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“I would answer this question by looking at our long-term happiness – our life satisfaction. By this I do not mean the kind of exceptional emotional state at a particular moment that is celebrated in the adverts of German online mail-order company Zalando (whose slogan is “scream with happiness”), but a carefully considered evaluation of one’s own life as being “a success”. Can we do anything to boost our degree of satisfaction with our own lives? Our wellbeing is certainly determined genetically to some extent, but no more than this. A person is happy if all of the three cornerstones to happiness are in place – having, loving and being. Our material needs must be met (“having”), as indeed do our social needs (“loving”) and our desire for meaning (“being”). A lonely millionaire will not be able to score a full ten points on the satisfaction scale despite being able to afford everything. The weighting we give to having, loving and being can also shift: in the western world we have long observed a trend towards “post-materialist” happiness.
Does a society make people happy?
Besides this triad of having, loving and being, is there anything we can do to make ourselves happier, using for example health trackers or gratitude journals? I prefer to leave this question to the psychologists. On the one hand, because I am a sociologist, and on the other hand, because I am concerned by the optimization idea inherent in this. I am more interested in how society needs to be for people to be happy and satisfied “just like that”, without having to resort to strategic means. The kind of social conditions that are conducive to happiness include strong social cohesion, prosperity and the rule of law, but also a climate of tolerance that allows everyone to live as they wish. The Scandinavian countries come closest to achieving this ideal at present. In sociological terms, a low level of life satisfaction does not mean that something is wrong with the individual, but that something is wrong with society.”
Professor Jan Delhey holds a chair in macrosociology at Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg. He is a renowned happiness researcher. One question he explores in his work is what makes people happy and satisfied. He has designed and analysed international surveys of life satisfaction, and demonstrated for the first time how important social cohesion is for a person’s subjective sense of wellbeing. Delhey has been a member of various expert commissions such as the German government’s Study Commission on Growth, Wellbeing and Quality of Life.