What is the formula for happiness?

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Did you know that the Kingdom of Bhutan in Southeast Asia is the only country in the world to fund a state institute of gross national happiness? In other countries, success or failure is measured not in terms of gross national happiness, but of gross domestic product, i.e. the sum of goods and services produced. This does not mean that they are any less interested in the wellbeing of their citizens, however. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel for instance recently consulted happiness researchers to find out how “soft” factors such as the happiness and life satisfaction of citizens could be taken into account in political decisions in future alongside economic aspects.

Having + loving + being = happiness

happiness and satisfaction depend on a variety of factors

One of her advisers was Professor Jan Delhey from the Institut für Gesellschaftswissenschaften (only in German) at Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg. A sociologist, Professor Delhey first analysed international surveys of life satisfaction. He then devised a “formula for happiness”, according to which people are happy when they have three things: enough money to live on, loving relationships with the people around them and a meaningful life.

“I believe that these three factors apply universally”, says Delhey. “The weighting given to the individual factors will depend on the country in question, however. In richer countries, greater emphasis is placed on the aspects of “loving” and “being”, while the material foundations are less important as factors for happiness.” Exactly what constitutes these three pillars of happiness – what may be regarded as meaningful in one particular society, or what is considered to be an adequate material basis – can vary from country to country.

The Swiss are the happiest

According to the latest World Happiness Report compiled by the United Nations, Switzerland is the happiest nation in the world, scoring over 7.5 on a scale of 0 to 8, followed by the Scandinavian countries, Canada and the Netherlands. Germany ranks 26 out of 158, while Syria, Burundi and Togo each score fewer than three points, putting them at the bottom of the international league table. Jan Delhey believes that a number of societal factors are responsible for these differences. The following are what makes people feel satisfied with their lives:

  • wealth that is distributed relatively equally in society,
  • a reliable state based on the rule of law, with a society characterised by social cohesion,
  • personal freedoms that allow people to make their own lifestyle choices.

Between two thirds and three quarters of the differences between individual countries can be attributed to these factors, explains Delhey.

Unemployment: the happiness killer

Every year, tens of thousands of Germans are asked the following question by the Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP), a long-term nationwide study: “All in all, how satisfied are you with your life?” Recently, an analysis of the survey’s results found that unemployment has a long-term negative impact on life satisfaction, regardless of the personality of those affected. The data obtained by the Socio-Economic Panel can be accessed by researchers in Germany and abroad via the online platform of the German Institute for Economic Research.

Are we all the architects of our own fortune?

Besides national characteristics, life satisfaction and perception of happiness also vary from person to person. The individual dimension of happiness is being studied by psychologists like Professor Michaela Brohm-Badry from Trier University, who is researching how praise gives rise to a feeling of happiness in pupils or employees, and by doctors like Professor Tobias Esch. At Witten/Herdecke University, he is looking into how relaxation and meditation techniques can be used to block the kind of stress reactions that make us ill, thus helping to increase our life satisfaction. Tobias Esch believes that life satisfaction is determined by a person’s genes by as much as 50 percent.

In theory, we are therefore responsible at least for the other half of our happiness, and can also help promote happiness in others – in our role as parents, teachers, bosses or politicians.