Should the pursuit of happiness be the purpose of life? More relevantly, why does happiness seem to be so elusive? These were two – of the many – questions I had for Andre Spicer. I was sure the academic from New Zealand would be able to throw some light on the subject – happiness – that consumes almost everyone’s waking hours.
As professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School in City, University of London, Andre has studied happiness extensively, and is a regular columnist for international publications – perfectly placed to answer all my queries on happiness; perhaps even suggest ways to make me happier.
Since most of us spend a major chunk of our waking hours in an office environment (when not on the road heading to office), I also wanted to find out whether there are measures that can be adopted to make staff happier at work. Andre seemed to be my go-to man. Together with Carl Cederstrom, he has authored The Wellness Syndrome, which explored, among other things, happiness initiatives at the workplace. One of their conclusions must have surely left office cynics sneering: happiness initiatives at work, the duo found, while being well-intentioned, were hollow.
While that might not be news to some, Andre did offer a lot of interesting insights into happiness.
Increasing happiness at work might not always lead to good outcomes, Andre says, adding that consciously trying to be happy can leave you exhausted and ‘drain the sense of joy we get from good things’.
It was that last statement that piqued my curiosity.
To set the pace, I ask Andre how he would define happiness. ‘It’s difficult,’ he tells me, in a telephone interview from London. ‘For at least two-and-a-half-thousand years, philosophers have been arguing about [its definitions] and how it has been experienced. Recently, economists have tried to come up with some sort of standardised measures to calculate whether you are happy or not. But it’s very hard to pin down.’
He surely has a point. While Socrates, who lived back in the fifth century, insisted that happiness comes from ‘living a life that’s right for your soul’, Plato was sure ‘the man who makes everything that leads to happiness depend upon himself and not on other men, has adopted the very best plan for living happily’.
Gautham Buddha’s plan to achieve happiness went a step further. There is no path to happiness because happiness is the path, advocated the Enlightened One.
Croesus (circa 540 BC), meanwhile, was convinced ‘no one who lives is happy’. And he didn’t say that because of his financial condition – Croesus was king of Lydia in Asia Minor, and an extremely rich one to boot. (Incidentally, contrary to what you may like to believe, money cannot buy happiness, but more about that later.)
Closer to our times, 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that the idea of happiness is an ideal of imagination rather than of reason.
Tired of trying to get my head around Kant’s philosophical cant, I looked up what essayist Henry David Thoreau had to say on the subject – and that made me happy. ‘Happiness,’ the 19th-century poet said, ‘is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it will evade you. But if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder.’
Are we all desperately chasing the butterfly of happiness, I ask Andre. Are we under pressure to be happy at all times?
‘Yes, definitely,’ says the professor. ‘We’ve seen an upswing in [the number of] people saying happiness and being happy are important life goals.’
If 40 years ago many people would have said living a comfortable life, having enough money and resources to get by and having a family are things that were very important to them, over the years there’s been a significant change. ‘Today, happiness is people’s number one life goal rather than things like security or money,’ he says.
I mention that the UAE has set up a ministry of happiness. ‘That is an interesting development and shows the policy agenda around happiness is growing,’ says the happiness expert.
But, should the pursuit of happiness be the purpose of life? I ask.
‘It’s a debatable topic,’ says Andre. ‘For some people it can become a purpose of life. But the danger of having it as your number one purpose is that it can actually undermine happiness.’
He gives the example of a person waking up every day and setting his goal of just being happy. But by evening if he realises that the day did not enhance his happiness or make him feel better, he might end up feeling a little disappointed. Result? He is less happy.
Another significant contributor to negative happiness is lack of sleep. ‘I’ve a young kid who wakes me up at the middle of the night, and lack of sleep makes me a little bit less happy,’ he says, with a laugh.
But why is happiness – like sleep for an insomniac – so elusive?
‘Several psychological studies have shown that if you get people to set a goal of being X per cent happier, they often end being more miserable than people who did not set such goals in the first place,’ says the researcher.
The Journal of Happiness Studies recently reported a study that revealed that those who valued happiness more had higher scores for symptoms of depression. While Dr Julia Vogt, a co-author of the research from the University of Reading, said the study does not prove that valuing happiness too much causes symptoms of depression, she admitted it was plausible.
So, is it better to be a pessimist? After all, a pessimist is never disappointed, right, I ask jocularly.
‘That’s true,’ admits Andre. ‘If we put happiness as a kind of goal of life, then we often miss out on the smaller things that make us happy – a chance meeting with a friend, a particularly delicious lunch, reading something fantastic in your newspaper or magazine that you are editing...’
I am reminded of Thoreau’s butterfly theory, and Dan Buettner flits to mind. The bestselling author and explorer best known for his work on the Blue Zone – places where people live the longest and healthiest – series, agrees with Andre and Thoreau. ‘Trying to chase happiness is a recipe for neurosis,’ he says. ‘Instead, focus on your passion, work, volunteering, your kids…’ and you will see your happiness levels moving north.
Since the Blue Zone man mentions work and happiness quotient, I ask Andre – who has studied the relation between the two in some detail – to shed more light on that. I cite a London School of Economics study in which people surveyed said the place they felt the most miserable in was (no points for guessing) the workplace.
‘A reason for that is because many of us have jobs that we don’t find meaningful,’ says Andre. (The corollary: Doing a job that makes a real contribution to society can leave you feeling happy.)
‘Other factors that contribute to being miserable at the workplace are poor employment conditions, having a stressful, unsafe or uncertain job and an abusive boss,’ he says.
But a rude manager is only part of the problem. Another factor that could contribute to employee dissatisfaction is the physical workplace itself. The design of the work area and even the work day is often very fragmented, where workers can’t engage in direct and more focussed concentration, says Andre.
Think a desk near the office water cooler or the printer – areas that experience a lot of footfall all through the day. And how on an average work day you arrive in office, check and send emails, take phone calls, are interrupted by your boss … this goes on all through the day. By evening you may feel you have not made any progress and realise that you did not have time for any kind of focussed work the entire day. ‘That can be very dangerous for employee happiness [and] can affect productivity,’ he says.
Andre buttresses his argument quoting a study done at Harvard that found that for an employee, a good day meant being able to make meaningful progress on a project that was important to them. ‘A day where you are able to get on a bit and push that project a little further is a good day,’ he says. ‘The most miserable days are ones when you are constantly disrupted or pinned down.’
He believes there is a danger where we are designing workspaces that are actually increasing distractions – read open-plan offices. Here, people who can’t focus on their projects and make progress on it, end up unhappy.
So, is that why some companies have installed fun facilities in work spaces? Is there evidence to suggest that a happy worker is a more productive worker? Yes, according to a study by the University of Warwick. Researchers found that there is a correlation between productivity levels and being happy.
Andre agrees. ‘The happy worker is a productive worker – to some extent.’
Many companies, he says, demand that their staff remain at work for very long hours. The result? Work becomes their life. Many of the things we associate with outside the work – gym, a pool table, a table tennis and rec room, a mini video game arcade – are made available for the workers inside the workplace so they don’t have to go out. ‘The idea is that if you go home, it could be a lot worse than the workplace. You have such fun stuff at work [so] it’s easier to work,’ says Andre.
And what if you were earning a fancy salary? Would money be able to buy happiness?
‘Beyond a certain level of income – around $50K a year – people’s happiness levels do not go up,’ Andre makes clear.
Some might make snide jokes about where one can shop for happiness, but Andre is not the only expert who believes cash cannot buy contentment.
Dan, of the Blue Zones, admits that money is important. But he insists more does not equal happiness. ‘Millionaires are definitely happier than those who earn, say, $30,000 a year,’ he says. ‘But if you are earning more than around $75K a year, your day-to-day experiences do not improve vastly.’
In effect, more income doesn’t translate to a happier you. Of course, some might argue that it’s better to be unhappy in a flashy Merc than in a rickety bullock cart!
Since income beyond a certain amount does not expand your smile line a great deal, what other factors are crucial for a happy life?
‘If happiness were a cake recipe, the main ingredients would be enough money, food, shelter, health care, education, meaningful work and good health,’ says Dan. He saves the best for the last: ‘And marrying the right person. That’s very important.’ (Dan once dated supermodel Cheryl Tiegs before settling down with author Kathy Freston.)
To this long, but not exhaustive, list he adds one more: ‘The most important ingredient – the place you live in. If it’s an unhappy place and you move to a happier environment, on average you can see your happiness rise,’ he assures.
Andre has a few ingredients, too, to add to the happiness cake recipe. Age is one. ‘You actually start off life being very happy,’ says Andre. ‘Then as you move into middle age, you become more miserable, bottoming out at around age 42, after which happiness levels start rising.’
Unhappily for the 40-somethings, Dan shifts the age further up. ‘The least happy age, on average, is 50,’ he believes. ‘After 50, happiness climbs – as long as you keep your health. The happiest people are centenarians.’
For the record, living healthy is one way to be happy. ‘Eighty per cent of the behaviours that make you live longer are the same behaviours that make you happy, and vice versa,’ says Dan.
One of the behaviours you can include to boost your happiness quotient is mindfulness, Gelong Thubten, an author and speaker, told me on the sidelines of the recent Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. Once a small-time actor in London and New York, Gelong (a title that means senior monk) quit to become a Buddhist monk more than 25 years ago, and now offers mindfulness workshops to corporates.
‘Learn to appreciate even the small things in life,’ he tells me. ‘For instance, if you are washing your hands, feel the water falling over your palms, be in the moment… that is mindfulness.’
Is there a secret to happiness?
‘Mindfulness,’ he repeated. ‘Practise that.’
Equality is another factor that breeds happiness. A group of people who are all relatively equally rich (or equally poor) tend to be happy. But people who see inequality around them end up feeling more miserable. ‘Inequality is a big driver of a lack of happiness,’ says Andre. ‘The world is getting a lot more unequal; we see inequality in social media, on the TV, even in workplaces. Seeing one staff member getting loads of money or praise can fuel not just unhappiness but some degree of resentment as well,’ he says.
So, to sum up, is being accepting of things the best way forward? After all didn’t the Greek philosopher Epictetus say that the only way to happiness ‘is to cease worrying about things which are beyond your power’?
Andre agrees. ‘When we begin to accept our life for what it is rather than strive too hard or fantasise about something that it might be, that will give you happiness,’ he says.
Dan too throws his weight behind this. Attempting to alter behaviour to achieve happiness is not the path to long-term happiness, he believes. Instead, living in a supportive community and spending around six hours a day socialising with friends at work and play could put you on the road to bliss.
‘And, no, Facebook friends don’t count,’ he says.
Andre’s 3 tips towards happiness
• Go on a social media holiday or put boundaries on social media use. Social media tends to distract people from meaningful engagements or activities, and talking with their loved ones. Go on a social media diet.
• Set some boundaries around work and do not allow it to consume all aspects of your life. Switch off and do other things that are going to make you not just happy but also more productive. The returns on working longer hours begin to decline after a while.
• Look after your body and mind. Sleep for between seven and eight hours at night, exercise every day, eat healthy.