When I consider what makes me consistently and iteratively happy, I’d say it’s when I come up with novel ideas and find words to frame them. In other words, my work pleases me and makes me content, most of the time. But, of course, this relationship to my work and ideas is meaningless if my family or friends suffer from some serious health condition, or if close relationships become stormy or if there’s not enough of a financial buttress to enable the pursuit of my goals.
Curious about how others approximate the idea of happiness, I posed the question “what makes you happy?” on Facebook, and offered up the choices of work, personal relationships, money, work-life balance, health and fitness and other. I received over 50 responses, some accompanied with expansive descriptions of well-being, including walks on the beach, travel to exotic locales and moist chocolate cake.
Interestingly, though, an overwhelming number (48 percent) picked health and fitness as the leading driver of happiness. Following behind was work-life balance at 24 percent. Job satisfaction and personal relationships, each clocked in at 10 percent each. Less than 5 percent picked financial stability as a criterion of happiness.
From the happiness posts on my social media wall, it was evident that my sampling was skewed. The respondents were my friends and acquaintances, mostly women, many entering middle age, leading to answers that were more similar than a random sampling would yield. Besides, as my daughter pointed out, “you asked the question in a public forum where people will want to have their public persona out.” And perhaps even more intriguing was that several people who picked financial success as part of their happiness formula sent me private messages to convey their perspective.
Despite these limitations, I found the results wholly compelling. To find job satisfaction and financial success further down the list was surprising, especially since many studies indicate that because we spend a majority of our time at work, lack of job stability, poor employer/peer interactions, less than average pay packets or low satisfaction levels can lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety — contributors to unhappiness.
According to the Gallup World poll, there is a difference in happiness even across job types, with those working blue collar jobs reporting higher levels of misery. Harvard Business Review analyzed several sources of data and found that “People around the world who categorize themselves as a manager, an executive, an official or a professional worker evaluate the quality of their lives at a little over six out of 10, whereas people working in farming, fishing or forestry evaluate their lives around 4.5 out of 10 on average.” Furthermore, being unemployed or underemployed takes a chunk out of the happiness quotient.
Happiness and its connection to money is replete with contradictions. While it’s acknowledged that poverty is not conducive to happiness, wealth is also not a precondition. This is clear when fine-grained individual metrics on happiness is quantified at an aggregate level, too.
Every year, the United Nations, using data from the Gallup World poll, produces the World Happiness Report and ranks 156 countries on how content people are with their lives, based on “levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom and corruption.”
Despite being a wealthy nation, the United States has been dropping down this happiness list in the last few years. In 2017, the U.S. was ranked 14th, last year 18th and this year 19th, below countries like Canada (ninth), Australia (11th), Costa Rica (12th), the United Kingdom (15th) and Germany (17th). Topping the list is Finland, with the countries of Denmark and Norway following behind.
“By most accounts, Americans should be happier now than ever. The violent crime rate is low, as is the unemployment rate. Income per capita has steadily grown over the last few decades. This is the Easterlin paradox: As the standard of living improves, so should happiness — but it has not,” states Jean M. Twenge, a San Diego State University professor of psychology whose book “iGen” details why people born after 1995, the first generation to spend their entire adolescence in the age of the smartphone, are unhappy.
Twenge pinned the rising sense of unhappiness in the country to the rising use of social media, though she admits that her analyses are correlational, and advises that “individuals and organizations focused on improving happiness may turn their attention to how people spend their leisure time.”
Further, a city-by-city happiness study was conducted by Wallet Hub, a credit reporting company, which ranked San Francisco as the 10th happiest city in the country, using 31 indicators of well-being, including “positive mental state, healthy body, strong social connections, job satisfaction and financial well-being.”
The City ranked second on income and employment but 125th on the community and environment criteria, which measured things like the divorce and separation rate, the number of hate crime incidents, average leisure time spent per day and the strength of social ties.
San Francisco as one of the leading happiness inducing cities is baffling, since too often the streets present a living landscape of misery and illness. But perhaps for the chosen few, The City still presents possibilities.
Ultimately, I find the methods and studies of happiness too emphatic and deterministic. Happiness as a standalone concept is tough to get a handle on. “Happy is too capacious a word,” said a friend.
When asked about happiness, we become like internal divining rods looking for emotional, spiritual and serotonin releases to point to our feelings. Artist Priyanka Rana put it best: “I feel happiness is such a complex recipe. It is so easy for me to answer what makes me unhappy, but the absence of unhappiness doesn’t make me happy.”
Jaya Padmanabhan’s guest column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner and the point of view of the writer is not necessarily that of The Examiner. She can be reached at email@example.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan.