4 surprising findings about the world’s happiness

The first-ever World Happiness Report has revealed some surprising statistics about what truly makes people happy

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What it means to be happy

Lots of things contribute to our happiness, including how well we eat and how much we exercise. Now, the first-ever World Happiness Report (WHR), published this year, shows that where we live might also put a smile on our face. The United Nations’ report, which measured social and economic well-being globally, ranks Canada fifth happiest among all nations after Denmark, Norway, Finland and the Netherlands. Here are some of the report’s surprising findings:

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1. Money doesn’t buy happiness

Despite the prosperity of the top five nations (Denmark, Norway, Finland, the Netherlands and Canada), a country’s collective contentment is not tied to its economy. Indeed, research on this subject (including the WHR) confirms that while societies around the world are getting richer, happiness, on average, is not rising but is holding constant, says Karim Kassam, who has done extensive research on the topic of happiness and is an assistant professor, Emotion Research Laboratory, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “You would expect happiness to rise with a country’s riches, but it tends not to.”

Could today’s consumerism and need for instant gratification have something to do with that? Yes, according to the WHR, which noted that once basic necessities are met, happiness varies more with the quality of human relationships and other factors, such as job satisfaction and health, than one’s riches. “We’ve been misled for the past 150 years into believing happiness came with the accumulation of wealth,” says John Hallward, author of The Happiness Equation and president of global product development with research company Ipsos Reid in Montreal. “The research shows that while wealth does make us happy, over time it has diminishing returns. We’re going to need to identify a new system for happiness, beyond wealth.”

The WHR also showed that on average, the world has become only a little happier in the past 30 years despite rising living standards.

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2. Your health and relationships impact happiness most

The top five countries in the WHR ranking had the highest “life evaluation score” based on factors outside of income, including people’s health, family and job security, as well as social factors such as political freedom and lack of government corruption.

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3. Stressing about money can reduce your happiness

“While higher income may raise happiness to some extent,” write the authors, “the quest for higher income may actually reduce one’s happiness. In other words, it may be nice to have more money, but not so much to crave it.” This is further supported in the report’s findings around work-life balance in Western societies. “Many people sacrifice aspects of their family life in order to raise their income or to achieve personal success.” The authors further contend that work-life imbalance leads to stress, and possibly explains another major finding that occurred across all nations: that happiness tends to dip to a low between ages 40 and 50 (they don’t say why).

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4. We have a happiness set point

According to researchers, we all have an innate level of happiness. Just how much we can change this “set point,” or even if it truly is a set point, is hotly debated among experts in positive psychology-a field that focuses on nurturing positive emotions rather than correcting negative ones. Kassam and others contend that notwithstanding emotional lows and highs, sooner or later we tend to revert to our individual happiness set point. This explains why external factors-such as rising levels of income-don’t make us happier.

Other experts, including Randy Paterson, psychologist and director of counselling centre Changeways Clinic in Vancouver, believe it is possible to alter our happiness beyond what we experience on average, by making intentional day-to-day attitude changes and developing certain skills.

Find out more about the science behind happiness, and how to improve yours.

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