Almost a quarter of the world’s workers say they are actively disengaged, both unhappy and unproductive.
If the world of work could be made a better place, productivity would increase by leaps and bounds. Happy workers are 31% more productive than unhappy ones.
If you’re seeking career happiness, some professions are more promising than others. A report by NORC at the University of Chicago lists clergymen, physical therapists, and firefighters as the top three happiest professions. Other professions with high work satisfaction include jobs that influence people and express creativity. Among these are education administrators, psychologists, teachers, authors and artists.
Whatever profession you’re in, small changes make work a happier place. Decorating your workspace with personal paraphernalia and cute trinkets can improve your mood. Try keeping a mini cactus, for example. People who have plants at their workplace are happier than those who don’t see any greenery.
Among colleagues, recognizing the contributions of others, celebrating success, and lending a helping hand are ways to boost workplace positivity.
To be a more chipper worker, strive to find meaning in work and keep a future-oriented perspective. As well, getting enough sleep, taking vacations, and eating lunch with co-workers instead of alone will make work hours more fun.
Enter Retirement: The Happy Golden Age
Designer perfume ads and Wiz Khalifa’s “Young, Wild and Free” might have you thinking that young people are the happiest on earth. Not quite.
Another group challenges them for world’s happiest demographic: the elderly. A paper by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that happiness is not a downhill slide after college, but a U-curve.
At the start of graduation and young adulthood, people are generally pretty happy. That’s before the disillusionment of life sets in. Slowly, nagging spouses, whiny children, and unmerciful bosses bring us down until we round the bend around middle age. From then on, things start looking up, that is, psychologically.
Studies found that mature people have better control of their emotions, were less prone to get angry, and less likely to pass judgment. Other studies show that elderly people had fewer arguments and were better at resolving conflicts. When 30-year-olds and 70-year-olds were asked to rate their own well-being, 70-year-olds considered themselves much happier.
Stanford professor Laura Carstensen explains that because the elderly know that they are closer to death, they grow better at living for the present. “Older people know what matters most,” she says.
And that may be the very secret to winning happiness in our own Game of Life.
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