The Secret of Happiness?
May 5, 2008 1:34 PM   Subscribe

How can I find more about this secret to happiness (and is it really true)?

I just heard an excerpt from 60 Minutes, where "Morley Safer finds out why the Danes are considered the happiest people on earth". The secret? That they have realistic expectations, and are contented with the present situtation, etc.

Where can I read more about this, and these sorts of ideas? Is there any criticism of these studies? Your two cents?
posted by zenja72 to Health & Fitness (44 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Afroblanco at 1:46 PM on May 5, 2008

Two books that come to mind are Flow and Stumbling on Happiness.
posted by nitsuj at 1:46 PM on May 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Strongly recommend Stumbling On Happiness By Daniel Gilbert. It won't exactly tell you the secret to happiness, but it will enlighten you as to why it's such a hard thing to come by. Very cleverly written and thoroughly enjoyable to the very end. What some might call a "page turner".

On preview, nitsuj beat me to it.
posted by pedmands at 1:48 PM on May 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

I spend some time every day looking for things that I'm grateful for. This makes me happy, or at the very least, feel pretty good.

I've never looked for happiness, because I think that it's a journey, not a destination. I "sniff the flowers as I walk along", instead of thinking that when I get there I'll be happy.

I think there is a great tendency for people to focus on what they don't have - the new car, the bigger house, the wonderful home life, etc. It's no wonder people aren't happy when they keep telling themselves that they aren't good enough/don't have enough. Who wants to be told that?
posted by Solomon at 1:49 PM on May 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Taoism? I recommend Tao of Pooh as it is more about philosophy than mysticism.
posted by TheSlate at 1:52 PM on May 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

There was an article in the Times recently that said that one of the principles of current happiness theory (or whatever you call it) has been questioned by recent studies. It was the idea that past a certain amount of income, happiness does not increase. I believe it was that once you get past the poverty line your happiness will not increase in any relation to your wealth. The article said that recent studies have called that into question. It figures somewhat prominently in Stumbling on Happiness.

Aren't Danes generally quite beautiful? That can't be hurting.
posted by sully75 at 1:53 PM on May 5, 2008

Yeah, Buddhism. This isn't really a secret. There are craploads of Buddhist authors out there, but I'd recommend Pema Chodron for starters.
posted by desjardins at 1:53 PM on May 5, 2008

There's a lot of blogs that touch this subject.

Zen Habits is a popular one.
posted by uxo at 1:57 PM on May 5, 2008

'Realistic expectations' isn't really the same as mainstream Buddhist principles, I don't think. The implications in the coverage of the Danish studies was that they don't expect all that much from life. The key Buddhist principle of non-attachment is about your relationship to your expectations/desires/hopes: they can be enormous, and ambitious, but the aspiration is to avoid 'clinging' to them, or imagining that your life should be lived for some fantastical future time at which they finally become true.

But if you're interested in the Buddhist approach (which seems to me much more accessible to a non-Dane than trying to emulate the Danes' exact combination of circumstances) then I agree about Pema Chodron. Here's a (badly formatted) copy of her excellent chapter Hopelessness And Death from When Things Fall Apart.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:02 PM on May 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Positive psychology is one of the current approaches to the study of individual happiness from a scientific point of view.
posted by calumet43 at 2:09 PM on May 5, 2008

You might want to check out this previous AskMe about books on Happiness.
posted by burnmp3s at 2:11 PM on May 5, 2008

sully75, it sounds like you're talking about Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
posted by MrMoonPie at 2:12 PM on May 5, 2008

social security. denmark has really strong social insurance policies (and taxes), but i think it just helps people relax. they may never get as rich as you can get in america, but they also can't ever get as poor. that kind of stability, i would think, would take a load off of anyone's mind.
posted by thinkingwoman at 2:18 PM on May 5, 2008 [3 favorites]

Spend some time contemplating The Vinegar Tasters.
posted by unixrat at 2:25 PM on May 5, 2008 [2 favorites]

I just wanted to add, that there's a book called Wealth 101, that has the tagline "Getting What You Want-Enjoying What You've Got". It's a fantastic read, all about realising just how much you already have.

I became much happier when I stopped looking for something to make me happy, and realised that I already could be happy. I didn't have to wait for something else to come along.
posted by Solomon at 2:25 PM on May 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

A possible problem with the happiness studies is that they use self-reported happiness levels, which are obviously biased by outlook. An analogy is that if you did surveys by self-reported health, you'll probably find that people in nations with great health-care systems will self-report as being sicker ('I've got high blood pressure ... and an elevated risk of skin cancer .... I'm not healthy') than people without access to medicine in similar conditions ('I'm alive and feeling fine, that means I'm healthy').

Now the difference between the two cases is that there's a more objective way of measuring health, and that happiness can be influence by believing you're happy, but you need to be aware that perhaps, the studies are measuring a difference in definitions and not internal state. That said, I am sure that there are vast regional differences, and that outlook matters -- all I am saying is that the percentage of people who answer 'yes' to 'are you happy' is an unreliable indicator at best.
posted by bsdfish at 2:38 PM on May 5, 2008

I'm gonna weigh in here and speculate that no, it's probably not true.

1) Sixty Minutes has never struck me as a reputable news source.
2) Happiness is such a complex issue and humans are such complex happiness consumers that the dot product of the two quantities practically guarantees that no single "secret of happiness" exists. (one in six hundred eighty trillion)
3) Read "Hamlet". There was one unhappy guy. And he was the prince. Just sayin'

In answer to your question about reading more, Charles Shultz wrote about a dozen books entitled "Happiness Is...".

There's my USD 0.02. Your statement will arrive by passenger pigeon.
posted by stubby phillips at 3:24 PM on May 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

sorry, one in 136 trillion. ish.
posted by stubby phillips at 3:30 PM on May 5, 2008

1) Sixty Minutes has never struck me as a reputable news source.

You're joking, right?

Also, I found Tal Ben Shahar's Happier book to be interesting ... based on the very popular course at Harvard.

Not a huge fan of the writing but the premise behind it seems to have some merit.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 3:40 PM on May 5, 2008

Distill much of the advice linked to above, and you`re left with this: the secret of happiness is... satisficing:
... a decision-making strategy which attempts to meet criteria for adequacy, rather than to identify an optimal solution. A satisficing strategy may often, in fact, be (near) optimal if the costs of the decision-making process itself, such as the cost of obtaining complete information, are considered in the outcome calculus.
posted by onshi at 3:54 PM on May 5, 2008

Your two cents?

Seconding thinkingwoman. Danes also get an education grant which they can decide how and when to spend e.g. between jobs. The more you control your circumstances, the happier you are.
posted by ersatz at 3:59 PM on May 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Considering that they're killing themselves at a rate of 24.3 per 100,000 people, they can't be that happy. This is about double the UK and Ireland, which also have social safety nets for housing, income and medical care in place.

But as thinkingwoman pointed out, you will never be as poor here as you can be in the US. That does significantly diminish the day to day fear and stress factor, although everything is relative.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:01 PM on May 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Considering that they're killing themselves at a rate of 24.3 per 100,000 people, , they can't be that happy

But using that statistic, they are happier than the French, which is surprising.

I tend to ask the question, if you are in your mid 40s like me, why my parents, and especially my grandparents were happier. I think it has to do with "That they have realistic expectations, and are contented with the present situtation". Perhaps my parents growing up in the depression, they were grateful for what they have.

The problem is, in an ultra-materialistic society like the US, you have to have some pretty strong will or well developed soul not to get sucked in. Those unrealistic expectations are coming at you fast and furious when you are a infant. Plus if you are not sucked in by that, since the rest of society is, you are an outcast and can be lonely.

By that I mean a societal communal attitude of realistic expectations make begin more grounded personally easier.

But they are pretty friggin' miserable in Lithuania.
posted by xetere at 4:16 PM on May 5, 2008

Based on my readings of several happiness-related books, here was what I managed to retain:

1) It helps if you think things are improving. Case study was Australia in the (40s? 50s? 60s?) vs. now, and I would imagine it's similar in the U.S. By any absolute standard, we are materially better off - we have 2 cars, bigger houses, travel more, have better health care, etc. But we think things are headed for the toilet, and it weighs on us. If you have a motorscooter and you foresee buying a car in the next year, hey, there you go, you feel better.

2) It helps if you are slightly better off than your neighbors. One book I read spoke of "happiness pollution". Let's say everyone on your street drives a VW. One day your neighbor parks an Audi in his driveway. You are now less happy with your VW. If you feel that you are slightly better off than those around you, it instills a sense of well-being. Again, it has nothing to do with absolutes. You can live in a 1M dollar house and feel miserable because your neighbors just bought a second 1M house in Colorado.

3) Want to be happy for a day? Find a day-long project. Want to be happy for a lifetime? Find a life-long project. This is from Flow. In contrast to the material measures of happiness above, this has more to do with finding a purpose and working every day towards that purpose.
posted by rhys at 4:31 PM on May 5, 2008

Happiness has much to do with our ability to come to terms with - and accept - the inevitability of death. The Danes do that quite well. Staring At The Sun.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 4:53 PM on May 5, 2008

"Some luck lies in not getting what you thought you wanted but getting what you have, which once you have got it you may be smart enough to see is what you would have wanted had you known. " - Garrison Keillor

Flip, but not that far off.
posted by plinth at 5:10 PM on May 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

Well, here's another article from the NY Times.

Basically it's saying that Danes have lower expectations, and so when things turn out well because expectations are so low, they are made happy as a result of that, instead of thinking that good thing is the norm. Like when everything is good all the time, your outlook on life kind of levels out, you become "used to" being happy and it's so commonplace that it's not really happiness anymore. Kind of like how the people I know who have the most money are often the most miserable..

I'm not sure how this translates into a whole country's feeling happy (and I'm not quite sure I buy that that's the case), but I like the idea of it quite a bit. It's kind of like upping your capacity for surprise or wonder about what is good about your life. I'm all for that.
posted by ethel at 6:35 PM on May 5, 2008

Expanding on (or perhaps zooming in on) on the concept of satisficing from above, Barry Schwartz's The Paradox of Choice is an excellent book relative to your question.
posted by misterbrandt at 7:18 PM on May 5, 2008

Happiness viz. the inevitability of death seems like a fairly logical explanation of the relatively elevated suicide rate.
posted by DenOfSizer at 7:45 PM on May 5, 2008

I've seen so many candidates for "happiest people on earth" from hunter-gatherers to Amish to Islanders, that I'm a bit jaded. All I can think about is Kierkegaard...not the happiest guy out there.
posted by melissam at 8:04 PM on May 5, 2008

I just finished The Geography of Bliss a few months ago. It was a quick and fun read. It's all about the question "does the location where people live have anything to do with their relative level of happiness?"

I think it's exactly what you're looking for.
posted by xotis at 9:22 PM on May 5, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have seen some evidence that overall happiness is linked more closely to genetics and experience, your personality or whatever you wish to call it, than extrinsic factors such as wealth, love, achievement, etc. The study I remember most vividly looked at a wide range of people, some of whom had won the lottery or had very positive events happen, others who lost a limb or negative "life-changing" events. What they found was that while individual events obviously effect people's day-to-day happiness, their overall disposition tends to remain constant, no matter what happens. This assumes your basic needs are met and you don't start taking massive amounts of drugs to alter your brain chemistry. Perhaps the Danes are just genetically predisposed to be a satisfied bunch of people.
posted by sophist at 2:51 AM on May 6, 2008

King David said it well in his Psalm of Love 34

Who is the man that desires life?
And loves days, that he may see good therein?

Keep your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking guile.
Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.
posted by watercarrier at 4:08 AM on May 6, 2008

Try The Freedom Manifesto. If you can find it in the bookstore flip through and read the chapter "Reject Career and All Its Empty Promises" or "Stop Competing". I thought they were great and completely opposed to the way I've thought all my life -- but I was heavily influenced by the opposite philosohpy, Objectivism, a la Atlas Shrugged.

Oh this also reminds me of a post I read last week that summed a lot of this up very nicely. Read this.
Death and Underachievement
posted by wolfkult at 8:34 AM on May 6, 2008 [2 favorites]

The lower expectations bit reminds me of Alain de Botton's book "Status Anxiety".

The video is online but I really enjoyed the book.
posted by jade east at 1:30 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

Another book to add to the reading list is by Mark Kingswell it's called "In pursuit of happiness". The author mixes a personal narrative where he tries many methods of obtaining "happiness" with philosophical questions and explorations all with a good humor and a light touch.
posted by jade east at 1:39 PM on May 6, 2008

social security
According to Dutch happiness researcher Ruut Veenhoven this does not have as much influence as most people think. Income differences also do not matter much. Freedom is what is most important. He researches happiness on a sociologic level, not on an individual level, so he does not say that an individual person would not be happier with more money or social security, but that in general people in countries with better social security are not necessarily happier.
posted by davar at 3:01 PM on May 6, 2008

Deepak Chopra had a really interested special on PBS called Prescription for Happiness which is also available as a DVD. I found a lot of the ideas quite interesting and he presents the ideas in a very easy to digest manner though tinged with buddhism.
posted by kenzi23 at 3:36 PM on May 6, 2008

No one is happy, its all just a show. The closest you can get to happiness is by consuming large amounts of fast food and alcohol.
posted by amedia at 6:19 PM on May 6, 2008

The Happiness Project blog has a lot of good resources if you browse around.

Recently during a presentation someone mentioned that 'the summary of all the happiness studies revealed there are two key elements to happiness...meals with friends, and low expectations.' Sounds pretty close to me.
posted by lhall at 10:27 PM on May 6, 2008 [1 favorite]

I loved The Art of Happiness, written by psychiatrist Howard Cutler based on his discussions with the Dalai Lama.

Here's a link: The Art of Happiness
posted by EKStickland at 1:27 AM on May 8, 2008

I think the social security concept may have a bit of merit to it, if not directly on the surface, perhaps by way of a more sublime extension of an idea that hasn't really been explored here, yet.

Social security is a sort of government-mandated, enforced caring for other individuals of a society. The taxation system necessitates that some of my earnings be redistributed for the common good. Its somewhat communistic, in a sense, but let's not spin into that so much as focus on what this does. I can still, were I a generally happy Danish working man, walk past the homeless person on my way home from work and decide not to help him directly, but with a working SS system, I continue walking with the knowledge that I have to help him no matter what - indeed my help for that man comes out of my paycheck before I even receive it.

There's something to that.

We live in a world where we are constantly reminded, in that motherly way, that money won't buy us happiness. We also live in a world where we've established, of our own ignorant volition, various systems and constructs - media, advertising, marketing, product design, fashion, et. al. - to constantly, constantly submerge us in the warm, collective amniotic fluid of stuff. Stuff, we have convinced ourselves, will be our savior. Stuff will make us safe, keep us occupied, make us attractive to potential partners of our desired sex, and prove to those who see our stuff that we are successful - hopefully more successful than they are. More importantly, stuff will keep us distracted from the screaming in our souls that sometimes tries to crawl up in the moments when we're bored with our current stuff. And so we get more stuff. Endless stuff. Smooth, white, shiny stuff with fluid interfaces, high quality audio and visual, and nifty magnetic features. Soft, leather-trimmed, luxurious designer stuff with prominent and unmistakable labels that tell loudly of the hundreds of dollars this stuff must have cost. Even secret, indulgent, intensely personal stuff that we somehow believe must truly make us happy because it is somehow different from all of the other stuff we have for show and tell.*

I can walk out onto my front doorstep here on 8th avenue and watch 100 people walk by in the next 5 minutes who prove my point. I will also see at least one person who hasn't had a shower yet this week, and hopes to have enough change dropped in his cup to buy a decent meal at Burger King tonight, because, hell, it is Friday after all.

The point is this: life is not about you. The world will try to convince you, until your dying day (look at the opulence of most funerals for a particular irony), that life is about you, and the only way to ascertain true happiness is to do as much as you can with your money to put a smile on your face in the here and now, namely via the aforementioned stuff. But in the end you will die, and your soul will not take one atom, not one tiny particle of all the stuff you wrapped yourself up in during your brief candle of a life.

I started to dabble in real, soul-settling, deep-seated happiness when I began to realize that, for some strange and mostly incomprehensible reason, and in the face of what life has always told me to be true - life is about focusing on other people. Its about putting their interests ahead of my own. Especially those who most need my help: the more I can focus on them - the most marginalized, the most poor, the most rejected by society - the more I can do to help those who can't help themselves, the more I experience true joy. Not just happiness, but joy.

Joy is a lasting thing. Joy is something that stays with you. Something you cannot escape, and something that changes you, that makes you more of a whole person. Happiness, by the very definition of its etymology, is a temporary state: it is happenstance, it is fleeting and it happens only by chance, for the most part, in the first place.

Of course SS is only really a corporate toying, of sorts, with this deeper concept, and the extensions I'm drawing here are perhaps a little far-fetched, but I think there just might be something to it. It scratches the surface of something deeper than that which we usually pause to think about (much the same way I have, albeit only just a very little bit, in a personal way).

The idea of a New York City free of children sleeping in boxes on subway platforms seems a happier one to me, at least. Its worth a shot.

*I'd like to state for the record that there is nothing wrong with stuff, in and of itself. Like money, it is the inordinate love of stuff that is wrong. Getting rid of your stuff is rather pointless if you let the inordinate love of it fester and perhaps settle on some other object of desire - relationships, activities, etc.. I have plenty of stuff, and while I'm trying to reduce the amount of stuff I have, I'm also trying to love what stuff I do decide to keep much less than I currently do.
posted by allkindsoftime at 6:56 AM on May 9, 2008

[few comments removed - please discuss france elsewhere, thanks]
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