What makes you happy?
I have just come back from 2 weeks holiday with my family. We took our sons to the Wittacork Dairy Farm near Maleny where we enjoyed the wonderful views of Baroon Pocket dam (oh, the serenity!), ice creams in Maleny, and lighting the fireplace at night.
One of the things that I enjoyed most was simply watching my boys run excitedly to the Dairy in the mornings to watch the cows being milked. That's one of the funny things about being a parent - that we are happiest when our children are happy.
Why is this? Research by Professor Ruut Veenhoven, from the World Database of Happiness, says our happiness is partly due to having a strong sense of purpose.
And what is that purpose that parents have? Most would say it is simply to raise happy and well-adjusted children. Parents love their children and want the best for them. So, it makes sense that parents are happy when their children are happy.
Of course, there are others who have a different, but just as important, sense of purpose. Teachers often say to me that their purpose is to help children to be their very best. I know cleaners who work in my local hospital who tell me that their purpose is to give people a good experience there. I also know a cheeky service station attendant who tells me her purpose is to make people laugh.
There really is no such thing as altruism, where we give to others and receive nothing back in return. Many of us achieve greater happiness simply by making other people happier.
The research also tells us there are other factors that contribute to our happiness. Studies on identical twins have found that good genes help. Apparently, our genetic background contributes to about 50% of our well-being. So, if you are born with an easy-going personality, for example, this may well put you in a better position to 'go with the flow' more and be less stressed.
Unfortunately, at this point in time, there is not much we can do about our genes - we have to make the best out of what we have. But the good news is that at least 50% of our well-being comes from factors that are more in our control.
One of these is simply leading an active life, where you are active at work as well as in your free time - perhaps being involved with a sporting group, volunteer work, place of worship, or even politics. There is no doubt that we are social animals and we are happier around others who share similar interests.
Positive relationships are also a primary source of our happiness. Though, interestingly, it appears that once we have some good relationships, our happiness does not increase with more. So, it seems that once our basic needs for love and belonging are met, having more friends does not necessarily mean greater happiness.
Speaking of basic needs, it appears we also need sufficient income to be able to give us a greater range of choices to live the life we like to live. Studies have found that our happiness tends to increase as our family income grows to about $100 000 p.a. Interestingly, any increases after this figure do not appear to result in greater self-reports of happiness.
Other studies reported by the World Happiness Database have found that you will tend to be happier if you:
Have helpful ways of thinking: Perhaps being grateful for what you have or noticing what is right in your life. One of my regular going-to-bed routines with my boys is to ask them what the highlight of their day was. No matter how difficult a particular day was, there are often moments of joy in each day for which we can be grateful.
Drink in moderation: Apparently people who drink in moderation are happier than people who don't drink at all. I wonder why this is? Does moderate drinking help us to relax more and stress less? Or is it that drinking is often taking place when connecting with others? In any case, I always love research that affirms my bad habits.
Are good looking or at least think you are: Studies have found that being considered good looking increases men's happiness more than it does women's.
But the part that made me laugh was that you were happier even if you thought you were good looking, even though others might have a different opinion. Is there an up-side to vanity after all? Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that men tend to have higher levels of self-worth than women.
A well-chosen activity can take advantage of a number of happiness-enhancing factors. Road cycling, for me, is fun and keeps me active, engaged with my cycling mates on the bike as well as over coffee, and helps me live more in the here-and-now.
Such passions, whether they be reading, walking, a hobby or other interest, can also be effective ways of interrupting problem patterns that detract from our happiness - excessive worry, ongoing challenges at home or work, or working too hard for too long.
It is important to realise that mood fluctuations are normal and it can actually be functional to feel sad or unhappy 10% of the time. For one thing, it is impossible to stay on a high permanently. Furthermore, such feelings are giving us valuable feedback that something needs to change.
There are also many factors that can detract from our well-being, which we need to learn to live with or manage, reduce our exposure to, or address in some other way.