A wealthy man is one who earns $100.00 a year more than his wife’s sister’s husband. H. L. Mencken
The following summary of what does and does not make people happy is based on Happiness: Lessons from a New Science. (Richard Layard 2005). It incorporates years of cross-cultural studies by numerous investigators that reveal common human traits with respect to happiness.
Several essays about ending war in this book, A Future Without War. The Strategy of a Warfare Transition, 2nd Edition (Hand 2019), point out that happy people are reluctant to go to war. Happy people are fundamentally satisfied with their lives, and their satisfaction inoculates them against the calls of any leader or leaders to go to war or send their children or loved ones off to fight and possibly die in a war. That’s why this brief essay is the last one in the book. Happiness is a much-desired indicator of human wellbeing.
At first thought one might expect that happiness, like love, can’t be measured. But in fact, self-reporting schemes do allow us to assess how happy people think they are. And that, after all, is what’s important. How happy do people consider themselves to be?
For years researchers have given surveys to people from countries all over the globe living in all kinds of economic and social circumstances, asking them how happy they feel at the moment, and what makes them happy in general.
A Thought Experiment
Harvard students were asked to choose between two possible worlds and asked which they would prefer. Here are the choices: • In the first world, you would get $50 thousand a year, while other people get $25 thousand (average). • In the second world, you get $100 thousand a year, while other people get $250 thousand (average).
The majority of students preferred the first world. The same result is found across classes and cultures.
What this simple thought experiment shows is that we feel wealthy in comparison to those around us, regardless of how much we actually make. Whether you’re happy depends on how your income compares with the norm. If you earn an average or higher income, you are likely to be happy with your financial condition. If you fall well below the average, you are more likely to rate yourself as not happy. And the measuring stick we use is the people around us: not paupers, not film stars, not corporation heads.
The results of this quirk of human nature, to compare ourselves to those around us, are counter-intuitive. For example, it’s why economic growth does NOT improve happiness: as incomes rise, the norm by which we judge our own position also rises. The United States, for example, is the richest country in the world, but because human nature is to compare ourselves to those around us, U.S. citizens were not found to be any more happy than people in less wealthy countries. Moreover, the happiest people are those who, by nature or learned choice, always compare down, not up. When things are looking miserable, mothers often tell their children to consider others who are even less well off. These mothers are teaching a lesson in happiness.
For example, in the Olympics, bronze medalists rate themselves as much happier than silver medalists. Why? Because the bronze medalists have a medal. They are comparing themselves to all the others who have no medals at all. They likely didn’t expect to beat the top competitor so they do not compare themselves to him or her. Silver medalists, on the other hand, compare themselves the holder of the gold, feeling unhappy because they were close—but not quite up to winning the gold.
Another saying wise people tell children to think about when disappointed: “I complained that I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.”
What Things Do and Don’t Correlate with Happiness
Based on these studies, we might be surprised to discover some of the specific things that are NOT related to happiness. These include:
Education (except to the extent that it affects income)
Some of the things that do make us happy include:
Family relationships--these are more important than any other single factor
Financial situation, not our luxuries, but how we stack up next to those around us. Also that our financial resources are sufficient to provide the basic life essentials for ourselves and our children
Work, when meaningful, can be much more important than the amount of money the job provides
Community and friends
Personal values; our inner self and our attitudes and philosophy of life
To create a world in which people are so happy that they cannot be moved to make war, we will need to:
foster connectedness to family, community, and friends
spread liberal democracy, which results in a large middle class where vast numbers of people can compare themselves down to others of less wealth and at the same time, realistically hope to move up themselves or that their children may
spread liberal democracy and the sense of personal freedom and dignity it provides
teach young people positive attitudes of mind. Teach them how to be happy
People are as happy as they decide to be. Abraham Lincoln