Happiest Helping Together


John Helliwell, emeritus professor of economics at UBC and co-director of a CIFAR panel looking into Social Interactions, Identity and Wellbeing, was at Harvard yesterday summarizing his and others’ recent research on happiness research, with special attention to the social context of well-being.

He observed that the amount of data and experimentation regarding happiness research is in its infancy but suspects that the three major points about happiness that will ultimately emerge are:

1. The positive trumps the negative. So much of our society is built around the negative: treating the sick rather than preventing sickness, enacting laws to deal with failures, imprisoning transgressors,…  But Helliwell thinks we haven’t focused enough on “wellness” studies, observing what ensures that things actually work and make people happy.  How does the positive trump the negative? For example, autobiographies of nuns in their 20s were parsed for emotional content and positive emotional content was found to be predictive of longevity.  Similarly, mid-life members of the American Psychological Association, whose most important research finding represented something positive rather than negative, also lived longer, controlling for other likely factors.

2. Community trumps materialism. Partly because of advertising and economics, we chase materialism, thinking that a larger house or higher salary will bring us happiness, and in the process live somewhere necessitating a longer commute, less sleep, and less time spent in community.  In these Faustian bargains, we wind up less happy rather than more so. Helliwell and Huang have found that a 1% improvement in a worker’s relationship with the boss improves happiness as much as a 30% increase in salary.  Helliwell noted an experiment that showed that even the act of rowing together improved happiness.

John noted that he is working with Ed Diener, the CDC, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on an effort to get clinicians to ask community-connectedness and wellbeing questions as part of intake exams by physicians.

3. Generosity trumps selfishness. People who give away more of their wealth, regardless of income, feel happier than those who give away less.  Similarly, those who did favors for others in the last year felt happier than those who received favors in the last year.

The largest happiness effect is seen when people do things for someone together with other people.”

Read a lot more on this on the fantastic Social Capital Blog

Pic from Body and Soul Gardens – Festival International De Jardins 2010 at Domaine De Chaumont-sur-Louire

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4 thoughts on “Happiest Helping Together

  1. “1% improvement in a worker’s relationship with the boss”

    Improves your happiness more than…. a pay rise?

    I’d love to know how he worked a 1% improvement! Vague statistics tend to make articles less believable in 67% of cases.

    • Haha! Yes, but 14% of true statistics don’t actually mean anything. 😉 Difficult to know exactly how they measure that, not having read the original article – but the gist is that relationships matter more than money, and I’d say my gut feel is that in a more connected world, that’s becoming more true over time. Any other data on this greatly appreciated though!

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