Love, friends, money – or just genes? Since ancient times, people have asked themselves what makes them happy. In the USA, the right to pursue happiness (“Pursuit of Happiness”) is even enshrined in the constitution, while in the Himalayan state of Bhutan there is even a so-called minister of happiness and an inquiry into gross national happiness. But how do you achieve happiness – and what does research know about it?
To get to the bottom of the matter, we must first clarify what happiness really is. “Happiness or satisfaction says something about the subjectively experienced quality of life. How much you enjoy the life you lead, for whatever reason”, explains Jan Delhey, happiness researcher and sociologist at the University of Magdeburg. But how can you improve the subjectively experienced quality of life?
Three central factors to be happy
Karlheinz Ruckriegel, happiness researcher and economist at the Nuremberg University of Technology, knows a number of factors for happiness: “Good social relationships, health, commitment and satisfying work, a certain degree of personal freedom, inner attitude and sufficient income to satisfy essential needs. material needs”.
Delhey, on the other hand, breaks this down into three central factors:
- “To have”
- “To be”.
“Having” therefore includes adequate coverage of economic needs and consumer desires, “loving” includes partners and friendships, and “being” includes meaningful occupations at work and leisure. “Just one pillar is usually not enough for high life satisfaction,” says Delhey.
Does money make us happy?
One of the big questions that people sometimes give opposing answers to is: “Does money make you happy?” Science’s answer is nuanced here. People with higher incomes and from richer countries are, on average, happier. “The increase in happiness is greater when jumping from a low income to an average income than from an average income to a high income – especially in rich societies,” emphasizes Delhey. “The usefulness of income decreases the more you already have.”
Ruckriegel confirms this: “The influence of material things is limited. If people have enough income to meet their essential material needs, income becomes less important.” In Germany, a single person can live well on a net family income of 2,000 euros. However, this is an average value that varies depending on where you live. Munich, for example, is 40% higher and Magdeburg is 20% lower. As income increases, demands also increase, meaning that increasing income no longer increases satisfaction.
Age is important
What definitely has a demonstrable influence on people’s happiness levels is age. “Young people are the happiest, then things get a little worse; the level of happiness is generally around 45 to 50 years old”, explains Delhey. This is because it is at this moment that the economic pressure is greatest, the responsibility is also greatest and dreams are also destroyed. “Then there is an increase again until old age.”
The corona pandemic has interrupted this usual pattern: younger people have been particularly hit by restrictions on freedom, as they are generally more active and maintain more social contacts. Basically, younger and older people are generally happier. Furthermore, people who have relationships are, on average, happier, as are people who do good and defend their ideals. Deep religiosity also guarantees, on average, more satisfaction, says Delhey.
However, the blows of fate can lead to major crises in life. After a phase of varying duration following an accident, according to happiness researcher Michaela Brohm-Badry from the University of Trier, there are not only people with negative consequences such as post-traumatic stress disorder, but also what she calls of “post-traumatic”. growth.” This affects up to about 60% of those affected. Many people emerge from a crisis stronger in the long term. Many studies on cancer patients and victims of fires, ships or violent disasters have shown that “in addition to overwhelmed emotions, the Suffering can also be followed by positive, empowering emotions,” says Brohm-Badry, who is also president of the German Society for Positive Psychological Research (DGPPF).
Luck and genetics
According to happiness researcher Ruckriegel – in addition to these external living conditions – our behavior and our genetic predisposition are at least as important, if not more important. Although you cannot change your character, you have control over your behavior: “Lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the path that leads to worthwhile goals. “It’s about carefully dealing with our emotional balance – keyword emotional management,” says Ruckriegel. “You should therefore carefully consider how much income you actually need so as not to spend too much time simply earning income at the expense of other happiness factors.”
Since, according to neurobiological studies, people perceive negative events and feelings more strongly than positive ones, according to Ruckriegel, it is also worth strengthening positive feelings: for example, occasionally keeping a kind of gratitude diary and remembering the events of the day which you are grateful for. “It’s not about repressing negative feelings or forcing ourselves to always think positively, but rather about becoming aware of the positive things that surround us.” However, you should question frequently occurring negative feelings and possibly react to them by changing your decisions and behavior changes and, for example, looking for a new job.
Active for your own happiness
You can also contribute to happiness through your own behavior, actively creating a social environment and thus avoiding loneliness, or by doing volunteer work, for example. “People want to do something that makes sense to them. Volunteering can fulfill this role”, says Ruckriegel. This can be a good alternative, especially in old age, when the work that many people consider meaningful no longer exists and you have more time. Volunteering also offers social interaction and support.
But it is possible to influence the happiness of the population not only individually, but also in society as a whole and politically. “If the findings of happiness research were carried out from an early age at school in Germany, we could achieve higher levels of satisfaction from the beginning and throughout our lives”, believes the Nuremberg happiness researcher. He would, therefore, welcome the introduction of a school subject on the subject, “as this would allow children to deal from an early age with the factors that are crucial to a happy life”. Not only does this make you happier, it can also extend your life expectancy because contentment is healthy.
Happiness research also appears to be receiving more attention in politics. The Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs, led by Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck (Greens), is planning a so-called well-being measurement. The objective is to focus on the ecological and social dimensions instead of just the economic ones, as in the past, as stated in a public consultation by the ministry at the end of July. Economic policy indicators, such as gross domestic product, must be complemented. “Quantitative economic growth in the sense of increasing gross domestic product is not synonymous with increasing the common good and the quality of life of citizens”, states the statement. Among other things, the aim is to determine the extent to which growth can be distributed in a socially equitable way and educational opportunities can be improved.
Happiness researcher Ruckriegel doesn’t go far enough. “I strongly recommend that subjective well-being, especially overall life satisfaction and satisfactions in areas such as work or family, be given a central position.”