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Happiness on a Global Scale

Happiness may feel like a stretch considering how things have been going, but studies indicate otherwise.

Happiness and joy are two terms that are commonly used interchangeably and have varying definitions, but there is a difference between the two. Happiness comes and goes, usually affected by external events, whereas joy comes from within and is an emotional inward state of peace and contentment. I consider happiness as a feeling whereas joy is more of a state of mind.

Happiness is however a key indicator of general well-being and academic research has exploded on the topic around the world over the past decade. Policymakers increasingly see it as an important objective in public policy. The European Union even requests that its member countries put well-being at the heart of policy design. As interest in happiness has risen, attention to income and GDP has decreased. In New Zealand's budget for May 2019 for example, the Prime Minister prioritized wellbeing over economic growth. Could it be that we’re finally realizing the hedonistic treadmill isn’t fulfilling?

I can hope, but regardless, our happiness matters on a global scale. There are obviously however a lot of individual factors that can affect how happy we believe we are.

The annual World Happiness Report was released earlier this month and I was very interested in looking at the impact Covid 19 has had on us over the past two years. Worry and stress have risen about 12% over pre-pandemic levels, but I think that’s pretty understandable and am actually surprised it’s not a lot higher.

Although over the past ten years, there has been on average a long-term moderate upward trend in stress, worry and sadness in most countries and a slight long-term decline in the enjoyment of life, overall, our happiness level has remained fairly stable on a global scale. Considering global events over the past 10 years, we have remained pretty darned resilient, which I find encouraging.

Many factors impact happiness including what country we live in. The United States ranked 16th in happiness out of 146 countries. Based on the news and social media alone, you’d think we’d be much lower on the scale, so this was a good reminder of the negative bias we see on a regular basis. The Nordic region consistently ranks at the top in happiness, with Finland being the happiest country on earth, closely followed by Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Sweden and Norway.

No one knows for certain why Nordics are so happy. Some believe it is the framework they’re living in, including a well-functioning democracy, free education and healthcare, and a high priority of life balance. Other theories state that it is the cold weather. Seriously, because local communities in the Nordics have been brought closer together, securing social support, due to the lack of sunshine. Canadian Economist and editor of the World Happiness Report, John Helliwell pointed out that "There is a view which suggests that, historically, communities that lived in harsher weather were brought together by greater mutual support."

So back to those individual factors that affect happiness, this would be a deal breaker for me. I am miserable in cold weather and all of the community support in the world would not make me happier. But I live in a country that is in the upper echelons of happiness. Consider someone who lives in a country at the bottom, like Afghanistan or Zimbabwe. Government corruption, wars, poverty, disease or other environmental factors may make it very challenging to be happy, so they might enjoy the benefits of the Nordic framework and increased happiness despite the frigid temperatures.

Many of us have noticed a decrease in happiness over the past two years as our lives have been turned upside down because of the pandemic, yet many of us have found ways to find happiness despite our circumstances. Positive and negative emotions are indicators of happiness levels and the World Happiness Report stated that we experienced positive emotions roughly twice as much as negative emotions over the past year, which I again found encouraging. I think this is important for us to consider because noticing how we feel is a key aspect of mindfulness and if we notice we’re experiencing negative emotions, we can focus on shifting to a more positive stance when appropriate, which ultimately leads to increased happiness.

There are biological factors of happiness as well. Genetic studies reveal that about 30-40% of the differences in happiness between people in the same country are accounted for by genetic differences, with the 60-70% of differences resulting from the effect of environmental influences independent of our genes. That’s right, some people are born with a set of genetic variances that makes it easier to feel happy. That doesn’t mean happiness is out of reach for those who don’t, but it may mean that it feels more challenging for some to feel happy.

In addition to genetics, the brain affects our happiness level as well. The report indicated that the most consistent finding with respect to the brain areas involved in well-being is that a more active default mode network or DMN is related to lower well-being. The DMN is most active when we are not focused on the outside world and the brain is in a state of wakeful rest, as in when we’re mind-wandering. We have a remedy for that called mindfulness, which means we can decrease the activity of the DMN by focusing on the present, increasing our ability to feel happy.

Balance, peace and calm are more prevalent in western countries, which also experience the highest levels of satisfaction, whereas they are less prevalent in poorer countries, which makes sense, but the majority of people in almost every country prefer a calmer life to an exciting one. Both balance and peace contribute strongly to a satisfying life in all regions of the world. When is the last time you paused to reflect on the state of your life? Is it balanced, calm and peaceful or is it frenetic, imbalanced and chaotic? Aiming for a calmer life doesn’t mean we don’t experience excitement. I think it indicates that we can choose when we want to feel excited and do something about it versus having a constant adrenaline rush that’s more related to stress.

One more really encouraging trend emerged from the report that is very important to me and I think, society as a whole. Global benevolence increased remarkably in 2021, up by almost 25% of its pre-pandemic level, led by the helping of strangers, but with strong growth also in donations and volunteering. The report stated that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a 2021 pandemic of benevolence with equally global spread. Again, based on what we see in the media, this is welcome news and we can hope that it is sustainable beyond the pandemic, as this outpouring of kindness provides grounds for hope and optimism in a world needing more of both.

While mindfulness includes awareness of how we’re feeling on a regular basis, perhaps we could all adopt a practice of checking in on our happiness level, say once a quarter, to create our own happiness report. It’s amazing to me how easily we slip into habits and practices that make us unhappy. A seasonal check-in might be a good new habit to start so that we can assess how we’re feeling and note our own trends. Have we started working too much, worrying about things we can’t control or ignoring our relationships?

I’m starting now. Spring has sprung so how am I feeling? Pretty good. Do I need to make any adjustments? Actually, yes I do. My social life has become dormant over the past two years, so it’s time to get out and do things with friends and family again on a regular basis. I reached out to three friends this week to schedule play dates. Yes, grownups need those, too. What could you do to increase your happiness this spring? Give it some thought and then just do it.

Remember, happiness is largely about our response to external events. We always have a choice as to how we respond, so be sure to pay attention when something negative occurs as to where your thoughts go and what emotions follow. We certainly can’t be happy about everything that happens and it’s important to process, grieve or even get angry about certain events. But most of the time, we can find something to feel happy about even during challenging times. And that’s key to enjoying happiness on a regular basis, which leads to the state of joy and improves our overall quality of life and well-being. Isn’t that a goal worth pursuing?

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