What to get loved ones for Christmas – the perennial problem? Even if you’ve already found what you believe to be the ideal gift, you might not better off than those of us who have yet to make up our minds because you don’t know that it’s the right one? Will your other half glow with delight on the big day, or will you be rewarded with a long face and a polite ‘that’s nice’? Yet choosing a gift needn’t be left entirely to chance. What use is the academic study of happiness if not to inform us what it is that makes people happy?
In 2011 Bronnie Ware, a former palliative care nurse, published a book in which she detailed the five most frequent regrets of those she cared for in the final stages of their lives. So what would people on their death-beds do differently if they had their lives to live all over again? Hazard a guess. My suspicion is that you will readily sympathise with the five most popular sentiments because these are among the things today’s robustly-healthy already regret.
Consider a driving enthusiast who ploughs all his savings into on the shiny new sports car of his dreams. Walking towards the vehicle in the car park, he admires the elegance of its flowing lines, the masculinity of its meaty grill and flared wheel arches, and the promise of speed in its oversized alloy wheels and its low-sitting chassis. His pulse starts to pick up
Oscar Wilde defined a cynic as someone who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. The author also pondered on the nature of happiness, but he never made this observation on the importance of attention: it knows the value of everything but the price of nothing. If there is a single lesson happiness seekers must retain from all of the research on well-being is that nothing can bring joy or sadness, pleasure or pain, unless it first has our attention.
Given the task of predicting how satisfied someone is likely say they are with his/her life, and armed with information about that person’s age, gender, race, income, marital status, education and employment status, the single piece of information that should inform that prediction more than any other is the person’s income.
This time tomorrow I will be embarking on a flight to an incredible Indian holiday. I love to travel and I have been looking forward to this trip for ages. As usual, I have already spent far more money than I originally planned. Although India is a relatively inexpensive country, I just had to choose the Andamans – a small group of islands in the Indian Ocean – as my holiday destination. There are fabulous hotels there, and waterfall showers. They even offer the possibility of snorkelling with elephants! Of course, this activity comes at a juicy price; for the same money, I could buy a very nice pair of shoes, and be able to wear them for much longer than the single hour I will ultimately spend plunging with the pachyderm.
A few days ago I read a story in the New York Times about how an entire village cleaned up at Spain’s big national Christmas lottery. Sodeto, located about three hours’ drive north-west of Barcelona, distributed more than €100 million to its 250 inhabitants, most of them farmers
“One of the most selfish things you can do is to help others.” I ran into this quote by psychologist Daniel Gilbert in an interview piece. What? It’s selfish to help others? It didn’t sound right. But the implications of this statement were revealed to me last Sunday when I was serving meals at a homeless shelter.
My first time ever on a ski slope a few days ago was quite simply incredible. Even thinking back on it now, I’m filled by a feeling of exhilaration: the pristine landscape; the trepidation; the adrenalin rush. My clumsy descent might not have been a pretty sight, but it felt great. Since then, everyone I have spoken to – family, friends, co-workers – have had to hear my ski stories. Of course, this includes my Facebook Friends, who were able to hear about my adventures as soon as I got back. Lots of positive comments came back, which meant that I was able to repeatedly relive the high points of my trip. It was an immensely satisfying feeling. So was Facebook making me happy?
For all those who (despite our pre-Christmas advice) chose the wrong gifts for their nearest and dearest: do not worry. Online auction sites reported brisk business, already on the evening of the 25th December, as disgruntled recipients unloaded their unwanted gifts. In most cases, the proceeds were immediately reinvested into new goods. So that means that your badly chosen offering may already have found a new delighted owner and that your loved ones might already be enjoying a gift that was originally intended for someone else.
The latest happiness statistics from Greece show that, since 2007, the proportion of citizens who rate themselves as ‘unhappy’ has more than tripled. Currently, a quarter of all Greeks describe themselves as ‘suffering’ and do not expect any significant improvement in the coming months. According to the same Gallup poll, only 16 percent are happy with their lives, a figure that puts Greece very close to the bottom of the European happiness league table. Only the citizens of Hungary and Bulgaria are glummer.
All too often the main obstacle to our happiness is us. It is not as if we do not know what makes us happy. Most people intuitively know that the chance to spend more time with our friends and family, sleeping well at nights, and maintaining a healthy body and mind, are all recipes for wellbeing. However, when it comes to making a lifestyle decision, these are seldom the ingredients we choose.
Money doesn’t buy happiness, but what about gold? At least, this must be the idea of the increasing number of people who have taken to the rivers to pan for gold in in recent months. They can count themselves very lucky if they find a few grains of gold dust. But most of these modern-day prospectors are in it for the fun anyway, even if secretly they hope to stumble across a nugget or two.
Looking for happiness? Don’t overlook your chances at work. No, I don’t mean flirting with the secretary or making redundant calls to the guys on the IT help-desk. Even though it is generally thought that a bit of flirting can brighten up an otherwise dull working day, raise productivity or even improve career chances, it probably won’t make you happier on the job.
I was a guest at yet another wedding last Friday – the third in as many weeks. Wedding fever is everywhere around me, so much so that I feel like a deviant for not having already had a wedding dress fitted or for not having browsed any brides’ magazines. How many times in these three weeks have my boyfriend and I had to suffer someone coming up and asking: ‘Do I hear wedding bells for you two?’
Opposites attract? Rubbish. When I look among the people I know, I rather have the impression that most have chosen partners that are just like themselves. In a couple of weeks, I will be attending the wedding of two chemistry PhDs. The evidence is not just anecdotal either.
One of the things that struck me as I read news of the latest Sunday Times Rich List and the self-appointed antithesis, The Independent on Sunday Happy List, was how little overlap there was between the two. In short, the wealthy are not among those people who were nominated as having done ‘something special to make Britain a better and happier place to live.’
The pursuit of happiness, guided by the question of what it is and how it is found, is presumably as old as mankind itself. One oft-mentioned formula for deriving well-being and contentment is to ‘pay it forward’ – by doing something nice for someone else, our own happiness increases manifold.
The world is presently concerned that the wave of democratic revolution surging through North Africa will eventually wash across the Middle East. Apart from the humanitarian situation effected by the political turmoil, media attention is focussing on the oil supply. Given that the past five global recessions were preceded by an oil-price shock, the question on many commentators’ minds is ‘Will this be the sixth?’
In the draught of countries like the US, France and the UK, Germany also wants to create a happiness measure for its Volk. Yesterday, a 34-man commission was established to figure out what contributes to well-being with the goal of using these new measures as alternatives to GDP, whose growth, as we know, doesn’t always correspond to what people consider to be progress. It is admirable that politicians want to help ordinary people along the road to happiness and, certainly, their efforts to optimise a new set of indicators will result in corresponding policies. The problem is that it probably won’t work.
Yet another amusement arcade has just opened in my neighbourhood. This one stays open 24/7. I have seen the boss; he is no fly-by-night. And, in contrast to his clients, he is always very elegantly dressed. Business is obviously booming.
Dan Buettner wrote about countries and societies with the longest life expectancy in the world for his first book, The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who’ve Lived the Longest. Buettner’s new book, Thrive, focuses on happiness found in the ‘blue zones’ and elsewhere, and what makes those societies different from others.
There was an interesting conversation around our dinner table recently. Two of my friends were discussing the relative merits of city living versus the appeal of much larger dwellings in the suburbs paired with, of course, a daily commute. The conversation was not purely hypothetical; both of them were faced with just such a decision.
Every holiday must sometime come to an end and so with heavy hearts and considerably weightier suitcases, we prepared for the trip back home. The return flight takes four hours, and I had hardly settled into my little space in the cattle car, attached my seatbelt and returned my seatback and tray table to the upright positions, when the captain bemoaned over the loudspeaker: ‘We’ve just been assigned a slot’. You probably know the rest.
My mother is pleased about my next vacation destination – diving in Egypt. Although she freaked out when I went there on my first foreign trip because she thought it too dangerous, I’ve meanwhile driven through Namibian deserts and shared the company of elephants, buffalo, crocodiles and other wildlife while hiking in Zambia.
Returning on a domestic flight from a client visit recently, the cabin attendant announced shortly before landing that our flight wouldn’t be parking at the usual runway-apron position with bus service to the terminal, but at Gate 42 – the ultimate penalty: the luggage carousel couldn’t have been farther away.