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The Power of Happiness

Insights & Ideas Team •  December 14, 2015 | Home and Family

Are you happy? Judging from the number of self-help books on the topic, Americans seem to be asking themselves that question more frequently than ever. The answer, however, isn’t going to bring a smile to your face.

A 2013 Harris Poll on happiness found that only 33 percent of Americans said they were very happy. The 2012 World Happiness Report, published by Columbia University’s Earth Institute, ranked the U.S. 23rd on a 50-country happiness index.

New York Times best-selling author and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner—who’s known for his study of longevity hotspots, called “Blue Zones”—has recently turned his attention to happiness, identifying what lessons can be learned from regions where people report being happy and positive about their lives.

“There’s nothing wrong with looking for happiness; many people are just looking in the wrong places,” says Buettner. “What we think brings us happiness is misguided or dead wrong.” It’s not winning the lottery, accumulating possessions or marrying the most attractive person. The most important factor appears to be getting rid of things that make us unhappy, such as negative influences or stressors: worrying about having enough money to send your kids to college or having enough to live on in old age, for example.

For his book Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way, Buettner asked social scientists and scholars to define happiness. Generally, they described happiness as experiencing contentment with the life you’re leading, combined with a sense that your life is good, meaningful and worthwhile. Buettner then explored four locations that scored high on happiness indexes: Denmark, Singapore, Mexico and San Luis Obispo, California.

Those four regions may be very diverse geographically, politically and socially, but they are all environments that foster trust, economic equality, security and socializing. They also report significantly lower rates of health problems, sick days, stress, sadness and anger.

Based on the lessons he learned in those four happiness hotspots, Buettner offers this advice on six important happiness factors:

1. Your location. More than any other factor—including your income, education and religion—where you live determines your happiness. Humans seem most happy when they live in a neighborhood that’s quiet, safe, walkable and full of neighbors of the same economic status.

“One study showed that people would rather make $50,000 a year and live among people who make $50,000 a year than make $100,000 a year and live among people who make $250,000 a year,” writes Buettner.

2. Your work. The happiest people work at jobs that challenge them (but not too much), appeal to their passions and employ their talents. Working with people you enjoy is much more of a factor in happiness than making a high salary, says Buettner.

To maximize your happiness at work, Buettner recommends that you:

  • Limit your commute time to less than 40 minutes.
  • Limit your work week to 40 hours.
  • Socialize with your coworkers to develop deeper work relationships.
  • Seek out a boss who gives frequent feedback, delegates control and is approachable and a good listener.
  • Better yet, work for yourself; the self-employed report the highest levels of satisfaction and well-being.

Creating a Solid Financial Plan: Your Guide to Money Management3. Your relationships. The people you spend time with have a tremendous influence on how you feel. When researching his first Blue Zones book, Buettner found that if an individual’s two best friends were overweight, he or she was 150 percent more likely to be overweight, too. He recommends cultivating relationships with people who are active, enjoy healthy eating and have similar interests. Moais (mow-eyes), or clusters of friends who share the same interests and support one another, are crucial to health and happiness.

4. Your finances. The best long-term strategy to avoid stressing about money is to “put in place the disciplines and mechanisms that help you save mindlessly and spend thoughtfully,” writes Buettner. Specifically, he recommends enrolling in automatic savings plans so you’re not tempted to spend everything you make. Paying off your house helps you reduce daily stress, and avoiding credit cards and paying in cash forces you to think about and “feel” your purchase. The purchases most likely to make you happy, he says, are those that pay for experiences rather than things.

5. Your home. The research on creating a happy home yields results that, while not surprising, are often in contrast with the typical American lifestyle. Buettner recommends having only one television and no cable. Create spaces where you can meditate or let your creativity flow. A pride shrine is a place that reminds you throughout your day of the people and accomplishments that make you proud. Finally, lower your stress by planting a garden and owning a pet. Both hobbies reduce stress hormones and, in the case of dogs in particular, encourage you to get some exercise.

6. Yourself. Buettner’s research on longevity recognized that having a strong sense of purpose—a reason to get up in the morning—is a huge contributor to having a long and satisfying life. He affirms what bestselling author Richard Leider wrote in The Power of Purpose: your gifts (talents) + your passion + your values = your calling. Having a purpose partner, a friend with whom you check in a few times a year, can keep you on track.

To enhance your happiness, Buettner recommends:

  • Volunteering.
  • Developing an appreciation for the arts.
  • Taking up a rewarding hobby.
  • Knowing when to unplug from social media.

That last point is only beginning to receive adequate attention. “The True Happiness Test we administer with National Geographic measures happiness as it relates to social media use. Some social media actually makes us happy. Up to about an hour a day is a net positive,” Buettner says. “After about two hours of social media use, there’s a very clear correlation between more social media use and less happiness. It appears to be a bad proxy for the real world.”

If you’re curious about how your happiness level measures up against general standards, take the Blue Zones’ True Happiness Test, which measures how you remember and experience your life and the influence of your environment on your happiness.

Here’s hoping you are happy with the results!

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