Happiness – what is it, how do I find it, and what does it have to do with money?

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We’re currently living through a difficult period of human history. With more than a million people ill with an incurable disease, and most of the world quarantined in their homes, it would be no surprise if you weren’t at peak mental or physical health at this time.

So, in these circumstances, it’s important to be aware of the simple and sometimes surprising ways we can make ourselves and others happy. But what is happiness? How do you find it? And what does it have to do with money? Read on for answers to these questions and more.

What does ‘happiness’ actually mean?

Happiness is essentially a catch-all term for all the different ways in which we feel good, from high euphoria to calm and relaxed.

Dr Dean Burnett (DB), neuroscientist and the author of The Happy Brain, says: “At its most basic level, it’s your brain’s way of encouraging behaviours that it thinks are beneficial to you, such as eating, improving your social standing or reproducing”.

There are several neurological chemicals and processes involved, including:

  • Dopamine, the neurotransmitter that allows the reward pathway of the brain to function
  • Endorphins, the chemicals that cause pleasure, suppress pain and deal with trauma
  • Oxytocin, a chemical that helps with emotional bonds
  • Serotonin, a mood regulator that helps us to process moods more effectively

Remember that these chemicals don’t cause happiness in their own right (you can’t take tablets!) but are part of your body’s complex system.

How do you know what makes you happy?

Paul Dolan (PD), author of Happiness by Design and professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics says that humans are terrible at evaluating their own happiness.

He says: “We tell ourselves lots of stories about what should make us happy: the job and the marriage and the house and the kids and so on. But what counts is moment-to-moment happiness, not our abstract evaluations of our lives.”

If you stay in a job you hate because you hope to earn money to spend later, or you read a book you don’t like because you think you should, you can’t ‘recoup’ that happiness. As Dolan says: “Lost happiness is lost forever.”

So how do you know what makes you happy? Ask a friend or family member. “People who know us well tend to have a clearer view of what makes us happy from day to day”, Dolan adds.

Can food make us happy?

Yes. Studies have found that your gut microbiome is important in driving your behaviour and your mood – and it is your diet that is the most important factor in affecting this microbiome.

The microbes in your gut ferment dietary fibre, and the molecules they produce in that process have a large range of functions within the body. Gut microbes influence your metabolism, weight, blood glucose, gene activity and the health of your brain – and all of these affect your mood.

By eating and drinking well, you can change your gut microbiome and thus potentially improve your health and happiness.

Fibre is excellent for your gut, and so eating a range of fruit and veg is a good place to start. Then add wholegrain cereals such as quinoa, barley, brown rice, and rolled oats and legumes, such as lentils, chickpeas and beans. Healthy fats can also be important, such as the fats you get from olive oil, fish and seafood.

To improve your levels of happiness, experts suggest avoiding foods that contain artificial sugars and emulsifiers. As well as being bad for the gut, foods that are high in saturated fat, sugar or salt affect your brain’s hippocampus region very quickly. As well as governing your ability to learn and remember, the hippocampus is very important in regulating your mood.

And can money make me happy?

A 2010 study by Princeton University found that there’s a correlation between happiness and wealth, to a point of about $75,000 per year (around £60,000). The study found that when people earn more than $75,000 a year, their happiness doesn’t increase, but the lower their income is the worse they feel.

Whether money can make you happy also depends on what you use your money for. There is evidence from psychological studies that buying experiences is more valuable than buying things.

Andrew Oswald is a professor of economics at the University of Warwick and a pioneer in the field of economics and happiness. He says: “A lot of our spending goes on status-seeking, but if we compete over material things, we’ll suffer as a group and so will the planet.

“Spending our money on the public good, including the environment, allows everyone to gain.”

Other studies have found that, perhaps counter-intuitively, giving away your money will make you happier than keeping it.

A survey in 2013, which looked at data from 136 countries, examined whether there was a relationship between people’s self-reported wellbeing/happiness and whether they’d donated to charity in the previous month.

Overall, the study found that donating to charity in the past month was associated with similar levels of happiness as a doubling of income. That study was correlational, but there have been several experimental studies that point to a causal relationship between giving and happiness.

Oswald adds: “We should remember that there are many other things in our lives that are more important to our happiness than money. For example, one of the key things we’ve learned in the study of the economics of happiness is that a good marriage is worth about £100,000 a year.”

5 easy happiness wins during the pandemic

  • Donate to charity – if your income has not been significantly affected and you can afford it, studies such as the one above suggest that making a charitable donation can improve your happiness
  • Eat well – choose fruit and vegetables, wholegrain cereals and foods high in healthy fats. Avoid foods high in saturated fats, salt and sugar, so lay off the chips, sweets, ice cream, pies and fried foods
  • Get close to nature – while now isn’t the time for going out and exploring, all humans are happier when they are around nature. Sitting in your garden or even being near to pot plants has been shown to have a positive effect
  • Laugh – laughter has been shown to relax us
  • Pay attention – think closely about what activities make you happy. Paul Dolan says: “We are what we attend to – distractions such as mobile phones ruin our focus on pleasurable experiences”.

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