Children smile as they are hit by a wave


Research has tended to look at the dark side of life – anxiety, depression and so on. The flipside, happiness or contentment, has been neglected, but ‘positive psychology’ is now receiving more attention

Money can’t buy me love, sang the Beatles, and it can’t buy much happiness either. A little bit extra seems to help, but above a fairly low threshold more money does not add to our happiness (though around the world, a great many people will be below this threshold).

Relative wealth seems to be crucial – is there someone better off than us? As Samuel Johnson noted: “Life is a progress from want to want, not from enjoyment to enjoyment.”

Similarly, Ghana, Mexico, Sweden, the UK and the USA all share similar life satisfaction scores even though average income varies ten-fold between the richest and poorest countries.

Come on, get happy

In 44 countries surveyed in 2002, family life provided the greatest source of satisfaction. And it’s good for us too: married people live on average three years longer and enjoy greater physical and psychological health than the unmarried. More generally, the extent of our social network is the best predictor of happiness.

Other important factors include satisfaction with work and working conditions and the extent of choice and political freedom in the society in which we live.

More recent research (as reported in the World Database of Happiness in Rotterdam, which covers around 19,000 scientific findings on happiness) has busted a few misconceptions:

  • One, though we generally assume we need goals to lead a happy life, they can also have a negative fact: unhappy people are more aware of their goals because they are trying to change their life for the better.
  • Two, seeing meaning in life isn’t a necessary condition for happiness.
  • Three, age brings greater happiness than youth (along with wisdom). Less surprising perhaps, findings in the Database to date (2013) indicate an active life is likely to be the happiest.

Denmark was scored the happiest of countries twice recently, in the first and second World Happiness Reports (published by Columbia University in 2012 and the UN in September 2013).

A report published by the Happiness Research Institute (a Copenhagen-based think tank) sets out reasons for ‘The Happy Danes’. As well as a few obvious factors like a good work–life balance, free healthcare and good employment benefits, a high level of trust between people was cited as an important factor in their happiness.

Can we do anything about our state of happiness? Good fortune can raise our mood temporarily, but we gradually return to some kind of baseline, suggesting that we may have some in-built happiness level. If we do want to be happy, it is best to concentrate on social connections and fulfilling work rather than the pursuit of wealth – or you could move to Bhutan, where the King recently announced that his nation’s objective would be gross national happiness.

Lead image:

Farrukh/Flickr CC BY NC


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Thinking’ in September 2006 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

Ecology and environment, Psychology
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development