How to promote happiness?

This is not an easy question to answer, of course, given how multidimensional a phenomenon happiness can be. Some researchers focus on small groups of people to figure out what makes the individual happier, while others investigate the bigger picture of what promotes happiness in countries and nations. One of the leading scientists who has studied both these perspectives is Ed Diener. A pioneer in positive psychology, he crafted a widely used definition of happiness (as “subjective well-being”) that features in a large number of studies and country rankings.

Diener is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the University of Utah, and senior scientist for the Gallup Organization. I had the privilege of interviewing him to talk about what makes individuals and nations happy and the newest developments in happiness research.

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Sherif Arafa: Is happiness the responsibility of the society or the citizen?

Professor Ed Diener

Ed Diener: Of course, it is both! Think of this question: Is health the responsibility of the state or the individual? Of course, it is both. The state must provide clean water, and track infectious diseases and develop medicines, and so forth—the individual cannot do these things. But the individual should exercise, and eat well, wear seat belts when driving, and refrain from smoking. The state can encourage these things, but usually cannot demand them effectively unless citizens each take responsibility.

Most things are like this. It is the responsibility of both. The economy is another example. Government policies can certainly foster economic prosperity, but citizens each individually must work hard, and if they are lazy or irresponsible they will probably not flourish.

In the case of happiness, we know that a person’s inborn temperament is important to their happiness. But there are also behaviors and choices people make that can influence their well-being. On the negative side, people can make themselves unhappy by becoming addicted to drugs, unnecessarily worrying all the time, or making other bad choices. On the positive side, people can be positive and supportive with others, have important long-term goals that lead to a meaningful life, and so forth.

On the other side, things the government does can influence happiness, too. So there is not one simple key to happiness. It comes from several directions. Some people argue that people must make themselves happy because governments cannot do it and it is not the government’s responsibility. But why is happiness any different than education, or the economy, or health? To some extent, the government must do its part even though individuals also must take action. And government policies can definitely influence happiness!

SA: What are policymakers doing to promote well-being?

ED: More and more nations are starting to assess the well-being of citizens—for example, by measuring life satisfaction and meaning in life. These measures can tell us who in a society is suffering versus flourishing and what factors are producing boosts versus detriments to happiness.

For example, in the United Kingdom, several billion extra pounds have now been allotted by the government to the treatment of mental illness. Why? Because mental illness was found to be a major, if not the major, source of suffering in the U.K. Furthermore, it was found that less was spent on treating mental illness than on other major diseases. So lots of suffering, but greatly underfunded. This led parliament to change funding priorities.

We know that some environmental factors such as air pollution can lower well-being, and other environmental factors such as parks and green space can raise it. Governments currently rely on various societal indicators such as income and unemployment, educational achievement, and health measures. We now know that indicators of psychosocial well-being can add valuable information that helps leaders make more astute policies and program decisions.

SA: What do you recommend for readers to be happy?

ED: There is no single key to happiness because a number of factors influence it. But there is a recipe with some needed ingredients, such as supportive social relationships, spirituality that is based on positive feelings linking the person to goals bigger and more important than themselves individually, feeling valued by others, and the ability to deal with setbacks, which all people experience.

We find that all happy people have strong social relationships. It is not just receiving support from others. The happiest people are often those who are doing the most to help others and their societies. It seems that making others happy is one good way to move toward personal happiness. Feeling that one’s life is worthwhile and meaningful is also important to well-being. Spirituality can include gratitude, forgiveness, and seeking to help others and improve the world. In other words, the road to happiness is not hedonism, but a life devoted to important meaningful goals and other people.

In addition, people must learn to think correctly about the world so that they do not become overly stressed. People cannot make mountains out of molehills in their mind, and they need to look on the bright side of events most of the time to be happy. The important thing is to realize that we can choose happiness and then pursue it, and that we are not doomed to unhappiness. Some people may need the help of others, even professionals or a counselor, to be happy. But everyone can achieve it.

SA: What programs are available to people who want to cultivate well-being?

ED: Positive psychologists have developed many interventions to improve people’s happiness. These treatments are aimed not just at removing feeling miserable—for example by removing depression—but also at taking average people higher in well-being.

We have put the best of these interventions together in a package we call ENHANCE. ENHANCE aims to teach people skills and ways of thinking that will make them happier.

One set of lessons in ENHANCE helps people think about their values, their strengths, and their goals, and make certain these are aligned. ENHANCE teaches people to be more positive in social interactions—for example, by expressing gratitude and praise more often. Yet other ENHANCE lessons help people deal with stress and negative feelings.

We have run tightly controlled studies on ENHANCE now. The course takes about 10 weeks to complete, with lessons practiced by people in their everyday lives. They read a lesson and then go out and practice what they have learned, so that a positive habit develops. We find that ENHANCE raises people’s life satisfaction and enjoyment of life.

We also find that ENHANCE may have some physical health effects, even though it is aimed at psychosocial well-being. For example, after ENHANCE, people appear to have fewer sick days and have lower blood pressure. They also function better cognitively in terms of thinking and attention. Thus, not only can the well-being interventions make people feel better, but they may also help them function more effectively.

SA: What are some of the benefits of happiness?

ED: For decades, we studied what makes people happy, and also created measures of happiness and tested the validity of these measures. More recently, we have been asking whether happiness is a good thing. Could it be that happiness is self-indulgent and frivolous compared to work and family and religion?

“The road to happiness is not hedonism, but a life devoted to important meaningful goals and other people”
―Dr. Ed Diener

We find the opposite: We find over and over that happy people are the ones who function more effectively and also help society more.

First, it is important not to confuse happiness with simply having fun—for example, by going to parties, playing sports, and participating in leisure activities. The deep and long-lasting sources of happiness contribute to what we call sustainable happiness, which is lasting, not just momentary. What are the effects of sustainable happiness? Are they desirable, or do they lead people to be lazy, uncaring about world problems, and unaware of the important things in life?

Looking at outcomes, we find that sustainable happiness leads to:

  • Better health and longevity: Happy people live longer and experience better health.
  • Superior work performance, especially organizational citizenship.
  • More supportive social relationships—for example, being less likely to get divorced.
  • Better citizenship and more “prosocial” behaviors—for example, being more likely to help others, volunteer, or donate money to charity.
  • Better mental health and resilience when confronted by stressful events—for example, being less likely to suffer from mental health problems such as depression, and more likely to bounce back after something bad happens.

The benefits of sustainable happiness are broad and important. They cannot be ignored. To repeat: Happy people do not just feel better, but they function better in achieving the things we value. They help society. They help those around them to also lead high-quality lives. Happy people are not uncaring, selfish people. They have the energy and desire to work on societal problems as much as or more than others.

SA: Is there a cultural difference in the way people define happiness?

ED: At one level, happiness is the same in all cultures and for all individuals. It occurs when people believe their lives are going well, and they feel good from moment to moment; their experiences tend to be mostly positive. In all cultures, people want their lives to be satisfying and worthwhile. In all cultures, people would prefer to feel contentment or joy rather than anger or depression. So at this level, we are all very much alike.

However, what causes happiness varies from person to person and from culture to culture, to some extent. Although most all people want strong and supportive social relationships, the form these take varies. One person may want lots and lots of friends, while another person wants a few close friends. Some people want to be married; others do not. Across cultures, we see variations in the way people want to interact with others, and following the norms in one’s own culture is usually more effective in producing happiness than ignoring those beliefs. In some cultures, religious worship may provide a social avenue for people, whereas in another culture their friends might be neighbors or their coworkers.

We do know quite a bit about where there are differences in the causes of well-being across the globe. For example, in individualistic cultures such as the USA, having high self-esteem is associated with happiness. In other cultures, there is more stress on fitting in with the group and doing one’s part. In these societies, self-esteem or thinking highly of oneself is not related to happiness. In some cultures, happiness is experienced as excitement and action, whereas in other cultures it is experienced as calm and contentment. These cultural differences are fascinating and important, but we should not lose sight of the fact that there are some universals in the experience, as well. For example, everywhere people want their innate needs met for food, social support, and shelter.

This article authored by Sherif Arafa was originally published as two articles on on January 8 and 10, 2019.

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