Love, friends, money… or just genes? Since ancient times, people have wondered what makes them happy. In the US, the right to pursue happiness (“Pursuit of Happiness”) is even enshrined in the constitution, while in the Himalayan state of Bhutan there is even a so-called minister of happiness and a happiness survey gross national. But how is happiness achieved and what does research know about it?
To get to the bottom of the matter, we must first clarify what happiness really is. “Happiness or satisfaction says something about the subjectively experienced quality of life. How much you like the life you lead, whatever the reason,” explains Jan Delhey, happiness researcher and sociologist at the University of Magdeburg. But how can the subjectively experienced quality of life be improved?
Three central factors to be happy
Karlheinz Ruckriegel, happiness researcher and economist at the Nuremberg University of Technology, knows several factors that determine happiness: “Good social relationships, health, commitment and satisfying work, a certain degree of personal freedom, inner attitude and sufficient income to satisfy essential needs.” material needs.”
Delhey, on the other hand, breaks it down into three central factors:
Therefore, “having” includes adequate coverage of consumers’ economic needs and desires, “loving” includes partners and friendships, and “being” includes meaningful occupations in work and leisure. “Normally one pillar is not enough to achieve great life satisfaction,” says Delhey.
Does money make us happy?
One of the big questions that people sometimes give opposite answers to is: “Does money make you happy?” Science’s answer here is nuanced. People with higher incomes and from richer countries are, on average, happier. “The increase in happiness is greater when going from a low income to a middle income than from a middle income to a high one, especially in wealthy societies,” Delhey emphasizes. “The usefulness of income decreases the more you have.”
Ruckriegel confirms this: “The influence of material things is limited. If people have enough income to meet their essential material needs, income becomes less important.” In Germany, a single person can do well with a net family income of 2,000 euros. However, this is an average value that varies depending on where you live. Munich, for example, is 40 percent higher and Magdeburg 20 percent lower. As income increases, demands also increase, meaning that increasing income no longer increases satisfaction.
What definitely has a demonstrable influence on people’s happiness levels is age. “Young people are the happiest, then things go down a bit; the lowest point of happiness is usually between the ages of 45 and 50,” explains Delhey. This is because this is when economic pressure is greatest, responsibility and dreams are also shattered. “Then there is a further increase until old age.”
The coronavirus pandemic interrupted this usual pattern: younger people were especially affected by restrictions on freedom, since they are generally more active and maintain more social contacts. Basically, younger and older people are generally happier. Furthermore, people who maintain relationships are, on average, happier, as are people who do good and defend their ideals. Deep religiosity also guarantees greater satisfaction on average, Delhey says.
However, blows of fate can cause great crises in life. After a phase of varying duration after an accident, according to happiness researcher Michaela Brohm-Badry from the University of Trier, there are not only people with negative consequences such as post-traumatic stress disorder, but also what she calls “post-traumatic stress ”. growth.” This affects even around 60 percent of those affected. Many people emerge stronger from a long-term crisis. Many studies on cancer patients and victims of fires, boats or violent disasters have shown that “in addition to emotions overwhelming, suffering can also be followed by positive and empowering emotions,” says Brohm-Badry, who is also president of the German Society for Research in Positive Psychology (DGPPF).
Luck and genetics
According to happiness researcher Ruckriegel, in addition to these external living conditions, our behavior and our genetic predisposition are at least as important, if not more so. While you cannot change your character, you have control over your behavior: “Lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the path that leads us to worthwhile goals. “It’s about treating our emotional balance carefully: emotional keyword management,” says Ruckriegel. “Therefore, you should carefully consider how much income you really need so that you don’t waste too much time simply earning income at the expense of other factors of happiness.”
Since, according to neurobiological studies, people perceive negative events and feelings more strongly than positive ones, according to Ruckriegel, it is also worth reinforcing positive feelings: for example, from time to time keeping a kind of gratitude diary and remembering the events of the day. for which you are grateful. “It is not about repressing negative feelings or forcing ourselves to always think positively, but rather about becoming aware of the positive things around us.” However, you must question the negative feelings that often occur and possibly react to them by changing your decisions and behavioral changes. and, for example, look for a new job.
Active for your own happiness
You can also contribute to happiness through your own behavior, actively creating a social environment and thus avoiding loneliness, or by doing volunteer work, for example. “People want to do something that makes sense to them. Volunteering can fulfill that function,” says Ruckriegel. This could be a good alternative, especially in old age, when the work that many people find meaningful no longer exists and more time is available. Volunteering also offers social interaction and support.
But it is possible to influence the happiness of the population not only individually, but also in society as a whole and politically. “If the results of studies on happiness were applied in Germany to the early stages of schooling, we could achieve higher levels of satisfaction from the beginning and throughout our lives,” says the Nuremberg happiness researcher. He would therefore welcome the introduction of a school subject on this topic, “as this would allow children to address from an early stage the factors that are crucial for a happy life.” Not only does this make you happier, it can also prolong your lifespan because contentment is healthy.
Happiness research also appears to be getting more attention in politics. The Federal Ministry of the Economy, led by Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck (Greens), is planning a so-called well-being measurement. The aim is to focus on ecological and social dimensions rather than just economic ones, as in the past, as stated in a public consultation held by the ministry at the end of July. It is necessary to complement economic policy indicators, such as gross domestic product. “Quantitative economic growth, in the sense of an increase in gross domestic product, is not synonymous with an increase in the common good and the quality of life of citizens,” the statement says. Among other things, the goal is to determine the extent to which growth can be distributed in a socially equitable manner and educational opportunities can be improved.
Happiness researcher Ruckriegel does not go far enough. “I strongly recommend that subjective well-being be given a central position, especially general life satisfaction and areas such as work or family.”