How happy are you feeling right now? Still bathing in a post-New Year glow? Or do the very words January and February fill you with profound gloom?
Fear not, for help is at hand in the form of Andrew Oswald. Don’t be deterred by his fantastically boring job title — professor of economics and behavioural science at Warwick University — he is one of the world’s most celebrated researchers into what makes us cheery; his dull-sounding appellation belying the fact that the man has happiness at his very fingertips. And he has some advice to dispense.
First of all, don’t beat yourself up if you feel less than festive at this time of year. There are, indeed, seasonal effects on happiness. If you are in the UK, no prizes for guessing that, as Oswald confirms, ‘the dark months’ have an impact. But that doesn’t mean Londoners have to hotfoot it to California. Interestingly, Californians ‘are not happier than Alaskans’. That’s because research shows we quickly get used to constant good weather. Rather, what works is ‘dropping in on sunshine’. A few days of blue sky are ideal, not permanent exposure.
Nor is it just seasons that have an impact. The rhythm of the week is another obvious downer. If you, like The Boomtown Rats, don’t like Mondays, you are not alone: they have a statistically noticeable effect on human contentment.
Interestingly, that 1979 Boomtown Rats song portrays something of a tech dystopia. ‘The silicon chip inside her head/ Gets switched to overload,’ it begins. Exactly 40 years on those lyrics are proving extraordinarily prescient, Oswald says.
For the science of happiness is about to enter a bonanza year in 2019 when it finally gets to grips with technology. Top of the hit-list: the little green-eyed monster. ‘Envy,’ says Oswald with the distaste of a dentist regarding a profoundly rotten molar. ‘2019 is going to be the year when we’re going to see scientific literature coming through on the really bad sociological effects of envy.’ What that means is that he and his colleagues will finally start putting a price — emotional, psychological, even financial — on ‘the harmful effects of social media’.
‘Some people think envy is good for people,’ says Oswald. ‘That it helps us to strive to do our best. Our results are that envy is not positive.’ He should know. He and his team have one of the first major data sets on envy: a study of 18,000 people over almost a decade.
Other researchers are also zeroing in on the deadly sin, and the devastating impact of envy on happiness will emerge in more published studies this year, Oswald says. ‘Envy today is a powerful predictor of worse mental health and wellbeing in the future,’ he notes in a paper detailing his breakthrough findings. Moreover, ‘there is no evidence envy acts as a useful motivator. Nor is envy a predictor of later economic success.’
It is a damning report — and the basis for his first golden rule for happiness in 2019: ‘Try to tone down your comparisons, especially if you are young, or youngish.’
Here, at last, are the figures to back up what many of us have long suspected about social media. And Oswald’s findings cement a key tenet of happiness studies that has been circulating since 1974, when an academic called Richard Easterlin found that it is relative. It doesn’t really matter how you are getting on — what matters is how you are doing compared with everyone else.
That’s why, despite immense progress in health and wealth over the last 100 years, human happiness has not advanced at all. It’s called the Easterlin Paradox. Does that mean there is nothing you can do? Far from it. If societal contentment is fated to flatline, ‘individuals can control happiness a lot,’ says Oswald. ‘You can choose the nature of your job and whom you live with — they both have enormous impact on the data.’
Domineering partners are catastrophic for happiness, for example, because a sense of autonomy is a greater contributor to our happiness than money. And allowing workers to move their desks around in the office, even if only fractionally, has a significant impact on their happiness as it makes them feel empowered.
‘People will pay a big price in the workplace for autonomy.’ Indeed, crises generally can be cathartic. ‘Suicide rates drop in times of war,’ he notes. A study for the first 100 days after 9/11 showed the suicide rate dropped in the greater New York area.
There are two explanations for this, he explains. First: ‘tragedy around you puts your own troubles into perspective’; secondly, ‘social usefulness in your job is highly important to happiness’. And busting a gut in the midst of major catastrophes can bring about a great sense of purpose.
If you really want to be happy at work, though, Oswald has identified one particularly powerful factor: your boss.
Bad bosses are much worse for your happiness than you can possibly imagine. So much so that, Oswald calculates, ‘having a bad boss is far, far worse than having a low wage. Having a good boss, by contrast, is more important than doubling your salary.’
What characterises a bad boss? It’s not someone who is unpleasant, or even disrespectful — Oswald’s research shows that the incompetence of another grinds us down the most. ‘They’re not hated for the person they are,’ he says. ‘It’s because they’re useless.’ So if you want to be happy at work, prioritise worthwhile work over cash, and make sure the person you will be working for is highly capable.
What else? Trust your gut. No, seriously — and post-New Year binge may not be the best time to break this news — but diet is the next big thing in happiness science. Academics like Oswald are not quite sure why, but ‘there is a growing understanding that what goes on in the gut is more profound than we’d realised. We assume it’s about a spread of nutrients.’
It is key to his second tip for 2019: eating a wide variety of fruit and vegetables improves your mood. Simple. But if it sounds like just another resolution you won’t be able to stick to, I guarantee you will manage his final tip: simply wait.
Getting old is the greatest aid to happiness there is. The transition from youth to midlife becomes increasingly glum, bottoming out in your mid-to-late 40s. So if you are grumpy and 45, join the club. Tragically, it is the peak age for male suicide, by a distance.
But things do get better: in the UK and US, maximum happiness is achieved at 74.
Why? It’s not because life gets so much easier, or the old are richer. It’s because with age comes the wisdom to be less critical of ourselves. ‘We regret less and forgive more as we get old,’ Oswald says. ‘It’s a happiness cycle built into humans that we observe but don’t yet understand.’
Not that there aren’t people trying; happiness itself has become big business. From the illusionist Derren Brown to Google’s former head of special projects, Mo Gawdat, everyone wants to explain what makes us tick. Recently, Paul Dolan, a professor at the London School of Economics, added to the reading list with Happy Ever After, a book charting the unexpected paths to fulfilment.
Oswald, though, has his own theories. Indeed, he has lived them out, like the rest of us. ‘I am naturally a happy person,’ says the 65-year-old. ‘But I did find midlife hard. Life now just feels a lot easier. It’s something to do with calm, that greater sense of calm age brings.’
Perhaps that’s why he won’t be retiring. Though, he is quick to caution: ‘Working past 65 is not good or bad per se. What matters for happiness is whether you continue to be stimulated.’
The Daily Telegraph