The Sweet Pursuit

Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive

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The International Happiness Detectives

10/12/2011 4:51:47 PM

Tags: happiness, emotions, Scientific American Mind, Margret Aldrich

Smiley face 

We can learn how to cook like the French. We can learn how to speak Mandarin and Swahili and Portuguese. Can we also uncover the secrets of happiness around the world and learn how to find our bliss?

What, exactly, makes people happy is difficult to discern, but psychologists Ed Diener and his son Robert Biswas-Diener have conducted dozens of international studies to dig up clues. “The researchers’ questions were part of a bigger project to measure happiness across the globe,” reports Suzann Pileggi Pawelski in Scientific American Mind. “The Gallup World Poll, which includes a psychological assessment of people in 155 countries, shows that nations vary enormously in how happy their citizens are.”

The Dieners, and other scientists like them, detect several basic building blocks to happiness, including “social capital” (which includes the amount of trust citizens have for each other), strong ties with family and friends, a sense of belonging, pride in your country, and a lack of materialism.

But, surveying a country’s happiness level can be tricky: There are multiple perceptions of happiness, and the questions researchers ask make a difference. When polled on “life satisfaction” (an overall appraisal of life, including work, income, and relationships), the rankings look like this:

Highest levels of happiness:
1. Denmark
2. Finland
3. Netherlands
4. Canada
5. Sweden 

Lowest levels of happiness:
1. Sierra Leone
2. Haiti
3. Tanzania
4. Zimbabwe
5. Georgia

When polled on “positive feelings” (enjoyment, smiling, and laughing), the results changed:

Highest levels of happiness:
1. Costa Rica
2. Canada
3. Paraguay
4. Laos
5. Ireland

Lowest levels of happiness:
1. Georgia
2. Armenia
3. Serbia
4. Sierra Leone
5. Bosnia

The Diener father-son team and other happiness researchers still have more evidence to unearth before finding the formula for joy. For now, perhaps we should hedge our bets and live like Canadians….

Source: Scientific American Mind (excerpt only available online)

Image by J E Theriot, licensed under Creative Commons.

 



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