SINGAPORE: “Being happy” is an endeavour many strive for.
In many of his talks, famed billionaire Richard Branson shares tips on achieving happiness. Branson recommends making happiness a habit rather than a goal, focusing on others instead of oneself, living in the moment, and “being” rather than “doing”.
Be healthy, make time and be around family and friends, rather than get caught up in “doing things” in order to achieve goals like landing a good job or acquiring material wealth, he prescribes.
But Branson himself is a successful magnate, who enjoys expensive skiing holidays and has achieved many of these goals people chase after, so how applicable are these recommendations?
HAPPINESS A FUNCTION OF PERSONALITY
A person’s happiness depends on how satisfied he is with his life as a whole, and the positive and negative emotions that he experiences. But as much as 39 per cent of variation in well-being between people is due to personality traits.
Personality traits of neuroticism and extraversion are key predictors of well-being, research shows.
This is because an individual’s level of neuroticism (defined as his emotional stability) and extraversion (his activity level, need for stimulation, and quantity and intensity of interpersonal interaction) strongly determine his emotions.
People who are more extraverted and lower in neuroticism experience greater positive emotions, life satisfaction, and happiness, and less negative emotions.
As personality traits are predominantly influenced by genes, can we overcome our genetic predispositions and become happier if we seek happiness?
YOU CAN CHASE AFTER HAPPINESS BUT IT MIGHT NOT WORK
The common perception is that you can be happy if you seek and value happiness more. Yet, valuing happiness could be self-defeating. The more people value happiness, the likelier they will feel disappointed about their feelings or level of happiness, research shows.
This supports Branson’s point that the pursuit of happiness should not be a goal, since pursuing happiness may paradoxically lead people to be unhappy.
Seeking happiness can also negatively impair interpersonal relationships, which are essential to well-being.
In Western contexts, happiness is often defined in terms of personal achievement; however, striving for personal gains or wealth can cause one to neglect social relationships or damage connections with others, leading to greater loneliness.
Indeed, studies show that the more people value happiness, the lonelier they feel.
So how do we become happier if we do not actively pursue happiness?
There’s no denying that material wealth, personality, psychological needs, health, and social relationships are important determinants of happiness.
People who are richer are more satisfied with their lives, although there is a limit to the extent that money can improve one’s life satisfaction.
The effect of income on life satisfaction levels out around US$95,000, according to the latest Gallup World Poll. Satiation points vary from country to country, and are higher in wealthier countries, suggesting that the general idea that money matters to happiness is true, up to a certain limit.
But the study also shows most people around the world have not reached a point where money does not make a difference and where they can disregard monetary goals.
The solution may be not allowing striving for material goals to lead to self-focus or come at the expense of human connections.
Moreover, though there is a limit to how much money can improve our happiness, spending it the right way helps improve our well-being. In experimental studies, people who spend money on others are happier than those who spend on themselves.
This type of pro-social spending is associated with greater happiness across the world, even in poor nations.
The universality of the benefits of giving behaviour is evident, with studies showing that even toddlers exhibit more happiness when they give treats away.
Further empirical evidence indicates that people who donate are happier than those who do not, while those who volunteer live longer, and have healthier and happier lives than non-volunteers.
Evidently, engaging in altruistic behaviours improves our well-being.
One reason why giving enhances happiness is that such behaviour satisfies one’s basic, innate psychological needs for relatedness, autonomy, and competence. Giving provides us opportunities to connect with others, hence satisfying our need for relatedness.
Having a choice about whether to help satisfies our need for autonomy. And when people can see that their generous actions have made a difference to others, our need to feel competent is satisfied.
Furthermore, engaging in altruistic behaviour helps to distract one from our personal problems and imbues a deeper meaning and purpose to one’s life. Helping others also produces positive emotions, which not only build physical and social resources, but can undo the detrimental effects of negative emotions and improve psychological resilience.
SPEND TIME WITH OTHERS
So it seems focusing on others — whether by spending time with or money on them, may be the key to happiness.
Studies show that people with strong social relationships, or who report being closer to their family, friends, or community tend to be happier, healthier, and live longer than their less social counterparts.
Compared with those who never marry, or those who have separated or divorced, married people are happier and more satisfied with life.
Activities associated with greatest happiness are those that facilitate social connectedness, for example, socialising and engaging in intimate relations, whereas working and commuting are activities associated with lowest happiness.
All in all, the evidence illustrating the importance of altruism and social relatedness for well-being suggest that the strategies of focusing on others and “being”, can be the best ways to achieve happiness.
It looks like Richard Branson was right after all.
Ng Wei Ting is an associate professor in psychology at the Singapore University of Social Sciences.