If you search ‘how to be happier’ on Google, you will be presented with well over 4 billion results within just one second. It seems that many people want to know—and many more people want to tell them. The answers range from smiling more, to reducing stress and embracing mindfulness. Even the NHS has a guide to being happier.
However, why do we want to be happier? And should we pursue happiness, or does it, like social media, actually make us unhappier in the long term?
Talking about happiness
It turns out that happiness has some clear benefits. People who are happier are generally healthier, although it is not clear whether the link is causal or just a correlation. It is entirely possible that people who are happier are more likely to engage in healthier behaviours, or even that people who are healthy are happier. Whatever the precise relationship, positive emotions are strongly linked to living longer.
However, the big question here might just be whether and how you can measure happiness. After all, the results of studies about levels of happiness will depend on how you measure the concept. On an individual level, there is the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, a short questionnaire that claims to quantify your happiness from just 29 questions using a six-point scale.
On the face of it, its sheer simplicity may make it more useful than other more complex measures. However, as one user pointed out, happiness is both relative and subjective. It is also easy to start feeling guilty because you should be happy, even if you’re not—which will make you more unhappy.
The World Happiness Report uses data from the Gallup World Poll to provide each country with a happiness ranking based on six factors (levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom, and corruption). It also provides rankings for individual cities as well, leading to a range of headlines around the world about which cities are ‘best’ to live in.
A constant quest for happiness?
However, should we constantly strive to be happier? Perhaps not. The evidence suggests that we can actually be too happy. A paper from 10 years ago notes that when you are too happy, you become less creative, and also less flexible in the face of challenges. Being too happy can also lead people to engage in more risky behaviour, perhaps because they overlook warning signs in their environment. Some forms of happiness are also less positive. For example, a sense of happiness or pride in your own achievements can lead to difficulties connecting with others.
Interestingly, pursuing happiness can also lead to unhappiness. This might be akin to the social media paradox. In other words, the more you think about being happier, or compare your life now to what it could be, the less you will see yourself as happy now—and therefore you will be unhappier.
However, that doesn’t mean that you have to ‘settle’ for where you are now. One of the positives to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic was that many people saw that they could be happier, often by making relatively small changes. Many of us saw the value of spending more time with family, or learned more about what was really important to us.
One of the biggest changes was the rise of remote working—and the desire from both employers and employees to retain this as an option. Hybrid working is increasingly being talked about as a good way to support everyone. It offers flexibility and supports increasing autonomy, which is associated with lower stress and higher rates of happiness.
Admittedly, hybrid working is not always easy to deliver in practice. Organisations are finding that it brings its own set of challenges, especially the need to avoid a them/us culture among those who work remotely and those who are office-based. However, it seems likely to be at least a part of the answer to the Great Resignation for many employers.
The importance of choice
The bottom line in all of this is that we are all ultimately in control of our own lives. The choices that we make matter, whether at home or at work, or simply in our own heads. You can choose to be content with your life—or you can choose to make changes. It really does lie with you. Your first choice might even be to do the Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, just to see…