What is it that makes us happy? If we ask those around us what it is that makes them happy, we might be surprised with some of the answers they come up with, but will likely agree with most of what they have to say. Neuro- and behavioral scientists have attempted to find and share a useful answer to this question by studying people from around the world. What they found surprised me.
The World Happiness Report is a landmark survey of the state of global happiness that ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be. This year’s World Happiness Report focused on happiness and the community and how happiness has evolved over the past dozen years, with a focus on the technologies, social norms, conflicts and government policies that have driven those changes. When happiness was measured using six variables: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support, and generosity, the top five happiest countries in the world were found to be Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and the Netherlands. Rounding out the top 10 were Switzerland, Sweden, New Zealand, Canada, and Australia. In 2019, the United States ranks in 19th place, down one spot from 2018 and five spots since 2017. So what can we learn from the happiest countries in the world that we can apply personally to become happier ourselves?
One of the unexpected findings that surprised me most was that sleep has more influence on our happiness than any other variable. Science is not sure whether it is correlation or causation, but those who are happiest get better sleep and wake up more rested and refreshed. It's not a matter of sleeping more hours, but just about waking up believing they slept enough. Sleep is a time when our brains are shut down, no longer in control. This is apparently an essential key to human happiness.
Another key factor that is not a surprise is that the brain thrives on input and output with the outside world. We each need to believe we are not alone. When we believe that someone is there for us – whether other people or God – we are happier, which dovetails with the third key factor: Believing in something, no matter what it is, is better for the brain than believing in nothing. People who have spiritual beliefs of a greater and more powerful influence in their lives are happier than non-believers. A religious orientation does not matter.
Doing things for others engages the brain to a higher degree than when we are entirely self-focused. Volunteering works for many people, but all that really matters is that we regularly make simple gestures of kindness toward others. Replacing our own self-interests with the needs of others on a regular basis seems essential to happiness. Measuring one's life in terms of what one gives instead of what one gets is key.
Happiness is not just a cerebral emotion. If our bodies aren't happy, we cannot be completely happy. Our bodies evolved to be used – to be moved, to breathe lots of fresh air vigorously. Regular movement and purposefully breathing more than normal respiration requires are essential to keeping the body in tune and the brain happy.
So the top five factors in order are: Sleep, Social Interaction, Spirituality, Giving, and Exercise. In line with these are other behaviors that we may want to consider for adjustments in our own lives as well.
Happy people define their personal identity as more than just what they do to make a living; they don't live to work. A reasonable income level is important, but those who are happiest define themselves most by their passions, what they do for pleasure, how they enjoy life. Most, in one way or another, frequently embrace the natural world. Just getting outside for a quick walk more often amplifies one's happiness and sense of well-being.
In our modern world that revolves around the use of communications media, those who are happiest “unplug” more than others. There's a hefty correlation between time spent online and the amount of happiness one feels. Non-phone and offline activities like sleep, exercise, volunteering, and in-person social interactions result in more personal fulfillment joy.
The Scandinavian countries that lead the happiness findings are well known for harboring a strong sense of community, working together to resolve issues, and giving others the benefit of doubt. They pay more complements to each other, open more doors for strangers; they are more generous in lending a hand, whether financially or with their time. Because they have a stronger ethic about giving back to others, they share a significantly higher quality of life than those who do not volunteer their time and energy in their communities. The simple act of giving, in whatever form, activates reward centers in the brain that make givers feel great.
As I pick through these notes, I can easily reconcile the basis of my own happiness, but can also see there are areas where I might change the way I interact with the world to find even more joy from day to day.