Don’t Worry, Be…

When, do you suppose, people are happy? The happiest?

I ask this not where happiness pertains to a great moment, nor the time of year or time of day. I’m sure these have all been studied, and equally sure we’re at our happiest whenever our teenage child says, “You know, you’re right.” No, I ask this where our time in life is concerned. Are we happiest as kids? As teens? In college, once our career is underway, after we marry and have kids? This is of course a research question. Are there reliable trends for happiness across the lifespan?

Turns out there is a remarkably familiar pattern to the seasons of happiness in life, and, remarkably, this occurs the world over. Track this kind of thing in Bangladesh or Bangkok, Brisbane or Boston, a faithful pattern shows up pretty much everywhere.

The answer is, happiness in life is a U-curve. Basically, we start happy, we end happy, and we slog our way through the middle years (though the changes are more gradual than that, the curve like that of a plate more than a glass).

So, if you’re not happy at present, hopefully you’re patient, since the trend is for things to eventually get better (and better).

The study I looked at is actually a full-fledged report put out last year by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (it’s out there if you’re inclined to look it up). As a psychologist, I find such research pretty thrilling, being a part of the whole positive psychology movement. After 100 years of studying mostly only how the shit can hit the psychological fan, it’s awesome to witness the burgeoning study of the good things in life that’s taken place in the field of psychology over the last 20. We are SO MUCH SMARTER at this point about what makes people happy (quick tip: do something nice for someone else), and are so better positioned to use this both with individuals, and in policy to affect whole communities.

Back to national trends. It’s relatively straightforward to determine each country’s happiness profile and score, thus to rank them. In the study I looked at, 158 countries were ranked; the US came in 15th. The top five were Switzerland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, and Canada (what’s up with living up north?). The bottom five were Togo, Burundi, Syria, Benin, and Rwanda (I know: Benin?). Nice job, Putin: 64th.

These rankings were based on measures of subjective well-being first and foremost, but also factored in GDP, perceived social support, life expectancy, perceived freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perception of corruption in government and business. Positive scores in these areas are assumed to provide the conditions for sustained happiness.

I’m not really surprised by the countries in the top ten percent, though two of them do catch my eye. I would not expect, given its geopolitical status, for Israel to be so high: 11th. And guess who edged us out at 14th? Mexico! Suck it, gringo! If you don’t believe that, if you believe that all Mexicans are if not already trying to cross the border into the states are in the planning stages to do so, look it up: more people of late move annually from the US to Mexico than the opposite.

Most countries have a discernible nadir point, when the average person registers the lowest levels of happiness, and this almost always falls somewhere between 40 and 60. For “happier” countries, the nadir is earlier in life; for the United States, it’s somewhere around 45.

In my way of thinking, then, here in the US our upturn in happiness occurs when all of the big picture questions about life have largely been resolved. In particular, by 45 you’re likely to know if you’ll have a family and what its composition will be. By then you also pretty much know what your socioeconomic destiny is going to look like. Perhaps at that point we stop sweating things so much and turn in our attitudes toward savoring them.

If this all makes happiness seem like it’s somehow coded into the lifespan and not something we can willfully impact, the good news is that’s not so. Here are five things you can do today to feel happier, all borne out by research:

  1. Show your gratitude. Who’s someone in your life that did something helpful or meaningful for you? Write or call them and tell them so. Feels good just thinking about it, doesn’t it?
  2. Be optimistic. What’s coming up in your life that you’re hoping for a particular outcome? Jot down your image of that positive outcome. Easy peasy.
  3. Count your blessings. Literally! Think of three good things that happened to you today and why they felt good. I’ve had teens do this at the end of each day for a week, to a person they say it changed their view of things for the better.
  4. Use your strengths in new ways. First, identify what you’re good at. People skills? Organizing things? Thinking creatively? Now think up 2-3 new things you could do in using these strengths. Presto! Instant superhero.
  5. Commit acts of kindness. Another silly thing I’ve had teens do, just to show them the truth of this one: hang out around the exit at a shopping center and hurry up to hold open the door for strangers. Do that for 15 minutes, you feel like a champ. There is just something undeniably soul-feeding about leaving your selfie-ness behind for a moment and dialing in and taking action on behalf of another.

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