UBC researcher studies world happiness

John Helliwell
John Helliwell
(Photo by Adelina Suvagau)

Not everyone knows what makes people happy, but John Helliwell tries. A Professor Emeritus of the Economics Department at UBC, John says it was “serendipity” that led to his happiness research.

John is an author and editor of the World Happiness Report, first published in 2012 to support a UN meeting on happiness and well-being. Now in its third edition, it provides data and research used around the world to help shape and inform policy.

“Although we are interested in emotions as well as life evaluations,” explains John, who is conducting his work as a Senior Fellow of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. “The main country rankings are based on life evaluations, which vary much more from country to country, and are more easily explained by life circumstances.”

These average life evaluations are reported in the 2015 Report for 158 countries. Among the top four countries, which are very closely grouped, Switzerland ranks first, followed very closely by Iceland, Denmark and Norway, with Canada taking fifth position.

The report then explains most of the large international differences using six key variables, including GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, social support, perceptions of corruption, generosity, and freedom to make life choices,
Other chapters explore making policy when happiness is the objective, the neuroscience of happiness, the mental health of children, human values, social capital, and subjective wellness by age and gender.

For example, in Canada and most western countries, the study found there’s generally a U shape when charting the correlation between life evaluations and age. It falls in the first half of life, hits a low at about 50 and then rises, in some cases returning to or surpassing the level it was at the beginning. It also determined that across the globe men and women experience similar levels of life satisfaction, although women are slightly happier in most countries, including Canada.

The findings are important on many levels. Most significantly, they provide leaders and policy makers with greater insight on how to achieve societal well-being. It also helps individuals understand what constitutes happiness, which is not primarily based on material circumstances, but on a broader combination of social factors like fairness, friendship, health, and trust.

As editor of The World Happiness Report, John’s objective “is to help people who are trying to design systems of delivery or services understand the consequences of what they are trying to do, and do it better.”

“For all of us,” he says, “happiness should not be seen as a personal objective, but as the welcome outcome of a life well lived.”

Finding Happiness Through Science

Happiness is a bit like pain – it’s different for everyone. Although there is no magic bullet when it comes to well-being, research does provide us with some guidelines:

  1. Socialize More
    There are tremendous benefits physically, mentally and psychologically from doing things with others.
  2. Trust in Others
    People are generally too pessimistic about the goodwill of strangers. Be open to new experiences with different people.
  3. Find a Place to Belong
    Feelings of belonging have a tremendous impact on well-being. This appears to depend more on time with neighbours and real friends, more than their online versions.
  4. Be Generous
    Donors and volunteers often receive greater personal satisfaction from their giving than do recipients. Everyone needs and deserves a chance to help others.

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