IMAGINE Podcast, Episode 2: The Happiness Factors

12.10.187 min read

IMAGINE is a SPACE10 podcast exploring the brave new world of shared living, produced with Unsinkable Sam. In episode two, we dive deeper into the relationship between the spaces we inhabit and well-being, and ask if a better designed environment can make our lives better in turn.

We meet a Norwegian evolutionary biologist and a Canadian anthropologist who are both investigating whether people who live in intentional communities lead happier lives. And we talk to Meik Wiking, founder of the Happiness Research Institute, to find out what his team has determined about the factors that affect happiness — and what this tells us about shared living.

“The good news is we’re fairly sure that the brain is designed to deliver happiness if everything is OK. That’s a default state of the brain.” Bjørn Grinde works at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. An evolutionary biologist, he aims to understand how evolution has shaped the brain and see how those insights can improve society.

As Grinde sees it, the brain has two states that determine our behaviour: “Either feeling good about what you should pursue – what is good for the genes – or feeling bad about what is bad for the genes,” he explains. “That’s why feelings have these two states: being either happy or unhappy.”

The good news, he believes, is that we’re born with a default mode — a kind of factory setting. “If everything is OK with you, then you’re happy,” he says. The bad news is that negative thoughts are easier to trigger than positive ones for one simple reason: “They’re more important for survival.”

Grinde has a metaphor to explain this. “You should jump if you see a snake on the ground, because the snake might kill you,” he says. “But you don’t really need to pick that apple you see on the tree, because the apple will merely sustain you for another few hours.”

In other words, humans are wired to react rapidly to potential danger — like snakes — but less dramatically to possible rewards such as apples. And it’s not just that negative feelings are easier to trigger and then exercise in the brain. They can also end up in a feedback loop. The more easily we trigger them, the more easily they occur in the brain.

It might not be obvious, but Grinde’s ideas are relevant to what we explore at SPACE10. We’re a future-living lab on a mission to create a better way of life. And what do we mean by a better way of life? Healthier, wealthier, more meaningful, more sustainable? How about happier? In any case, what is happiness — and where do we find it?

Meik Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen. “We try to solve three questions,” he explains. “We try to understand, first, how we can measure happiness. Secondly, we try to figure out why some people are happier than others. Ultimately, we hope to understand how we can improve the quality of life.”

Wiking and his colleagues look at six factors which they say determine happiness. The first factor shouldn’t come as a surprise. “When we become sick, we are less happy,” says Wiking. “Also it’s one of the factors that impacts not just ourselves but our family and friends. If you become sick, then your family and friends are also affected by that.”

The second factor shouldn’t be a shock either. “We can see that richer countries and people are on average happier, but it’s important here to stress that the mechanism is being without money is a cause of unhappiness,” Wiking says. “If you can’t put money or food on the table and a roof over your head, that is a cause of uncertainty and stress and anxiety and misery.”

The third factor that Wiking and his colleagues say determines how happy we are is important, too. Though it’s less obvious than money or health, it is one reason why Denmark is routinely ranked among the world’s happiest countries.

“When we look across countries, we can see that in countries where there is a higher level of trust, there is also a higher level of happiness,” Wiking says. On the one hand, he means trust in the system — in the state. And we know what a country needs in order to foster trust: “A low level of corruption or good governance or good democratic institutions.” But Wiking also means trust in one’s fellow citizens and neighbours.

Wiking explains why this kind of trust might be related to happiness. “It just makes life more convenient,” he says. “There’s less worry, stress, or anxiousness about things getting stolen, about locking things. It also lowers transaction costs in terms of contract, hassle and bureaucracy. I think trust just makes life a little bit easier.”

In a way, trust is related to the fourth factor that determines well-being. “We see a strong correlation between the level of freedom or personal freedom in a given country and the level of happiness,” says Wiking. Though he certainly means freedom as in freedom of speech, assembly and the press, Wiking also means freedom over one’s time — or having a healthy work-life balance.

“Most of the Nordic countries have a fairly good balance between work and life, meaning that we are in relative control over what we get to spend our time on,” Wiking explains. In this sense, freedom is affected by our life circumstances — such as where and how we work, whether we have children, and whether we have a strong support network of friends and family who can help look after us or our children.

Which brings us to the fifth factor. “In every study we do, in every data set we look at, whether it’s local, national, international, the quality of our relationships is often the best predictor of whether people are happy or not,” says Wiking. What’s more, this seems to be a universal thing. “When we look at the data such as the impact of relationships on happiness, we can see that we might be British or Danish or Chinese or American, but we are first and foremost humans, and what drives happiness in Copenhagen is the same thing that drives happiness in London and so on.”

If we know what determines well-being, why are some countries happier than others? What are they doing that other countries aren’t? In particular, why are Denmark and the other Nordic countries so happy? In part, it’s because those rankings are typically based on national averages. In other words, many people in America or the UK might say they’re very happy — but just as many, if not more, might describe their lives as miserable. By contrast, in the Nordic countries, most people are more or less content with life — which gives those countries a higher average than the UK or the US.

Wiking believes that some countries — including the Nordics — are better at creating the right conditions for happy lives. These countries excel at “converting wealth into well-being, so getting a lot of bang for their buck when it comes to happiness”. Wiking rattles off the commonplace benefits in the happiest countries: “It’s universal healthcare, it’s access to university education, it’s a tight-knit social security net, it’s pensions, it’s liveable cities, it’s a decent work-life balance, it’s opportunities for all, it’s removing the price tag there is on happiness.”

Perhaps we’re looking at this the wrong way, though. “You can call them the happiest countries in the world,” says Wiking. “You can also turn it around and say perhaps they’re the least unhappy.” As Bjørn Grinde, the evolutionary biologist, might put it, perhaps some countries are better at removing snakes from the orchard. In the Nordic region, for example, there is comparatively less inequality and poverty, less corruption and mistrust, much less of an unhealthy work-life balance, and so on.

Another important thing about happiness is that you have to take the time frame into consideration when you measure it. You see, happiness comes in three dimensions. There’s the affective dimension, which is the one most of us are aware of. It gauges the emotions or mood we experience on a daily basis. For instance, how do you feel right now? Turns out that the affective dimension is pretty volatile and can be influenced by the day of the week, by the weather, even by far-off political events.

Then there’s the cognitive dimension, which essentially calls for an evaluation of your life at a given moment. In other words, where are you on a scale from zero to 10, where zero represents the worst possible life you could lead, and 10 represents the best possible life. Think of it as the average of all your days.

Finally, there’s the eudaemonic dimension, which builds on Aristotle’s perception that happiness is found by leading a life of purpose and meaning. For some, that could be caregiving or volunteering; for others, mastering a skill such as weaving or painting.

Each of these three dimensions is affected by the six factors that the Happiness Research Institute say determine how happy we are. The fifth is kindness. “We are basically wired to feel good by doing good, because that is good for the survival of our species,” Wiking explains. In fact, kindness is a good example of how each of these individual factors depends on the three dimensions. Being kind or generous provides a short-term boost to your well-being — what’s called a “helper’s high” — while long-term volunteering is likely to give your life a greater sense of purpose.

The same is true for what turns out to be the all-important sixth factor — our sense of togetherness, belonging and community. Whether we’re talking about how happy we feel at a precise point in time, in general across a lifetime, or in terms of our sense of purpose, we see the same result time and time again. “Relationships seems to always pop up as a consistent pattern in what predicts happiness,” says Wiking.

Like Bjørn Grinde, Catherine Kingfisher – a professor of anthropology at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta – has chosen to explore the happiness of people living in intentional communities. In particular, she observes social structures and how people choose to live. “As an anthropologist, I’m more interested in what goes on between people than in what goes inside people’s heads,” she explains.

In particular, she is observing residents of two urban collective housing communities, one in Tokyo, one in Vancouver. “These are very middle-class, bourgeois attempts to create different kinds of spaces that come out of dissatisfaction with social fragmentation, isolation, alienation, loneliness, also a concern with environmental issues,” Kingfisher says. “It’s about pooling resources and having shared washing machines instead of everybody having their own individual washing machine.”

What we’ve learnt so far, then, is that we’re hardwired to be happy but that it’s all too easy to become unhappy; that by paying close attention to the factors that determine our happiness, we may be able to design our way out of the snake-pit; and that community — being with other people — is crucial when it comes to designing the spaces we inhabit for well being.