World Happiness Report: Finland Tops the List Again, Most Countries Resilient Thru COVID-19

The ninth annual World Happiness Report, published by the United Nations, has just been released, and it’s the first to follow an unprecedented global calamity that impacted billions and personally affected tens of millions more. So, needless to say, its results should be interesting, if not grim.

But as the Washington Post reported, the world was largely resilient through the pandemic, maintaining a relatively positive outlook for the future:

In a conclusion that even surprised its editors, the 2021 World Happiness Report found that, amid global hardship, self-reported life satisfaction across 95 countries on average remained steady in 2020 from the previous year. The United States saw the same trend — despite societal tumult that yielded a national drop in positive emotions and a rise in negative ones. The country fell one spot, to 19th, in the annual rankings of the report, which was released Saturday.

The report is good news regarding global resilience, experts say.

“I don’t want to leave an impression that all was well, because it’s not,” said one of the report’s editors, Jeffrey Sachs, an economics professor at Columbia University. But while the use of national averages masks individual well-being disparities, Sachs said, the data suggests that “people have not thrown up their hands about their lives.”

You can read more about the methodology here, but basically, it draws its data from the Gallup World Poll, which asks people worldwide to rate their current life satisfaction from zero to ten, with ten representing “the best possible life” and zero the “worst possible life”. Respondents are also asked to report their positive and negative emotions and experiences felt the day before the survey.

Taking together both short-term and long-term self-evaluations of life satisfaction, the WHR found these to be the twenty happiest countries through 2020:

The next twenty runners up are a pretty eclectic mix as well, spanning an ever broader variety of cultures, political systems, and levels of economic development:

Overall, while there was a “significantly higher frequency of negative emotions” in just over a third of the 149 countries measuredagain, do mostly to the pandemic things got better for 22 countries, particularly in Asia; even China moved up ten places to 84th. As one of the report’s author’s noted, there was not an overall decline in well-being as expressed by the respondents.

For the U.S., which has been one of the harder-hit countries during the pandemic, to say nothing of its tumultuous social and political circumstances?

In late March to early April of 2020, at the beginning of pandemic restrictions, 58.2 percent of U.S. respondents rated their current life satisfaction as a 7 or above, Gallup found.

While the number of Americans reporting anxiety and depressive symptoms rose sharply over the course of 2020, that satisfaction number stayed fairly even through December, according to the report, even after further covid-19 restrictions, pandemic surges, protests over racial injustices and politics, and a divisive presidential election.

All the while, Americans’ expected future happiness remained high: In five surveys since the pandemic began, between 65.8 and 69.2 percent of respondents said they expected their life satisfaction to be an 8 or above five years into the future, higher than before the pandemic. That suggests an optimism for the future that Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside, says is “really, really adaptive.”

Counterintuitively, it may have been the awful hardship of the past year that actually gave a boost to a lot of folks’ happiness:

It’s not so much that people are doing precisely as well as they were before, experts explain, as that many have adapted to their new situations in ways that might have roughly evened out their well-being. “One of the quotes we use is ‘You aren’t traveling the world, but you’re more likely to have met your neighbors this year,’ ” said John Helliwell, another editor of the report and a professor emeritus of economics at the University of British Columbia.

Stressors such as those we’ve experienced this year can encourage people to craft a different, big-picture concept of happiness. And this, psychologists say, can improve resilience. You’ve already likely taken the opportunity to examine your own big picture this past year, but, if you’ve been having difficulty, and because we’re not done with this pandemic, here are some strategies to help.

Of course, this isn’t to make light of all the horrors that have unfolded across the world this past year alone. Just because something doesn’t kill you, doesn’t mean it makes you stronger, and enough people around you being killed or maimed by war, disease, or the wanton cruelties of life will take its toll.

Still, this would explain why countries like Costa Rica, Bahrain, Guatemala, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia—which together struggle with chronic poverty, inequality, violence, and/or political oppression—can be among the happiest places in the world, at the same level as, if not ahead of, much better-off places.

But that brings us to Finland, which has topped the ranking for the fourth time in a row. In fact, all but one of the top ten (New Zealand) are northern European countries—the same places that perform well in rankings of livability, life expectancy, democratic governance, low corruption, and the like. Clearly, happiness still has a lot to do with material and environmental conditions—money can only buy so much of it, as we all hear, but there is some point where baseline needs like shelter, health, economic security, and the like must be met to better ensure lifelong satisfaction.

Indeed, Finland seems to reflect this delicate balance perfectly. On the one hand, as Afar explains, there’s the cultural component:

Finns embrace a unique spirit of fortitude for thriving in tough times, which for them, often manifests via the weather. This national ideology even has a name: It’s called sisu, and it’s at the core of Finns’ well-being, suggests Katja Pantzar, a Helsinki-based journalist and author of The Finnish Way, which delves into the concept. As Pantzar explains, sisu is focused on persevering when the odds are against you and to view challenges as opportunities. “Instead of waiting for a warm sunny day,” she offers, “many Finns practice daily sisu by heading out in any kind of weather for a brisk walk or cycle, or to spend time in nature.” These simple and sensible activities are at the heart of what keeps Finns happy, Pantzar concludes, adding “I keep returning to this Finnish saying, ‘Happiness does not come from searching for it, but by living.’” And living with sisu, for Pantzar, like many Finns, means bundling up in the snow to bike to work or swimming in the sea year-round— even when it’s covered in ice.

But there is also a concerted effort to put in place economic, political, and social structures that promote individual and community stability, human flourishing, and ultimately life satisfaction, as detailed in Forbes:

Finland has long been praised by a multitude of international bodies for its extensive welfare benefits, low levels of corruption, well-functioning democracy, and its instilled sense of freedom and autonomy. Its progressive taxation and wealth distribution has allowed for a flourishing universal healthcare system, and, staggeringly, more than 80% of Finns trust their police force, which is far more than many other countries can claim. 

Finland has long been punching above its weight within the global economy, too, giving the world global brands such as Nokia, Rovio (developer of Angry Birds), Supercell (creators of Clash of Clans) and elevator manufacturer KONE. 

The country is famous for being one of the first countries to push the flat working model, which exemplifies the Finnish approach to how businesses should be run, as well as how employees should be treated in the workplace. The flat working model is one in which there are few – or sometimes even zero – hierarchal levels between management and staff. Typically there is less supervision of employees and the structure aims to promote increased involvement with organizational decision-making, enabling open communication between all departments and teams within a business. 

The key takeaway from Forbes is that Finland and its high-ranking peers all share a holistic approach to human rights and happiness, one that recognizes that individual freedom comes from having the right resources and environment to unlock your potential and self-actualize:

The happiness of the Finnish people stems not only from its large number of welfare policies, its intrinsic affinity for mutual trust and equality but also from freedom. The mindset that one can only be free and independent if everyone is equally free and independent drives the country’s policy-making and underpins what it means to be Finnish. 

For many, it’s about living in a country where all conceivable basic needs are met, whether that’s healthcare, education, or having a job that makes you feel fulfilled. The overarching theme is that Finland remains ahead of the curve in so many facets of life. For now, Finland is ranking top, but the hope is that the example Finland is setting helps other countries to better care for their people. The fact that the country continues to pioneer social and economic welfare, education and working best-practice is something of which other countries should take note when looking at improving the happiness of their people.

Not bad for a country that just seventy years ago was one of the poorest and most devastated in the world. It goes to show that maybe happiness and well-being need not be so abstract and philosophical: Yes, the deeply poor and traumatized can be happy, while the very rich and privileged can be miserable, but the overall picture from around the world is that culture, mindset, and baseline material wealth all build on each other. With mutual trust comes resilience and security, and with security and resilience comes more mutual trust (i.e., you know your fellow citizens and institutions will look out for you); it’s a virtuous cycle that can persist even though the worst circumstances.

But those are just my own rushed thoughts — what do you think?

Scandinavians Are the World’s Happiest People

When I visited Scandinavia via a cruise with my fiance last summer, we were both struck by the pleasantness of the Nordic people and how beautiful and well organized the country seemed to be. While we only spent a day or so in each country, it corresponded with everything I had read about their high rankings in all sorts of international metrics, from quality of life to good governance.

Thus, I wasn’t too surprised when the New York Times reported that Norway was recently found to be the world’s happiest country last year, followed closely by its Nordic neighbors. Continue reading

Five Short Exercises for Boosting Happiness

Happiness is one of the most elusive yet universally sought-after goals in humanity. Clearly, much of what makes us happy, or facilitates our capacity to pursue happiness on our own terms, is dependent upon a range of circumstances beyond our individual control — brain chemistry; access to healthcare, food, and other basic needs; socioeconomic stability; strong social and familial bonds; and so on. Hence why so many of the happiest countries are those that meet all or most of this criteria.

But many of us fortunate to live in conditions that are relatively conducive to happiness, nonetheless still struggle to experience it in any substantive or sustainable way. Part of this is a matter of framing — happiness means different things and takes different forms for different people — but setting aside that semantical and philosophical discussion, there exist habits, activities, and values that we can commit to that may help us to feel a general sense of mental and physical well-being.

Here are five daily activities that can go a long way towards mitigating anxiety, stress, and despair. They were formulated by “happiness researcher” Shawn Achor in an interview with The Washington Post. Founder and head of Goodthink, an organization devoted to researching and propagating happiness, and author of “The Happiness Advantage“, he is a leading figure in the positive psychology movement, a branch within psychology that focuses on cognitive and behavioral solutions to promoting mental wellness.

Now, I admit to having a fair amount of skepticism for at least some of the claims advanced by positive psychologists; my encounters with lay proponents suggests a shocking lack of empathy and basic common sense, encapsulated by the common refrain that just thinking positively would, in some vague and often spiritual way, lead to positive results — small comfort to those living in impoverished, war-torn countries or who are ravaged by advanced terminal cancer.

Granted, cursory research of the field suggests that my quarrel is more with these lay individuals who are misapplying or misconstruing the science, rather than with the academic and scientific field itself. By all accounts, positive psychology is simply a way to complement medicinal and therapeutic solutions to psychosocial problems with cognitive ones. And insofar as it seems grounded in sincere research and scientific framing, it does not seem so out of depth. Perhaps someone can enlighten my ignorance on the subject.

Anywhere, leaving my baggage at the door, I can see how the following tips can be pretty effective, both intuitively and by experience.

1. Three Acts of Gratitude. Spend two minutes a day scanning the world for three new things you’re grateful for. And do that for 21 days, The reason why that’s powerful is you’re training your brain to scan the world in a new pattern, you’re scanning for positives, instead of scanning for threats. It’s the fastest way of teaching optimism.

I was working with a large financial company, and we got them to think of three things they were grateful for for 21 days, and it didn’t work. The reason why is they were always grateful for the same three things: their health, their work and their family. So they weren’t specific. And they weren’t scanning the world for new things.

So this only works if you’re scanning for new things and you’re very specific. So if you say, “I’m grateful for my son,” it doesn’t work. But if you say, “I’m grateful for my son because he hugged me today, which means I’m loved regardless,” that specificity actually gets the brain stuck in a new pattern of optimism. It works with 4-year-old children and 84-year-old grumpy old men.

You can take them in a 21-day period from a low-level of pessimism to a low-level of optimism. There’s nothing magical about 21 days. We stole it from Alcoholics Anonymous. But after 21 days, the hope is, the path of least resistance in the brain tilts toward the habit, rather than away from it. So the hope is, it becomes not just a daily habit but a life habit.

It’s really getting people to feel like the change is possible. The habit seems to matter less than the fact that they’ve dedicated time to choose happiness.

2. The Doubler. For two minutes a day, think of one positive experience that’s occurred during the past 24 hours. Bullet point each detail you can remember. It works, because the brain can’t tell the difference between visualization and actual experience. So you’ve just doubled the most meaningful experience in your brain. Do it for 21 days, your brain starts connecting the dots for you, then you have this trajectory of meaning running throughout life.

I did this with the National MS Society. Previous research from the University of Texas found that if you have a chronic neuromuscular disease, chronic fatigue and pain, and you do this for six weeks in a row, six months later, they can drop your pain medication by 50 percent.

3. The Fun Fifteen: 15 minutes of cardiovascular exercise a day. It’s the equivalent of taking an anti-depressant for the first six months, but with a 30 percent lower relapse rate over the next two years.

This is not a repudiation of anti-depressants. It’s an indication that exercise works, because your brain records a victory, and that cascades to the next activity.

4. Breathe. We did this at Google. We had them take their hands off their keyboards two minutes a day. And go from multitasking, to simply watching their breath go in and out. This raises accuracy rates. Improves levels of happiness. Drops their stress levels. And it takes two minutes.

5. Conscious Acts of Kindness. The final habit is the most powerful that we’ve seen so far. For two minutes each day, start work by writing a two-minute positive e-mail or text praising or thanking one person you know. And do it for a different person each day.

People who do this not only get great e-mails and texts back and are perceived as positive leaders because of the praise and recognition, but their social connection score is at the top end of the scale.

Social connection is not only the greatest predictor of long-term happiness – the study I did at Harvard is 0.7 correlation, which doesn’t sound very sexy, but is stronger than the connection between smoking and cancer.

Achor also adds the importance of getting restful sleep, which squares with mounting research showing that good sleep helps with everything from boosting happiness and concentration, to reducing the likelihood of obesity and heart disease.

I also like his concept of “social investment”, described thusly:

I’m constantly investing in people around me, especially when I feel stressed, sad or lonely, instead of doing the opposite, which is what most people do. So I’ll write a positive e-mail. I’ll meet up with a friend. If I’m going to a new city, I’ll e-mail somebody I know who’s there to have drinks.

What we’re finding is that it’s not the macro things that matter, but it’s the micro choices for happiness that actually sustain happiness the best.

Indeed, the social component of happiness and well-being seems especially weighty. Just as various international indices have found community-oriented societies to generally be the happiest (even if they were not the wealthiest or most stable), so too do individuals with active and health social lives react better to adversity (again, generally speaking).

We’re finding that happiness is a social creature. If you try to pursue it in a vacuum, it’s very difficult to sustain it. But as soon as you get people focused on creating meaningful connections in the midst of their work, or increasing the meaning and depth of their relationships outside of work, we find happiness rising in step with that social connection.

The big threat to happiness is social fragmentation, which industrialization and globalization of course can contribute to. We don’t find much difference in happiness levels based on economic structures of society. We do find them based on the depth of social connection.

I’ve worked with farmers in Zimbabwe who’ve lost their lands. I’ve worked with people in Venezuela, under threat of kidnappings, whose external world is unstable. But they have very strong social connections with their family and friends. And as a result, they’re able to maintain a greater level of happiness and optimism than I’ve seen from bankers, consultants, or salespeople who are on the road all the time, who follow jobs separated from their families, and, as a result, find themselves missing out on the happiness that comes from those very connections that they severed.

Personally, I can attest to the effectiveness of most of these methods. I am always at my happiest when I am helping people, being mindful of my fortunes in life, or engaging in physical activity. It can be difficult to keep such things in mind, let alone find the initiative to execute them (especially exercise and good sleep), but that is why it is important to consciously cultivate these activities until they become habitual — a part of everyday life that creates a virtuous cycle of happiness and active engagement with the world and one’s self.

To be sure, these exercises are emphatically not a substitute for therapy or medication, nor do they make up for the daunting external conditions — such as lack of employment opportunities, oppressive labor or political environments, etc. — that make cognitive adaptation just half the battle. But given how simple they are to try, and how intrinsically valuable things like physical activity and gratitude are regardless, these exercises seem worth a shot at least.

What are your thoughts?

The Countries With the Greatest Well-Being

According to the most recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Panama once again takes the top spot in the number of people reporting high personal well-being, followed by Costa Rica in second place and Puerto Rico in third.

In fourth place was Switzerland, the top European country, which along with Austria (in ninth place) was the only non-Latin American country in the top ten.

The United States came in at No. 23, one spot behind Israel and one ahead of Canada.

This is the second time the report has been compiled (see the first one’s results here). It looks at how more than 146,000 randomly selected adults, spanning 145 countries and areas, respond to questions about five areas related to their well-being: purpose; social; financial; community; and physical. Here are the specific questions, courtesy of NPR. Continue reading

Six People From Nepal Weigh In On World Happiness Day

Today, March 20, is the United Nations International Day of Happiness, which recognizes the importance of creating economic, social, and political paradigms that favor well-being not only in the basic sense (food, healthcare, shelter, etc.) but in psychological and mental flourishing.

Nepal, a country of 25 million located between India and China, seems to be an auspicious choice for NPR to spotlight in commemoration of this event. It is “struggling out of poverty after a decade-long civil war”, has faced chronic political paralysis by “squabbling politicians”, and suffers unemployment so high that “1,500 youth leave every day for jobs in Malaysia and the Middle East.”

But none of this means that Nepal is devoid of happy people, each of whom offer unique lessons and perspectives on how they — and others — can be happy even in the most trying individual and societal circumstances. Here are six such views:

Tara Devi thinks she is about 45 years old and has three adult children. She is a farmer in Khokana, one of the oldest Newar towns in the Kathmandu Valley. Her family has lived here for generations. Tara has never attended school and can speak only Newar, a Tibeto-Burmese language, and a smattering of Hindi she has learned from Bollywood movies. She loves to laugh.

“Working is my happiness. I go to my fields every day. We grow everything we eat: garlic, rice, vegetables. I have done this since I was a child. And I love Bollywood movies. But the government — they cut the electricity all the time and it is hard to watch the movies. Where is our constitution? Where is the development the government promises? That makes me sad. But I do not like to be sad. It is better to be happy.”

Devaki Raut, 16, says reading makes her happy.

Devaki Raut, 16, says reading makes her happy.

Devaki Raut, 16, comes from Sindhupalchowk District in central Nepal, east of Kathmandu, where her parents still reside. Devaki, who is in eighth grade, lives in Lalitpur near Kathmandu in a home where she is also employed as a domestic worker, earning her school and boarding fees. She has no Internet access at the house, nor does she own a cellphone.

“I am happy all the time. When I am not studying or working, I chat with my friends. We all love to play volleyball and badminton. Reading makes me happy. My sister and I will be the first girls in our family to go to college. I want to study computer science. Thinking of this makes me feel good.”

Keshav Shiwakoti, 52, is a former communist revolutionary from a small village in the high mountains of eastern Nepal. One of seven children, he grew up in stark poverty. Looking for employment, he moved to Kathmandu, where he learned English and became a high-end cook specializing in European cuisine. His only child, a son, is a migrant worker in Abu Dhabi.

“I fought for change for 19 years, but I have no faith in our government. On World Happiness Day, everyone should drop their guns. The small, fleeting moments make me happy — like the child I just saw on the street being breast-fed by her mother, or watching my baby goats play. It’s the joy in sunshine or rain. Sometimes I cry because I feel such great happiness.”

Kunda Dixit, 60, likes to make faces to make himself — and others — feel happy.

Kunda Dixit, 60, likes to make faces to make himself — and others — feel happy.

Kunda Dixit, 60, writer, journalist and political satirist, is editor of The Nepali Times, an avid trekker and an expert on all things related to airplanes and airports. Political satire is his version of happiness therapy.

“What makes me happy is that we Nepalis have this irreverent sense of humor and the ability to be happy about how unhappy we are. I survived absolute monarchies, military coups, Maoist prime ministers who believed editors needed to be spanked, right down to the bunch of clowns who are ruling over us today. But I may soon be out of a job [as a satirist] because the present crop of politicians are giving me stiff competition.”

Sabin Munikar, 28, is a self-taught violin and piano player and teaches at the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory. He is the founder of the Kathmandu Youth Orchestra, which plays traditional Nepali music. He also loves and plays jazz and classical music. Newly married, he hopes to do graduate studies in music in the U.S.

“For me, happiness means being completely myself wherever I am. It means freedom from cunning ideologies, philosophies and rules and regulations. It also means freedom from diseases. But even better than being happy all alone, my ultimate happiness is happiness for everyone in the world. It feels so good to watch people celebrate, laugh, sing and dance. But it is important to add that I will be truly happy only when I choose my own destiny.”

Woeser Choeden, 90, greets her oldest grandson. She finds great happiness in having raised four "independent and capable" daughters.

Woeser Choeden greets her oldest grandson. She finds great happiness in having raised four “independent and capable” daughters.

Woeser Choeden, 90, has no formal education. In 1960, she fled Tibet to Nepal on foot with her two oldest daughters. Two yaks carried the family food as well as her two youngest daughters. She has 20 grandchildren and 10 great grandchildren.

“Happiness is relative. There are always worries and failures but I gather internal strength from the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. My life has been long. I find great happiness in having raised four independent and capable daughters. I am lucky. Happiness for me is about contentment not about extremes of happiness or sadness. I tell my children to embrace the suffering and hardship that come through hard work. Only then can one truly understand happiness.”

By no means does this suggest that Nepal and other countries should not do more to improve the circumstances of their people. It just shows that humans have a remarkable capacity to endure the worst that life throws at them and can instead find pleasure in the simple things — work, music, jokes, good weather, and much more we take for granted.

The Joys of the Ordinary

The key to happiness — to a life that is not only comfortable, but fulfilling — is one of those loaded concepts that elicits a wide variety of answers and musings. But one consensus that seems to emerge among people of all ages and experiences is the notion that we must appreciate the simple pleasures of everyday life — the little gifts that we take for granted yet would be much more miserable without.

The New York Times published a piece some time ago that explored this notion, citing some interesting research which, among other things, showed that the older one got, the more joy was derived from ordinary experiences. It seems that with time and experience, one learns to appreciate anything that our often difficult lives have to offer.

This is especially salient in a time of socioeconomic crisis, when people of all ages and backgrounds — but especially the younger and less wealthier — are finding their optimism and enthusiasm tested. Declining political and economic fortunes, combined with an uncertain future, would make happiness seem more elusive than ever, especially when compared to the more prosperous circumstances in which many older Americans came of age.

Amid the subsequently rising rates of depression, anxiety, stress, and sleeplessness, perhaps the age-old lesson of counting one’s blessings (in either the secular or religious sense) is as apt as ever. As the Times article noted, even in the best of times, let alone nowadays, the average person simply lacks the resources to enjoy an extraordinary life full of untold luxury, adventure, and other fulfilling activities — but nor should they require such approaches to be happy.

…plenty of people won’t have the money to go to faraway places or pay to jump out of airplanes. Low-cost extraordinary experiences may well be nearby, but there ought to be much comfort in the evidence that everyday things that cost little or nothing can deliver the same amount of joy. A garden. The elaborate meal that emerges from it and the spare time to invent the recipes. A return to a neglected musical instrument. All-you-can-consume subscriptions to Netflix and Spotify, with watchlists and playlists that stretch on for years.

This is not to say that we should give up on aiming for better lives; it goes without saying that, traveling the world, seeking a well-paying profession, and pursuing other life-affirming endeavors are still great goals (at least for some people). Nor should we simply accept the systemic sociopolitical and economic issues that have made it harder for most of us to reach our highest potential. But regardless of one’s circumstances, now and in the future, it seems sensible to make the most of what we can while we can, even if it is only in the process of realizing higher aspirations.

Speaking for myself, I can definitely attest to the value of this attitude. For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from regular bouts of depression and anxiety; it has only been in recent years, as I approach my thirties, that I have mitigated these conditions by, among other things, deriving as much value from ordinary experiences as possible. Reading my books, listening to my favorite songs, tending to my garden, enjoying a hot cup of tea, sleeping in my warm bed — these are the little things in which I look forward to day-by-day.

These are the seemingly mundane activities and indulgences that are easy to take for granted, but are luxuries to so many other humans. While I nonetheless have aspirations for greater things — not least of which is traveling the world — in the meantime I am content enjoying the everyday pleasures that come with my good fortune to be alive and healthy.

 

Do Genes Determine Mood?

Studies within the last two or three decades have shed light on the pre-determined factors that make us who we are. Though still hotly debated (and perhaps too often overstated) there is increasing evidence that our personality and behavior are influenced, in varying degrees, by our biology. Alterations to our brain chemistry or hormones, whether deliberately or as the result of certain genes, cause subsequent changes to our mood, cognitive ability, and even morality. As unsettling as it may be for many people, it’s possible that a good part of who we are may be genetically predisposed by the vagaries of biology – a complete accident of birth beyond our control.

The Economist had some time ago published an article on this subject, dealing specifically with the most sought after (and perhaps elusive) of all human emotions: happiness. Feeling good is obviously something any normal person would want, and everyone is concerned with living a good and content life. But figuring out what makes us happy, and how to attain it, has been one of the oldest subjects of debate and literature. With the current economic and political problems that are befalling us, and a growing sense of cynicism and anxiety about the future, concerns about living a stress-free and enjoyable life are understandably widespread.

So imagine the implications of discovering that happiness, if not other emotions, has more to do with your genes than with any existential or spiritual search. Consider the following study detailed below:

[The fact that] personality, along with intelligence, is at least partly heritable is becoming increasingly clear; so, presumably, the tendency to be happy or miserable is, to some extent, passed on through DNA. To try to establish just what that extent is, a group of scientists from University College, London; Harvard Medical School; the University of California, San Diego; and the University of Zurich examined over 1,000 pairs of twins from a huge study on the health of American adolescents. In “Genes, Economics and Happiness”, a working paper from the University of Zurich’s Institute for Empirical Research in Economics, they conclude that about a third of the variation in people’s happiness is heritable.That is along the lines of, though a little lower than, previous estimates on the subject.
 
But while twin studies are useful for establishing the extent to which a characteristic is heritable, they do not finger the particular genes at work. One of the researchers, Jan-Emmanuel De Neve, of University College, London, and the London School of Economics, has tried to do just that, by picking a popular suspect—the gene that encodes the serotonin-transporter protein, a molecule that shuffles a brain messenger called serotonin through cell membranes—and examining how variants of that gene affect levels of happiness.
 
Serotonin is involved in mood regulation. Serotonin transporters are crucial to this job. The serotonin-transporter gene comes in two functional variants—long and short. The long one produces more transporter-protein molecules than the short one. People have two versions (known as alleles) of each gene, one from each parent. So some have two short alleles, some have two long ones, and the rest have one of each.
 
The adolescents in Dr De Neve’s study were asked to grade themselves from very satisfied to very dissatisfied. Dr De Neve found that those with one long allele were 8% more likely than those with none to describe themselves as very satisfied; those with two long alleles were 17% more likely.
 
Correlation doesn’t equal causation, but there still seems to be a strong enough link between these alleles and one’s mood to merit further inspection. Imagine if we could trace other feelings to certain genetic markers as well. Could anger, recklessness, or greed, among other emotions, also be attributed to certain biological factors? What about more severe examples like psychosis? What does all this say about the way we treat certain behavioral or mental problems, both medically and as far as societal attitudes to them?
 
Imagine altering our genetic code in some way could be the key to solving these kinds of problems. Rather than consult a psychotherapist or take some sort of medication, you’d see a specialist in gene therapy instead. Perhaps even mild cases of the blues could be addressed through some sort of genetic tweaking. Granted, I’m getting way ahead of myself here, but it doesn’t hurt to discuss the possibilities, however unlikely they may currently seem.
 
In any case, these scenarios are only the beginning. There is another implication from this study that could be even more contentious:
Where the story could become controversial is when the ethnic origins of the volunteers are taken into account. All were Americans, but they were asked to classify themselves by race as well. On average, the Asian Americans in the sample had 0.69 long genes, the black Americans had 1.47 and the white Americans had 1.12.
 
That result sits comfortably with other studies showing that, on average, Asian countries report lower levels of happiness than their GDP per head would suggest. African countries, however, are all over the place, happiness-wise. But that is not surprising, either. Africa is the most genetically diverse continent, because that is where humanity evolved (Asians, Europeans, Aboriginal Australians and Amerindians are all descended from a few adventurers who left Africa about 60,000 years ago). Black Americans, mostly the descendants of slaves carried away from a few places in West Africa, cannot possibly be representative of the whole continent.
 
That some populations have more of the long version of the serotonin-transporter gene has been noticed before, though the association has previously been made at a national, rather than a racial, level. In a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, published in 2009, Joan Chiao and Katherine Blizinsky of Northwestern University, in Illinois, found a positive correlation between higher levels of the short version of the gene and mood disorders (China and Japan have lots of both) and with collectivist political systems. Their hypothesis is that cultures prone to anxiety tend towards systems that emphasise social harmony and away from ones that emphasise individuals’ independence of each other.
 
Obviously, as with most such findings, more work will have to be done to replicate and validate the conclusions. But the suggestions this discovery makes are vast: not only is everyone’s behavior influenced by genes to a significant level, but so are entire societies and political systems by extension. The way we form our communities, govern ourselves, or go about engaging in economic activity can be informed, in part, by the genetic dispositions of the majority of the population. Does that mean that certain nations, like individuals, are destined for certain paths of development? Such a genetically determined fatalism would be understandably concerning and divisive.
 
As near as we can tell, it would also be an exaggeration. Thus far, most studies have shown that genes, while significant influencers, are not the only determinants of who we are. Being born with a certain genetic predisposition isn’t always destiny. But it’s still something worth keeping in mind. There’s no doubt there will be a lot of debate about this, but there’s one thing that isn’t likely to be disputed:
This latter study may be a few steps too far along the road to genetic determinism for some people. But there is growing interest in the study of happiness, not just among geneticists but also among economists and policymakers dissatisfied with current ways of measuring humanity’s achievements. Future work in this field will be read avidly in those circles.
You can read the actual report of Dr. Neve’s study here. As always, share your thoughts or illuminations below.
 

The Key to Happiness

This post concerns the  most vital and universal of human needs: happiness. I find that many people, myself included at times, tend view happiness as something complicated and untenable – it can be elusive, fickle, and difficult to maintain. It may seem crude to say this given how most of us in the modern world have it far better than the majority of our fellow humans.

But the reality is that the developed world, even upon attaining a better quality of life materially speaking, still grapples with the existential and philosophical questions about human satisfaction. No matter how lucky we are to be largely un-tainted by the misery of poverty, disease, and oppression, we can’t seem to find happiness.

I am of course no exception to this, having grappled with bouts of depression and anxiety throughout many periods of my life. Over the years, thought,  I’ve found through both experience and research that being happy requires nothing profound or intangible. On the contrary, it can be attained in some of the cheapest and simplest ways.

Never underestimate the value of a hug, a smile, a compliment, or even just listening to someone’s problems. All these things can make a person’s day, and even science is finding that we indeed become measurably more content and relaxed upon receiving them. We’re social creates by nature, and thus being recipients to positive social interactions – even by indirect means such as through Facebook or text – can make us feel comfortable, secure, and pleased.

Basically, as the saying goes, it’s the little things in life that matter. If someone is done, try to offer an ear, a joke, or – if permitted – a nice warm hug. If you’re down, seek these little things out, and surround yourself with positive and loving people. Obviously, the nature of your discontent – such as immense grief or clinical depression – can render such solutions moot. But it never hurts to try. Why pass up such basic and undemanding solutions to human sadness?

All this reminds me of a wonderful campaign that I’m very tempted to emulate:

From what I’m seeing elsewhere on YouTube, it’s catching on across the world. That’s good – we need more people to understand this.