by Jennie S. Bev, Palo Alto
An old adage goes, “Money doesn’t buy happiness.” Well, this has proven to be a fallacy. Economists Angus Deaton and Daniel Kahneman found in a survey of 450,000 Americans in 2008 and 2009 for the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index that those who earned at least US$75,000 annually had a better sense of well-being than those who earned less.
The figure proved to be a threshold, over which unhappiness stemming from a lack of money started to diminish.
However, the relationship between money and happiness was not linear, according to the survey. Those who earned $150,000 annually were not twice as happy as those who earned $75,000.
Achieving the threshold simply meant basic needs were met and that people seemed to feel more confident about their short-term and medium-term necessities.
Happiness is not only related to money. The quality of one’s relationships with others and with one’s self is also key. And so is everything “in between.”
After all, the general sense of well-being is a foundation for individualized preferences pertaining to individualized happiness. The criteria of personal happiness may differ to some extent, but the variables remain similar.
The study of happiness at public and individual levels has been fascinating philosophers, scholars, researchers, and everyday Janes and Joes for centuries.
Eighteenth century political theorists like Cesare Beccaria, Claude-Adrien Helvetius and Francis Hutcheson posited that the promotion of happiness and the avoidance of pain are goals of personal and public morality. The French Constitution of 1793 wrote, “Le but de la société est le bonheur commun” or “the goal of society is general happiness.” Thomas Jefferson also eloquently included the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence.
British philosopher born in 1748 Jeremy Bentham introduced cost-benefit analysis, which was an important tool in policy making. He wrote that the purpose of government is to minimize pains and maximize pleasures, which should be measured based on policy proposals that would produce the greatest overall happiness.
Modern-day Bhutan is renowned for implementing such a philosophy, which is named “The Four Pillars of Gross National Happiness.” The four pillars are: good governance and democratization, stable and equitable socioeconomic development, environmental protection, and preservation of culture. Though Bhutan isn’t a perfectly happy kingdom, it is a precedent unlike others.
On the individual level, happiness is about optimizing potentials and living in a positive environment. Positive Psychology, which is the scientific and applied approach to uncovering people’s strength and promoting their ability to function positively, is the newest branch of psychology summed up in 2000 by Martin Seligman. The term positive psychology itself was coined by Abraham Maslow.
Unlike most branches of psychology, which mostly deal with mental illnesses and therapies, it studies how people can live to the fullest and make the most of what they have. It is more about magnifying human strengths than fixing their weaknesses. The better we use our strengths, the happier we become.
It serves by providing both preventive and therapeutic measures.
The premise of Positive Psychology is happiness comes from optimizing one’s strengths. Jonathan Haidt, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, in The Happiness Hypothesis argued that happiness comes from “between”. By “between”, he referred to the space in between individuals, which can be found in relationships, environments, and activities that are balanced and harmonious.
Zappos.com, for instance, is known for its happy corporate culture. In Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose by Tony Hsieh, he shared how this successful dot-com raised itself up after rounds of hardship by building a positive and family spirit.
Just like Nordstrom Inc., Zappos also implements “use your best judgment” communications and customer service policies. In addition, Zappos uniquely fosters a culture of happiness with a framework consisting of four things: perceived control, perceived progress, connectedness and vision or meaning.
Adapted from Seligman’s Authentic Happiness, happiness itself can be divided into three levels: pleasure, passion, and higher purpose. Hsieh explained that the corporate culture aligns the business with happiness: profits, passion, and higher purpose. Hsieh claimed that the higher purpose of Zappos, including the book, was to contribute to a happiness movement and to help make the world a better place to live.
In conclusion, happiness is more than a matter of philosophy or being financially rich. It is both a public and personal matter.
To give a foundation to a general sense of well-being, policies should be designed to minimize pains and maximize happiness. To build an environment that promotes positive growth, the space in between individuals should be balanced and harmonious. And for every individual to live with a general sense of happiness, one must understand and emphasize one’s strengths optimally with continuous efforts to improve. Finally, one should be financially capable of leading the lifestyle that he or she wishes.
The general foundation of well-being is identical in every individual, but each individual is a unique being, so an appreciation of one’s optimized potentials is the balancing ball in the quest for happiness. Be happy — now you know how.
Jennie S. Bev is an author and columnist based in Northern California. She can be reached at JennieSBev.com. This article was previously published in The Jakarta Post, October 31, 2010.