We often hear about the power of gratitude for creating a more positive and happy mental state. But did you know that gratitude literally transforms your brain?
According to UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, regularly expressing gratitude literally changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps the gray matter functioning, and makes us healthier and happier.
When you feel happiness, the central nervous system is affected. You are more peaceful, less reactive, and less resistant. And gratitude is the most effective practice for stimulating feelings of happiness.
In this article we’ll share some of the research demonstrating that gratitude makes you happier, followed by some practical steps you can take to positively transform the molecular structure of the brain.
Studies of gratitude making you happier
In one study of gratitude, conducted by Robert A. Emmons at the University of California at Davis and his colleague Mike McCullough at the University of Miami, randomly assigned participants were given one of three tasks. The participants kept a journal each week, with one group describing things they were grateful for, another describing what’s hassling them and the other keeping track of neutral events. After ten weeks, the participants in the gratitude group felt 25 percent better than the other groups, and had exercised an average of 1.5 hours more.
In a later study by Emmons with a similar set up, participants completing gratitude exercises each day offered other people in their lives more emotional support than those in other groups.
Another study on gratitude was conducted with adults suffering from congenital and adult-onset neuromuscular disorders (NMDs), with the majority of people having post-polio syndrome (PPS). Compared to those not jotting down what they’re grateful for every night, participants that did express gratitude felt more refreshed each day upon wakening. They also felt more connected with others than did participants in the group not expressing gratitude.
A fourth study didn’t require a gratitude journal, but looked at the amount of gratitude people showed in their daily lives. In this study, a group of Chinese researchers found that higher levels of gratitude were associated with better sleep, and also with lower levels of anxiety and depression.
Better sleep, with less anxiety and depression. Some compelling reasons to express gratitude more regularly.
Three simple steps to becoming more grateful
If you’ve only got time to say one prayer today, make it the simple words of “thank you.”
This is worth keeping in mind as you go about figuring out your daily practices and routines.
Here are three practical steps you can take to infusing routines of gratitude into your life.
1) Keep a daily journal of three things you are thankful for. This works well first thing in the morning, or just before you go to bed.
2) Make it a practice to tell a spouse, partner or friend something you appreciate about them every day.
3) Look in the mirror when you are brushing your teeth, and think about something you have done well recently or something you like about yourself.
It’s a comprehensive primer in the relatively young field of positive psychology, with a particular focus on young adults. The book, which closely follows the structure of his popular, in-demand undergraduate course “Positive Psychology: The Science of Happiness,” offers explanations of factors that contribute to happiness.
Based on his own research and other scientific studies, Bono offers the following tips for getting and staying happier in the coming year:
1) Get outside, move around, take a walk. Research confirms that a few minutes of exercise in nature can boost both mood and energy levels. Exercise is key to our psychological health because it releases the brain’s “feel good” chemicals.
2) Get more happiness for your money. Studies show little connection between wealth and happiness, but there are two ways to get more bang for your happiness buck — buy experiences instead of things and spend your money on others. The enjoyment one gets from an experience like a vacation or concert will far outweigh and outlast the happiness from acquiring another material possession. Doing good things for other people strengthens our social connections, which is foundational to our well-being.
3) Carve out time to be happy, then give it away. People dream of finding an extra 30 minutes to do something nice for themselves, but using that time to help someone else is more rewarding and actually leaves us feeling empowered to tackle the next project, helping us feel more in control of our lives and even less pressed for time. This translates to higher levels of happiness and satisfaction.
4) Delay the positive, dispatch the negative. Anticipation itself is pleasurable, and looking forward to an enjoyable experience can make it all that much sweeter. Wait a couple of days before seeing a new movie that just came out, plan your big vacation for later in the summer and try to take time to savor each bite of dessert. On the flip side, get negative tasks out of the way as quickly as possible — anticipation will only make them seem worse.
5) Enjoy the ride. People who focus more on process than outcome tend to remain motivated in the face of setbacks. They’re better at sticking with major challenges and prefer them over the easy route. This “growth mindset” helps people stay energized because it celebrates rewards that come from the work itself. Focusing only on the outcome can lead to premature burnout if things don’t go well.
6) Embrace failure. How we think about failure determines whether it makes us happy or sad. People who overcome adversity do better in life because they learn to cope with challenges. Failure is a great teacher, helping us realize what doesn’t work so we can make changes for the better. As IBM CEO Thomas Watson once said, “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”
8) Sweet dreams. Get a full night’s sleep on a regular basis. Our brains are doing a lot of important work while we sleep, including strengthening neural circuits that enhance mental acuity and help us to regulate our moods when we are awake. Sleep deprivation can lead to cognitive impairment similar to that of intoxication, and often is the prelude to an ill-tempered day.
9) Strengthen your willpower muscles. Just like exercising arm muscles strengthens our capacity to lift heavy things, exercising willpower muscles in small, everyday behaviors strengthens our ability to stay focused at work. Resist the temptation to check the cellphone for new text messages or emails while walking somewhere, or resist the temptation to get the candy bar when in the checkout line at the grocery store. That will allow willpower muscles to become stronger and, in turn, resistant to temptations that could sidetrack us in other aspects of our lives.
10) Introduce variety into your day-to-day activities. Human beings are attracted to novelty, and we can get bored if we have to do the same thing over and over. Changing things up every once in a while by taking on new projects, or by doing the same task but with music in the background, or by interacting with different people, can be one way to introduce variety and remain motivated to complete a task.
11) Stop comparing yourself to others. It’s hard to avoid tuning into what everyone else is doing, who just got the latest raise or promotion, or who’s moving into a new house or going on a fancy vacation. But social comparison is one of the biggest barriers to our overall happiness and motivation. Redirecting attention to our own internal standards for success and making progress based on what’s realistic for us — instead of getting caught up in how we measure up to others — can go a long way for our psychological health and productivity.
12) Reach out and connect with someone. Nothing is more important for our psychological health than high-quality friendships. Find an activity that allows you to get together with friends on a regular, ongoing basis. A weekly happy hour, poker night or TV show ensures consistency and momentum in your social interactions. People with high-quality relationships are not only happier, they’re also healthier. They recover from illnesses more quickly, live longer and enjoy more enriched lives.
13) Limit time on social media. Facebook and Instagram often exaggerate how much better off others are compared with how we might feel about ourselves at the moment. Many studies have shown that too much time spent on social media usually is associated with lower levels of self-esteem, optimism and motivation while leaving people feeling — ironically enough — less socially connected to others.
14) Seek the beauty in all things. Our world is overwhelmed with distrust, antagonism, anger and fear. Reflect on why things bother you, use introspection and talk to more compassionate sources regarding all of the things that make you feel uncomfortable, it will allow you to see the beauty in them.
15) Use your phone in the way phones were originally intended. The next time you are tempted to use your phone to scroll through social media, scroll through your list of contacts instead. Find someone to call or FaceTime. The happiness you derive from an authentic connection with another person will be far greater than any comments or likes you get on social media.
16) Practice gratitude. It’s easy to get bogged down with life’s inevitable hassles, so make an effort to direct attention to things that are still going well. On the way home from work, fill the time that could go toward ruminating over bad parts of your day with the things that went well. Study after study has shown gratitude to be one of the simplest yet most robust ways to increase psychological well-being.
17) Identify an important reason why you are resolving to change something in your life (e.g., “I’m doing it for my kids” or “This is to improve my overall health”). Research shows that reminding yourself of how your daily behaviors fit into big-picture goals will keep you motivated to stay on track.
18) Acknowledge potential barriers that might get in the way of implementing your goals (you might get lazy, tired, forget or be lured away by another temptation), and then identify contingency plans for how you will respond in those moments: “When I start getting distracted in the middle of a big work project, I’ll give myself a quick break and then remind myself how rewarding it will feel to be finished with it.” Better yet, select environments that are free from distractions altogether. If you know you’re always tempted to surf the web while completing work, take your laptop to a place where there’s no wifi and leave your phone behind.
19) Set specific dates and times when you will incorporate the behavior — when you make a schedule for new behaviors you’d like to incorporate into your life, they require less psychological strength to implement. When you get in the habit of running every Tuesday and Thursday morning, the behavior becomes much easier to initiate because it simply becomes part of your routine, like brushing your teeth or taking the dog on a walk.
20) Make your goals measurable, break them up into smaller sub-goals, and the reward yourself each time you hit a particular milestone. If your goal is to lose 50 pounds in the new year, treat yourself to a movie or other fun outing for each five pounds you lose.
I’d had enough. It was October 2017, and I’d been wondering what the point of my job was for far too long, and while I’m sure there was something meaningful somewhere and to someone in what I was doing day-to-day, it had certainly lost meaning for me. For all the good that writing another academic research paper would do, I thought I might as well be cycling to Bhutan.
The idea of cycling to this small country nestled in the Himalayan foothills is one I’d had for many years. Bhutan is famous for deciding to value its population’s happiness and well-being over economic growth. As an academic researcher focused on understanding happiness and well-being, the journey looked to me to be something of a pilgrimage.
Before I quit, I’d spent more than ten years at different universities, trying to understand what the most important contributors were to well-being. But what I found was that I was burnt out. Given the nature of my research, the irony of this was not lost on me. I needed to do something different. I wanted to travel; to explore and understand happiness through a non-academic lens. But I wanted to connect the research I’d been doing over the years with what was happening, or indeed not happening, in the world.
Purpose and meaning
When I began my research, I was motivated by the importance of the subject. Most people I knew wanted to be happy and so, I thought, my research might help people to do that. I did what academics are incentivized to do: publish in the best peer-reviewed journals (indexed by academic readership and citation counts), as well as bring in research funds. I also did things such as engage with people outside of academia that might not ordinarily read my research – the public, the media, governments, policymakers – things I wasn’t always incentivized to do, but nevertheless did because they contributed to a personal sense of purpose and meaning.
When it comes to living happy and fulfilled lives, we humans need meaning, we need purpose. People who feel there is a deeper purpose and meaning in what they are doing in their day-to-day lives tend to be happier, healthier, and more satisfied. Research shows, for example, that a life orientated towards meaning brings greater satisfaction than a life oriented toward hedonic pleasure. Those that have a strong sense of purpose in life live longer, and having a strong sense of purpose may be just as good for your health as engaging in regular exercise. Some would even conceive that purpose is, by definition, a key aspect of happiness itself.
Work is an important source of purpose and meaning for many people. When people get made redundant or become unemployed, much of the loss in well-being they experience is often due to the loss of purpose and meaning, rather than the loss of income. Even if there is no deeper personal purpose and meaning in the actual work itself then there is much to value in our daily social interactions and the structure that work provides us, although they are easily overlooked.
It is purpose and meaning that helps people get up each day and it doesn’t necessarily have to be specifically about work. Purpose and meaning can take many different forms and is deeply personal. It might be looking after family, following a hobby, passion, or faith. Purpose and meaning is also an important source of resilience, helping people get through the difficulty and challenges that are an inevitable part of life.
The importance of purpose and meaning is well recognised. In the UK, for example, one of the four questions that the government’s Office for National Statistics asks in its Well-Being Survey is: “Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?” To which people are asked to respond on a scale from zero “not at all” to ten, “completely”. In the UK the mean score to this question is about 7.8, suggesting people feel their lives are relatively worthwhile. However, there is variation around this mean. Around 15% of the population answer a score of six or less on this question and this level has been relatively stable.
Walking the talk, being authentic
It has always felt important to me to apply my research findings to my own life. My research consistently showed that once basic needs are met, having more money is only weakly related to happiness and well-being, relative to other things such as relationships, health (mental and physical), and our personality characteristics. Taking this on board, I have decided not to take better paying jobs or strive for promotion (one of my first ever published papers demonstrated that promotion can have detrimental effects on one’s mental health) for the sake of it. Instead, I tried to create a life where I had more space to focus on those aspects of life I knew to be the most important for well-being.
Another important contributor to our well-being is something psychologists term authenticity. Authenticity reflects our tendency to live in line with our beliefs and values rather the demands of others, of society. So in following what I believed to be true from the research I and others were doing I was doubly rewarded; I was happier.
I felt despondent. What was the point in writing another academic paper? Perhaps, I thought, I ought to be doing something a bit different. Not only to rediscover meaning and purpose, but to continue striving for an authentic existence and, through that, perhaps a little more happiness too. It was then that I finally decided that it was time to leave my full-time job at the university and to start my cycling odyssey to Bhutan.
A kingdom of happiness
We might not hear about them very often, but there are actually many places in the world where economic growth is not so overtly favoured above other things. It might be just a few people who have decided to live together and put their well-being above economic gain; there are small communities, towns and cities already doing this. But in the case of an entire country – Bhutan – the stated central aim of government is to increase happiness and well-being.
In 1972, the fourth king of Bhutan, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, first expressed the idea in an interview. He said: “Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross Domestic Product.” Initially, Gross National Happiness was a concept rooted in the country’s spiritual traditions, and government policies would be evaluated based on their supposed influence on well-being rather than its economic effect.
Back in 1972, however, there was little in the way of reliable metrics to compute the influence of a policy on well-being. So the idea of increasing happiness remained more of a philosophical concept. Nevertheless, the happiness concept became embedded in the policy-making process. Some of the decisions that arose from this approach included a ban on television (up until 1999), making tobacco illegal, and restricting tourism to preserve the country’s culture.
The Bhutanese have since developed a Gross National Happiness Index to measure the country’s collective level of well-being – this has been the government’s goal since its constitution was enacted in 2008. The index has direct links to policy making and it is meant to provide incentives for the government, non-governmental organisations, and businesses to operate in ways that increase the happiness index. For example, environmental protection is enshrined in its constitution, which puts a limit on profitable industries such as logging.
Nevertheless, the case of Bhutan continues to inspire conversations as to what should be the purpose of society and how countries can measure success. Bhutan also illustrates what might just be possible if there were the political will.
The journey, not the destination
Against this backdrop, I set off from the UK in October 2017 with the barest of essentials packed onto a bicycle and my route, you might say, has been circuitous. As I write I am in Canada, and it was important for me to travel across South and North America, as I wanted to pass through other places that, much like Bhutan, are exploring new ways of living and where the economy does not necessarily dominate political and social life.
I also wanted to visit Canada, which has an exemplary national index of well-being that was developed in conjunction with citizens. It was developed as a bottom-up process with clear and direct links to policy. From a research perspective we know that autonomy and having a voice is important for well-being and I have learnt from personal experience how important it is to feel heard.
I’ve flown some of the way (across oceans) but cycled most of it in a bid to make the journey authentic and purposeful. Not only did I think cycling would be good for my own well-being (physical and mental) but because it is a form of travel that has minimal ecological impact and therefore would not harm the well-being of those around me. Plus, my experiences traveling on a bicycle before I began this journey showed me that it is a fantastic way to meet people. It is a fairly unusual form of travel in some parts of the world and it draws interest and builds connections.
People can often make a place. I knew that the people I met would form an important part of my trip and I wanted to create long lasting connections, which are of course an important component of a happy life. These connections have come through sharing experiences of what it means to be happy – sharing my own research and personal experiences of happiness and also being willing to hear about the experiences of others, from the people I have met in the street and the plazas to the people making policy decisions.
There are many people who are interested in implementing programmes and happiness policies into their own lives and the lives of others as a means to genuinely promote happiness and well-being in the area where they live.
When I spoke with people involved in policy decisions in Costa Rica, for example, we discussed the country’s involvement in the Wellbeing Economy Alliance. This is an organisation that resembles the G7 group of countries, but rather than a focus on the size of the economy, these countries – including Costa Rica, Scotland, New Zealand and Slovenia, among others – aim to promote well-being.
My journey has been undeniably amazing on a personal level. Each day can bring something different, unexpected, challenging, and that demands a lot psychologically. Suddenly I might find myself in the home of a person I met in a plaza sharing food with their family. The next day I could find myself sitting in my tent alone but in the company of a beautiful night sky. There have been some truly special moments and, through these, I have often felt happy and learnt many interesting things about myself. For example, that I am much more than just an academic, and that sometimes what we perceive ourselves to be can limit what we can be.
Yet it has not been easy, and has definitely not been a holiday. My journey has involved a substantial amount of physical effort and at times deep challenge. About two months into my trip I got bitten by a street dog in a tiny village in Peru. The need to deal with the physical effects aside (treating the wound, getting to a hospital, getting vaccinations), the experience reallyaffected me psychologically.
I wanted to come home. I was struggling to find the emotional strength I needed to get through. I felt alone. But I persevered and I put my ability to do so down to eventually finding the support I needed (both locally and from back home), as well as having that clear sense of purpose.
I’m glad I persevered with the journey as all the other experiences I’ve since that incident and the people I have met have been enormously enriching and given me a greater feeling of wholeness. Plus, an important part of happiness is dealing with adversity and building resilience for when difficult things happen, as they inevitably do.
Now, I’m in Canada and, in truth, I’m surprised I’ve made it this far. I often wonder whether I’ll ever actually make it to Bhutan; there are many more mountains to climb and seas to cross. Lately, I’ve been having a difficult time on the road – it’s been a year and I deeply miss the surroundings of home, friends and family.
Maybe I don’t actually need to go all the way to Bhutan. Maybe what I’ve done is enough. Either way, I can rest assured that happiness is found in the journey – not the destination.
Shattering the stereotype of the lazy pothead, new research suggests cannabis users are actually more satisfied, more successful, and even more likely to volunteer in their communities than their nonsmoking counterparts.
Last week, the Independentdescribed to its readers how the research was carried out:
“The study, conducted by market researchers BDS Analytics, surveyed consumers and abstainers across a wide variety of mental, social and financial factors. These included life satisfaction levels, attitudes towards parenting and employment data.
“The survey analysed extensive data from two US states that have voted to legalise the sale of cannabis — California and Colorado.”
Among other surprising findings, researchers discovered that weed consumers make significantly more money than those who abstain, with Californians who use the plant earning nearly $24,000 more a year. This could be related to the fact that 20 percent of California pot consumers hold a master’s degree while only 12 percent of non-smokers in the state can say the same.
Researchers found a similar situation in Colorado, where 64 percent of cannabis users have full-time jobs versus 54 percent of abstainers. Given those numbers, perhaps it’s not surprising that weed consumers in the state generally feel better about their personal lives than non-smokers.
Marijuana consumption is also associated with healthier habits and a more active social life, researchers for BDS Analytics found. In Colorado, for instance, 36 percent of smokers described themselves as “very social people,” compared to 28 percent for those who avoid the plant. Additionally, in both Colorado and California, those who consume cannabis enjoy outdoor recreation at significantly higher rates.
Perhaps the most surprising discovery, however — given the cliched image of the slacker on the couch eating Cheetos and watching reruns of Family Guy — is that users tend to be more generous with their time. Nearly 40 percent of California’s weed enthusiasts volunteer in their communities, researchers found, whereas only 25 percent of abstainers have decided to do the same.
In a press release, head of consumer research for BDS, Linda Gilbert, says all these data points lead to a very real and increasingly apparent conclusion:
“Cannabis consumers are far removed from the caricatures historically used to describe them.”
The pressure for happiness or to ‘be happy’ can be overwhelming in today’s social media driven society. Yet our quest to experience this emotion at every moment has an unintended consequence, making us feel worse rather than better. As human beings, we’ve been gifted with a wide range of emotions, all of which serve us in different ways and work as fantastic guides to which areas of our lives need the most attention. We may not fully know our true purpose for being here on this planet, but it’s likely that our soul has entered Earth in the hopes of learning more about ourselves and bettering our connections with other people. The human experience is perfect for this, and while it may seem hard at times, we are gifted daily with many opportunities to further our growth.
Within the human experience we’re tested, especially in this era of deceit, where images are being shoved in our faces of emotions we desire to feel; love, passion, acceptance, and happiness, to name a few. At the core of our existence lies a simple expression of who we are, which is Love, and many believe this translates into never ending happiness and bliss. Corporations recognize this desire and use it to their marketing advantage. If we’re told we can feel good, at least for a day, we’re likely to (quite literally) buy into that dream because we have forgotten that our daily emotions, both good and bad, are necessary for our personal growth.
You’re likely familiar with the works of Steve Cutts, a London-based illustrator who aptly depicts our daily grievances and society’s many shocking truths that we absurdly accept as normal. In his most recent animation short titled “Happiness,” Steve uses rats to symbolize the rat race we’re all so familiar with.
“With a life expectancy of 79.1 years and levels of wellbeing in the top 7% of the world, Costa Rica matches many Scandinavian nations in these areas and neatly outperforms the United States. And it manages all of this with a GDP per capita of only $10,000, less than one-fifth that of the US.”
Earlier this summer, a paper published in the journal Nature captured headlines with a rather bleak forecast. Our chances of keeping global warming below the 2C danger threshold are very, very small: only about 5%. The reason, according to the paper’s authors, is that the cuts we’re making to greenhouse gas emissions are being cancelled out by economic growth.
In the coming decades, we’ll be able to reduce the carbon intensity of the global economy by about 1.9% per year, if we make heavy investments in clean energy and efficient technology. That’s a lot. But as long as the economy keeps growing by more than that, total emissions are still going to rise. Right now we’re ratcheting up global GDP by 3% per year, which means we’re headed for trouble.
If we want to have any hope of averting catastrophe, we’re going to have to do something about our addiction to growth. This is tricky, because GDP growth is the main policy objective of virtually every government on the planet. It lies at the heart of everything we’ve been told to believe about how the economy should work: that GDP growth is good, that it’s essential to progress, and that if we want to improve human wellbeing and eradicate poverty around the world, we need more of it. It’s a powerful narrative. But is it true?
Maybe not. Take Costa Rica. A beautiful Central American country known for its lush rainforests and stunning beaches, Costa Rica proves that achieving high levels of human wellbeing has very little to do with GDP and almost everything to do with something very different.
Every few years the New Economics Foundation publishes the Happy Planet Index – a measure of progress that looks at life expectancy, wellbeing and equality rather than the narrow metric of GDP, and plots these measures against ecological impact. Costa Rica tops the list of countries every time. With a life expectancy of 79.1 years and levels of wellbeing in the top 7% of the world, Costa Rica matches many Scandinavian nations in these areas and neatly outperforms the United States. And it manages all of this with a GDP per capita of only $10,000, less than one-fifth that of the US.
In this sense, Costa Rica is the most efficient economy on earth: it produces high standards of living with low GDP and minimal pressure on the environment.
How do they do it? Professors Martínez-Franzoni and Sánchez-Ancochea argue that it’s all down to Costa Rica’s commitment to universalism: the principle that everyone – regardless of income – should have equal access to generous, high-quality social services as a basic right. A series of progressive governments started rolling out healthcare, education and social security in the 1940s and expanded these to the whole population from the 50s onward, after abolishing the military and freeing up more resources for social spending.
Costa Rica wasn’t alone in this effort, of course. Progressive governments elsewhere in Latin America made similar moves, but in nearly every case the US violently intervened to stop them for fear that “communist” ideas might scupper American interests in the region. Costa Rica escaped this fate by outwardly claiming to be anti-communist and – horribly – allowing US-backed forces to use the country as a base in the contra war against Nicaragua.
The upshot is that Costa Rica is one of only a few countries in the global South that enjoys robust universalism. It’s not perfect, however. Relatively high levels of income inequality make the economy less efficient than it otherwise might be. But the country’s achievements are still impressive. On the back of universal social policy, Costa Rica surpassed the US in life expectancy in the late 80s, when its GDP per capita was a mere tenth of America’s.
Today, Costa Rica is a thorn in the side of orthodox economics. The conventional wisdom holds that high GDP is essential for longevity: “wealthier is healthier”, as former World Bank chief economist Larry Summers put it in a famous paper. But Costa Rica shows that we can achieve human progress without much GDP at all, and therefore without triggering ecological collapse. In fact, the part of Costa Rica where people live the longest, happiest lives – the Nicoya Peninsula – is also the poorest, in terms of GDP per capita. Researchers have concluded that Nicoyans do so well not in spite of their “poverty”, but because of it – because their communities, environment and relationships haven’t been plowed over by industrial expansion.
All of this turns the usual growth narrative on its head. Henry Wallich, a former member of the US Federal Reserve Board, once pointed out that “growth is a substitute for redistribution”. And it’s true: most politicians would rather try to rev up the GDP and hope it trickles down than raise taxes on the rich and redistribute income into social goods. But a new generation of thinkers is ready to flip Wallich’s quip around: if growth is a substitute for redistribution, then redistribution can be a substitute for growth.
Costa Rica provides a hopeful model for any country that wants to chart its way out of poverty. But it also holds an important lesson for rich countries. Scientists tell us that if we want to avert dangerous climate change, high-consuming nations are going to have to scale down their bloated economies to get back in sync with the planet’s ecology, and fast. A widely-cited paper by scientists at the University of Manchester estimates it’s going to require downscaling of 4-6% per year.
This is what ecologists call “de-growth”. This calls for redistributing existing resources and investing in social goods in order to render growth unnecessary. Decommoditizing and universalizing healthcare, education and even housing would be a step in the right direction. Another would be a universal basic income – perhaps funded by taxes on carbon, land, resource extraction and financial transactions.
The opposite of growth isn’t austerity, or depression, or voluntary poverty. It is sharing what we already have, so we won’t need to plunder the earth for more.
Costa Rica proves that rich countries could theoretically ease their consumption by half or more while maintaining or even increasing their human development indicators. Of course, getting there would require that we devise a new economic system that doesn’t require endless growth just to stay afloat. That’s a challenge, to be sure, but it’s possible.
After all, once we have excellent healthcare, education, and affordable housing, what will endlessly more income growth gain us? Maybe bigger TVs, flashier cars, and expensive holidays. But not more happiness, or stronger communities, or more time with our families and friends. Not more peace or more stability, fresher air or cleaner rivers. Past a certain point, GDP gains us nothing when it comes to what really matters. In an age of climate change, where the pursuit of ever more GDP is actively dangerous, we need a different approach.
Let’s be honest for a moment. You’d probably be thrilled to have a cool million or 2 in the bank. Money can’t buy happiness, as the saying goes, but what you do with your money (as well as time and talents, for that matter) might have an awful lot to do with your quality of life. Sure, doing something nice for someone else feels nice, but a recent study suggests that generosity has a positive biological effect on the brain.
For the study, published in Nature Communications, researchers at the University of Zurich in Switzerland told 50 people they would receive $100 over a few weeks. The team asked 25 of the individuals to use the money only on themselves, and asked the other 25 participants to spend it on someone they knew.
The researchers wanted to know: Would the mere promise to spend the money on someone else be enough to make people happier?
Before handing out the first batch of cash, the researchers brought those in the give-away group into the lab and asked them to think about a friend they’d like to give a gift to and how much they would hypothetically spend. Then, the participants underwent functional MRI scans so researchers could measure activity in 3 regions of the brain associated with social behavior, generosity, happiness, and decision-making.
Those who had pledged to spend the money on other people were more likely to make generous decisions throughout the duration of the experiment, the team found, compared to those who had pledged to spend the money on themselves.
The group’s MRI’s showed more interaction between the parts of the brain associated with altruism and happiness, and the participants expressed higher levels of happiness after the study ended.
Furthermore, it didn’t matter how generous people were. Even giving away a small amount of cash impacted the participants’ happiness in the same way.
Lead author Philippe Tobler, associate professor of neuroeconomics and social neuroscience, said:
“At least in our study, the amount spent did not matter. It is worth keeping in mind that even little things have a beneficial effect – like bringing coffee to one’s office mates in the morning.”
“You don’t need to become a self-sacrificing martyr to feel happier. Just being a little more generous will suffice.” 
Co-author Soyoung Park says many questions remain unanswered. 
“There are still some open questions, such as: Can communication between these brain regions be trained and strengthened? If so, how? And, does the effect last when it is used deliberately, that is, if a person only behaves generously in order to feel happier?”
Earlier studies have shown that older people who are generous tend to be in better physical shape. Some research has even suggested that spending money on other people is as effective as medication or exercise for lowering blood pressure. 
So the next time you feel like treating yourself, consider treating someone else instead. It might make you feel even better.
“It is worth giving it a shot, even if you think it would not work. In order to reap health benefits, repeated practice is probably needed so that giving becomes second nature.”
Summary: A new study reveals subjective well-being can have an influence on physical health.
A new review indicates that subjective well-being—factors such as life satisfaction and enjoyment of life—can influence physical health. The review’s investigators also examine why this is so and conditions where it is most likely to occur.
Subjective well-being may exert its effects on physical health through health behaviors, as well as through the immune and cardiovascular systems. Although scientists still are exploring and debating when happiness most affects health, there is no doubt that it can do so.
With more research, it may one day be informative for clinicians to monitor individuals’ subjective well-being just as other factors are currently assessed. Individuals should also take responsibility for their health by developing happy mental habits.
With more research, it may one day be informative for clinicians to monitor individuals’ subjective well-being just as other factors are currently assessed. Individuals should also take responsibility for their health by developing happy mental habits. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.
“We now have to take very seriously the finding that happy people are healthier and live longer, and that chronic unhappiness can be a true health threat. People’s feelings of well-being join other known factors for health, such as not smoking and getting exercise,” said Prof. Ed Diener, co-author of the Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being article. “Scores of studies show that our levels of happiness versus stress and depression can influence our cardiovascular health, our immune system strength to fight off diseases, and our ability to heal from injuries.”
About this neuroscience research article
Source:Wiley Image Source: NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain. Original Research: Full open access research for “If, Why, and When Subjective Well-Being Influences Health, and Future Needed Research” by Ed Diener, Sarah D. Pressman, John Hunter and Desiree Delgadillo-Chase in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Published online July 14 2017 doi:10.1111/aphw.12090
So, they love doing studies like this one, and we love reading them.
Not to be that person who says “I told you so,” but a new study has concluded that pot smokers are not a bunch of lazy slackers but indeed well-adjusted human beings who cross a large swath of society’s diverse types of individuals.
The landmark new study conducted by BDS Analytics, entitled “Cannabis Consumers are Happy Campers,” surveyed 2,000 California and Colorado adults, with a quota of 1,200 people who have used marijuana within the past six months.
The logic was to gather info from a population sample that was representative of the general public.
Their subjects, according to BDS’s research division page, were comprised of “consumers” to “acceptors,” who don’t consume but might consider it, as well as “rejecters” who don’t consume and don’t want to.
“One theme that clearly emerges from the research is the overall healthy well-being of cannabis consumers… when compared to ‘acceptors’ and ‘rejecters,’” the report reads, breaking down the myth of cannabis consumers and work ethic.
Researchers found that the average annual household income among California cannabis consumers is $93,800, compared to $72,800 for ‘acceptors’ and $75,900 for ‘rejecters.’
Twenty percent of cannabis consumers also hold master’s degrees, compared to 13 percent of ‘acceptors’ and 12 percent of ‘rejecters.’
Colorado consumers were more satisfied with their lives now than they were a year ago and more likely to enjoy the fine arts, social activities and outdoor recreation than the acceptors and rejecters.
Nobel Peace Prize nominee and Zen Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh has a very different theory about why our ecosystems are dying and our financial systems are crumbling. The Vietnamese monk credited with bringing mindfulness to the West believes that our desperation to succeed at all costs fuels our voracious economic system. An innumerable number of worldly ‘sicknesses’ come from this singular philosophical vice.
“Each one of us has to ask ourselves, What do I really want? Do I really want to be Number One? Or do I want to be happy? If you want success, you may sacrifice your happiness for it. You can become a victim of success, but you can never become a victim of happiness.”
Thay – as his followers call him, is no stranger to the ideology of the movers and shakers in our world economy. He was invited to speak in Silicon Valley by Steve Jobs once, and has met with the World Bank president Jim Yong Kim. He has also met with senior Google engineers to discuss how they could develop technologies which could be more compassionate and bring about positive change, instead of increasing people’s stress and isolation, taking them away from nature, and one another.
He recently explained his concern with how people pin their happiness on success in an interview with the Guardian.
“If you know how to practice mindfulness you can generate peace and joy right here, right now. And you’ll appreciate that and it will change you. In the beginning, you believe that if you cannot become number one, you cannot be happy, but if you practice mindfulness you will readily release that kind of idea. We need not fear that mindfulness might become only a means and not an end because in mindfulness the means and the end are the same thing. There is no way to happiness; happiness is the way.”
Thay warns, however, that practicing mindfulness just to be more productive at work, or only to enjoy more material success will leave the practitioner with a pale shadow of awareness compared to what true mindfulness can provide. He suggests:
“If you consider mindfulness as a means of having a lot of money, then you have not touched its true purpose. It may look like the practice of mindfulness but inside there’s no peace, no joy, no happiness produced. It’s just an imitation. If you don’t feel the energy of brotherhood, of sisterhood, radiating from your work, that is not mindfulness.”
As company executives in banking, oil production, agriculture, manufacturing, tech, and other fields strive to be successful, are they missing out on the true peace that might come from preserving an ecosystem, or helping to protect biodiversity? Are these titans of industry reflective of our social and political slant toward ever-increasing spending, a lack of accountability fiscally and environmentally, and the disassociation workers feel from their families and friends while constantly trying to work harder and earn more?
Thay says that all businesses should be conducted in such a way that all the employees can experience happiness. He says that helping to change society for the better can fill us with a sense of accomplishment that doesn’t come from focusing purely on profits.
When top CEOs make 300% more than their workers, and include stock incentives, luxury cars, and healthy expense accounts, how can balance truly be upheld?
When the world’s top 3,000 firms are responsible for over $2.2 trillion in environmental damage, how can we find joy from nature?
When even Facebook cofounder Dustin Moskovitz, who now heads up the software firm Asana calls out the tech industry for a lack of work-life balance, how can anyone find time to practice mindfulness or meditation?
Furthermore, even loss of life is acceptable in the name of profits. The ‘business’ of war has allowed the 100 largest contractors to sell more than $410 billion in arms and military services. Just 10 of those companies sold over $208 billion – while providing the means to kill millions.
Is it any wonder employees are broke, stressed out, and burned out from a lack of balance, no connection with other people, and an incessant work flow that promises very little reward, either financial or otherwise, from their toil?
Then there is the debt-based financial system of the Federal Reserve, propping up this entire show.
We also don’t need CEOs who make 300 times what their employees do, or ridiculous government policies which allow the notion of corporations as people, while ignoring the basic needs of real people.
Our courts have extended constitutional protections to the most unconscious among us, preserving a way of life that does not allow true happiness. Our constant aim for success has warped our original goal – to be happy. Isn’t that why people want more money, more power, and more ‘things.’ But as Thay says, this is a false way to attain happiness.
What this quiet Zen monk is trying to tell us is that our entire society is upside down. Our economic system protects mindlessness, not mindfulness.
He says that the primary affliction of our modern civilization is that we don’t know how to handle the suffering inside us and so we attempt to cover it up with all kinds of consumption.
Retailers peddle a host of devices to help us cover up the suffering inside. But unless and until we’re able to face our suffering, we can’t be present and available to life, and happiness will continue to elude us.
How do we change our economic policies so that all employees can be happy? It might help to look at our true goals. It might help to acknowledge the pain we’ve caused thousands of people by perpetuating war for the sake of profits. Success doesn’t automatically equal happiness, not if the definition of success only includes the bottom line.
We can measure success by our fulfillment in life, by the people we’ve been able to touch with our good deeds, or a mindful interaction, by having friends, experiencing love, being able to walk in a forest, or learn how to play a musical instrument.
Perhaps the true goal should be peacefulness instead of happiness, even. As Hanh has said:
“If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile and blossom like a flower, and everyone in our family, our entire society will benefit from our peace.” This could be our new definition of success.
Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of East London
Dec 2, 2016
Happiness has become a modern obsession. Searching for it, holding on to it, and wishing it on our loved ones have all become motivating forces for how we live our lives.
We also use happiness as a measuring stick for life decisions. If a job doesn’t make us happy, we quit it. If a relationship stops making us happy, we leave it.
Happiness has lodged itself at the centre of our lives and we make some drastic choices desperately trying to reach it. This is especially true for people in their 30s and 40s, who are at the highest risk of using antidepressants and developing mood disorders than any other age group.
They are also the biggest consumers of the self-help industry, spending their money on well-being retreats, travelling, online happiness-boosting activities or pop psychology books. Ironically, research shows that the pursuit of happiness might not only make us less happy, but also more lonely, as we often end up cutting ourselves off from people who represent the lives that we want to leave behind.
So, if we are feeling unhappy today, can we hope for a better tomorrow? Fortunately, research suggests that we can, because regardless of our individual differences, we go through some natural changes in life that influence our happiness. These changes allow us to experience relatively high levels of happiness in our 20s, which then begin to tumble, reaching their lowest point in the late 30s and early 40s – when they start to climb again.
In most Western societies, we tend to spend our 20s and 30s creating our future. By our late 30s and early 40s, when we realise that a) we have not achieved what we hoped to achieve, and b) our future is shrinking rapidly, we have two options. We can begin to panic, or we can adjust to all these changes by redirecting our thoughts to the positive past. This is what most of us do, which results in us feeling more secure and happier, as we move into the later stages of our lives.
2. Emotional life
When we are young, we let our emotions run wild. The higher they go, the lower they drop. It takes us years to control them. As we move into our 50s, they become more stable and we begin to achieve more serenity in life. Apart from that, we are more drawn to positivity and are able to hold on to it for longer, which is another reason why we feel happier as we age.
3. Social network
In our 20s, our social network is likely to be thriving. We have new people coming into our lives all the time, be it colleagues from a new job, or the extra circles of friends and family of a new romantic partner. Then, as we enter our 30s, it all begins to change. We no longer have the time nor the energy to nurture all our friendships, and people drop from our lives like flies.
Since we need social support to feel happier, this change can have a detrimental effect on our well-being. However, as we move into our 50s, older and wiser, we begin to put more effort into the people in our lives, strengthening our friendships. This can be another reason why we become happier later on in our lives.
4. Life events
Life events are like traffic. When the road is empty, it is easier to drive. As soon as it becomes busy, it is harder to cope. Research shows that both traumatic events and daily hassles are at their highest level when we reach midlife. Thereafter, they begin to slow down, as we learn how to cope with them more effectively. And we become happier as a result.
It feels good to be able to predict what is going to happen next. It gives us a sense of mastery over our environment and fills us with the confidence that we can tackle anything that life throws at us. As we move along the years, we become better at foreseeing the consequences of our, and other people’s, behaviours and become skilled at planning the best action to manoeuvre through life challenges. Each day teaches us new life skills – and they make it easier for us to feel happier.
So it seems our lives do become happier as we age. Ironically, regardless of our age, when people are asked about the happiest times of their lives, they usually point to their 20s, wrongly predicting that feelings of contentment will reduce as they get older.
In fact, it would be a good idea to relax and let nature take its course. Because with things actually improving with age, the uplifting truth is that we all have an ever-increasing chance of living happily ever after.
Denmark reclaimed its place as the happiest country in the world, according to the latest annual World Happiness Report. Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Finland followed in quick succession at the top, while Benin, Afghanistan, Togo, Syria and Burundi languished at the bottom.
The nations that top the usual measure of a country’s health – its Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, which shows overall economic output – were much lower down. The US came 13th, the UK 23rd and China 83rd. This goes to show that GDP is by no means a conclusive measure of well-being and the report reflects moves to recognise this. In fact, the report found a strong correlation between inequality and unhappiness.
The cluster of high performing Nordic countries at the top of the World Happiness Report suggests that there are shared features of policy and perhaps geography and culture that matter. These are countries where high taxes are used to generate relatively equal societies where social mobility and income security are much greater as a result. These countries tend also to have rather homogenous societies and the evidence is that in many situations people prefer being with others like themselves.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the list are a variety of countries which are less homogenous but nonetheless either war-torn, close to being destitute and in the case of Burundi – which comes bottom – both.
Countries at both ends of the scale remind us why we need to measure happiness. Income isn’t the be all and end all of life quality and research into human flourishing continues to grow as a result. Partly this reflects the increasing availability of data measuring subjective markers of happiness. But it also shows a dissatisfaction with modern economic ways of thinking, where morality and ethics take a back seat and bureaucratic cost-benefit analysis is the norm.
Happiness is complicated
The World Happiness Report uses a mix of GDP, social support (as measured by someone to count on in times of trouble), healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity (as measured by donations) and perceptions of corruption to rank countries. It is good to see a mix of subjective and objective measures.
In my own team’s work, we have sought to develop a framework for the multiple indicators of life quality in order to assess progress. We use a theoretical approach devised initially by the Nobel-prize winning economist Amartya Sen, with subsequent additions by political philosopher Martha Nussbaum. This helps us think about quality of life not just in terms of objective accomplishments but by looking at more subjective qualities like personal enjoyment or opportunities.
As well as looking at the resources that people have access to, we examine their ability to convert those resources into things they value. By developing data sets focused on these concepts we can see what individuals are able to do at home, in work and socially, as well as their physical environments and the services they can access.
Comparing what different countries value can be revealing. We found that Americans, for example, report being better able to get help from the police compared with people from the UK, whereas there is a substantial difference in the other direction when it comes to accessing medical treatment. But this has a different level of importance for different people in different countries so it’s necessary to find a way to compare them.
In both the US and UK, the ability to have your rubbish cleared away is an important determinant of happiness. It seems a curious chart topper until we recognise that it is comparatively simple to deliver and easy to identify the local political actors who are ultimately responsible when things go wrong. In Italy, where it is significantly harder for many people to get their waste disposed of, this may well reflect the much shorter political terms office there make it much harder to call local politicians to account.
Integrating these subjective indicators into an overarching framework of happiness and progress is not easy, however. How do you compare and weigh the importance of the quality of your social relations with whether your waste has been collected? In terms of well-being, both matter.
The truth is that there are many things that make life go well or otherwise. In my recent book, Happiness Explained, I showed how the approach initiated by Sen provides a framework for understanding all of these issues. Quality of life for almost everyone depends on fairness, autonomy, community and engagement though of course the details vary at different ages, in different cultures. One thing that stands out is that this FACE principle seems to apply right across the life course.
The updated World Happiness Report reflects on many of the same issues and it is great to see so much convergence of academic thought as schools, governments and NGOs start to engage with this agenda in novel and meaningful ways.
“In fact, not one of the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Great Britian, Italy, Japan and the United States) cracked the top 10 list for happiest countries, but did score two spots (Italy and France) for top 10 most unhappy nations.”
What is happiness? This might sound like a question you’d hear come out of Derek Zoolander’s mouth. But seriously, think about it. Is it a matter of perspective, your relationships, a neurological chemical imbalance, or career fulfillment? The more you try to pin down this elusive state of mind, the more achieving a measure for it seems out of reach. Take the movie Hector and the Search for Happiness (2014), in which Hector (Simon Pegg) travels the entire world trying to solve this philosophical quandary. By the time Hector sort of works it out, all we’re really left with is 120 minutes of our lives we’ll never get back.
Luckily, for the past 39 years, WIN/Gallup International(Worldwide Independent Network of Market Research) has been conducting a survey that claims to offer a quantitative measure of levels of happiness around the world. Last month it published its survey’s most recent findings taking into account “the outlook, expectations, views and beliefs of 66,040 people from 68 countries across the globe.”
While the survey’s indices may be far from a definitive accounting, they certainly offer some interesting insights into capitalism’s relative effects on a population’s perception and enjoyment of their lives. Participating countries in the survey were divided into three tiers: Prosperous (the G7); Emerging (G20, excluding the original G7) and Aspiring (all other nations).
One thing immediately apparent even to the most entry-level statistician is that net happiness is unrelated, or possibly inversely proportional, to a country’s wealth. While Prosperous nations experienced a 42% net happiness, Emerging and Aspiring nations soared past with 59% and 54% respectively.
In capitalism’s own bosom, the United States scored a meager net happiness rate of 43% in stark contrast to Mexico’s 76%. This difference is particularly noteworthy given the U.S. enjoys five times the per capita income of its southern neighbor. In fact, not one of the G7 countries (Canada, France, Germany, Great Britian, Italy, Japan and the United States) cracked the top 10 list for happiest countries, but did score two spots (Italy and France) for top 10 most unhappy nations.
Although the Economic Optimism and Hope indices seem just as vague as the happiness metric, they were equally revealing. Maybe thanks to the fact mortgage bonds are yet to be invented in these countries, the top two spots for optimism were taken by Nigeria (61%) and Bangladesh (60%). No less noteworthy, although not surprising given recent history, was Greece topping the list of most economically pessimistic societies, followed closely by EU cohorts Austria (-49%), Italy (-47%) and Sweden (-47%). In general, Prosperous nations displayed the least amount of hope (6%) and economic optimism (-16%), while on the flipside, Emerging nations are both more hopeful (50%) and optimistic (36%). Demographics-wise, millennial pessimism might be exaggerated; young people are generally more optimistic (31%) than their calloused older brethren (13%).
It’s unclear what all this information concretely tells us about the nature of a nation’s happiness in relation to its prosperity and international economic standing. One could hypothesize that those societies less immersed in capital consumption generally seem to be more content. In other words, the less you have, the less you need to worry about. Another explanation could perhaps be that relative to Prosperous nations, the myriad of infrastructural and societal ills facing Emerging nations simply makes it a lot easier not to sweat the small stuff. (They call them first-world problems for a reason.)
Poor decimated Iraq was ranked the unhappiest country in the world (-12%). By contrast, Colombia took the number-one spot with a whopping 85%. What accounts for Colombia’s happiness is hard to say. Perhaps it’s the favorable climate and beautiful landscapes. It could also be the fact that after half a century of civil war, Colombia is finally about to enjoy a bit of peace.
Taken all together, what does this survey tell us about the world? That the promise of prosperity under consumerist capitalism is one big fallacy? That living in a jungle-filled tropical climate is almost guaranteed to bring you bliss? An equitable economy means a more optimistic general populace? If anything, happiness is a relative combination of several of these factors. In any case, the significance of these findings should likely be taken with a healthy handful of salt.
“Our citizens should know the urgent facts…but they don’t because our media serves imperial, not popular interests. They lie, deceive, connive and suppress what everyone needs to know, substituting managed news misinformation and rubbish for hard truths…”—Oliver Stone