About happiness

This has been a recurring theme in the past few weeks on my random walk on the internet (maybe not so random). It started with an article on the BBC Travel about the cities to visit in the happiest countries in the world, which led me to this report: http://unsdsn.org/files/2013/09/WorldHappinessReport2013_online.pdf

It is a nice report, and I wish I had time to read it all, but the first chapter alone gives a nice overview of the document. It you’re curious, here are the top 10:

1. Denmark
2. Norway
3. Switzerland
4. Netherlands
5. Sweden
6. Canada
7. Finland
8. Austria o/
9. Iceland
10. Australia

This is interesting, because whenever I say I come from Brazil, people imagine that I come from a place where everybody is going to the beach and dancing and smiling all the time. And we are advertised as very happy people… And you’d think that countries that have the sun and wonderful beaches would have the happiest people, right? But it’s just the opposite. Nine out of the top 10 countries do not have wonderful beaches, on the contrary. Lots of them have a harsh winter and are sometimes labelled as places with high suicide rates because of the winter depression. So how did this happen??

After reading and watching videos on the subject here and there, I found out that we tend to overrate how happy we will be because of something (or how sad as well). So you might think that winning the lottery will make you the happiest person on Earth when, in fact, studies suggest that it doesn’t. Or you might think that becoming paraplegic will make you miserable for the rest of your life, but studies also suggest the contrary. This happens because we have a tendency to adapt to whatever situation life brings us, it is called hedonic treadmill. There is a very interesting TEDTalk on that. Actually, the experiment the guy mentions towards the end of the talk, reminded me of another very interesting TEDTalk about how we are actually less happy when we can choose over lots of options. This is a curious effect, that haunted me as I was a kid. Turns out I was really bad at choosing stuff, really simple stuff, like new shoes. I would rummage over and over again which shoes would be better for me, or what I liked the most, without ever being able to decide. I remember even feeling a bit nauseous in a few situations. And after deciding on something, I would sometimes regret it. I guess the message of the second video is exactly this: if you have too many choices, the choosing process is so stressful that you cannot really enjoy the thing you chose. And there will always be that mean little voice in the back of your head: “what if I exchange?”. This is what happens when there’s too much space for freedom. When you make a choice and you’re supposed to keep it, our adaptation thing kicks in, and you feel happy with what you got. This reminds me of the Indian arranged weddings… At the time, I could not really wrap my head around the whole concept. How is it that you can have a good life with someone your parents chose for you?? What if you don’t like this person (divorce is not really an option)? Well, they learn to like each other. They adapt, and they are just as happy as someone who dated 20 people before settling down (maybe happier!).

So what does this have to do with the countries there?? I am not sure actually… If we tend to adapt to all situations, what is it about the happiest countries in the world? I can think of two things: (1) quality of life and (2) the need to cooperate to survive.

If you look at the full happiness ranking of the countries, you will notice some relation between quality of life and happiness (not all of the time, of course). In the top ten countries, people don’t have to worry about mobility, health issues, education, security, and this makes an enormous difference on one’s life. I can tell by personal experience. You don’t see poor people begging for money, mothers with sick kids in every block or families living in shacks that are about to fall down. I think this affects us. So I would guess it’s one of the reasons why people in wealthier countries are happier. Not because of the money, but because of social security.

The second thing is more subtle. When winter comes, there’s no such thing as someone living on the streets. They will die if nobody gives them shelter, for sure. So there is a social responsibility of taking care of others, just because, if they don’t, the consequences are too tragic. And as this TEDTalk* suggests, we are happier when we are helping others than we are when helping ourselves.

A third thing just came to my mind. In these countries the seasons of the year are really noticeable. There’s a huge change in temperature the whole year, and as one season comes and the other goes away, we are remembered what is good about each one, and we can enjoy each season’s particularity. I came from a tropical country, but I was never so happy to see the sun as I am in summer here in Austria. After three months of cold, you really appreciate the first rays of warm light again. In Brazil, the sun is shinning the whole year, so you don’t really pay attention to that… It becomes normal and it is no more a source of happiness.

I think the bottom line to all these things is that happiness comes from our actions, and not our stuff. We learn to enjoy everything we choose, so don’t worry too much about choosing. Just be nice to people, smile and they will smile back. And meditate, one of the sources of happiness 🙂

* In the end of this TEDTalk, the guy advertises one of the most interesting charity campaigns I have ever seen. You should check it out too: http://www.donorschoose.org/