What do we really know about happiness? Probably less than we think

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“How to be happy?” is a question typed into Google more frequently than “How to get rich?”.

Some people believe the second question answers the first, though the path to riches is rarely as sexy as it seems – something crystallised in a 2016 study, which found participants considered work the most miserable activity, second only to being sick. Beyond the point it relieves financial stress and provides autonomy, wealth is an unreliable route to happiness.

Do the strategies we’re told lead to happiness really work?Credit: Getty

We tend to hear the same happiness advice repeated freely: express gratitude, exercise, get out in nature, practise mindfulness or meditation, and connect with others. But can we really say these strategies work for everyone? What evidence underpins them? And what happens if you try them and don’t feel happier?

In a new paper, published in Nature Human Behaviour, researchers conducted a systematic review of the evidence underlying the most widely recommended strategies for increasing happiness.

They found that some of the most popular happiness strategies rest on a weak foundation of evidence.

The authors of the review explain that about a decade ago, it became clear that many psychological studies were flawed, as up to 67 per cent of psychologists admitted engaging in questionable research practices. This meant an alarming proportion of published findings might be false.

Elizabeth Dunn, a happiness researcher and professor of social psychology from the University of British Columbia, wondered how this discovery affected past research on happiness.

So, for the new review, Dunn and her team scoured the scientific literature for the most popular happiness strategies they found in the media. They then looked at what the science had to say, culling 11,255 research papers they deemed too small, poorly designed or aimed at treating specific clinical conditions like depression or anxiety (for this review, they wanted to see if the strategies increased happiness in the general population).

Only 57 studies made the cut and the top five most recommended strategies to boost happiness were surprising.

The importance of gratitude

Dunn and her team concluded that there was reasonably solid evidence that gratitude practices can improve our mood – at least temporarily – and there was solid evidence that talking to strangers and acting more extroverted can boost the way we feel. (Oddly, there is a lack of evidence about the effects of spending time with people we are close to.)

However, there was a lack of strong evidence that mindfulness and meditation, physical activity or nature interventions benefit our happiness.

“To be clear, we do not intend to suggest these happiness strategies are akin to snake oil,” the researchers wrote, adding that they remain theoretically beneficial and further study was needed.

Dr Julieta Galante, deputy director of the Contemplative Studies Centre at The University of Melbourne, agrees that happiness measures to date are widely considered to be suboptimal. She also agrees that there’s an opportunity for more high-quality research.

“The biggest risk of promoting happiness strategies without evidence is that we may harm people,” says Galante.

When the pursuit of happiness does more harm than good

Any pursuit that leads to guilt or pressure is unlikely to make us feel happier. And that applies to happiness itself – put too much pressure on the pursuit, and it becomes even more elusive.

Sometimes, strategies designed for happiness can backfire.

If you tell someone who is struggling to afford food or a roof over their head to practise gratitude exercises, and they will likely tell you where to stick it. Simply giving those people money would be of more benefit to their happiness. And while meditation can make some of us feel calm, it can make others feel anxious or depressed.

However, Galante is somewhat critical of Dunn’s paper, noting that researchers omitted many studies using terms outside its definition of happiness, which was “subjective wellbeing”. This included studies using terms like “mental wellbeing”, “wellbeing”,“quality of life” and “stress”.

“Who would debate that feeling less stressed and having a higher quality of life is very close to feeling happier?” says Galante. The researchers also left out long-term observational studies, which show, for instance, the “incredible” benefits of regular exercise to mental and physical health.

“By excluding studies and being too conclusive, this paper is not doing a favour to people,” she says. “I fear that people will think ‘well, why bother with exercise if it’s not going to make me happier?’”

The nuance of happiness

Beyond these concerns is a more existential question: do we need science to tell us what makes us happy?

“It is an open question in the academic world whether we should be even attempting to measure happiness,” says Galante. “Perhaps we should limit ourselves to measuring more concrete concepts, such as stress or mood, and then let people decide how much each of these contributes to their happiness.”

Bryce Vissel, head of the Centre for Neuroscience and Regenerative Medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital, says that research into such topics is important, particularly from a public health perspective in a time when our collective mental health is suffering.

And despite its flaws, the new paper still highlights how little we really know.

“The main point of the study [is] that we can’t assume that the things that are supposed to make us happy actually do,” Vissel says. “In fact, the question of what is happiness and what makes us happy seems so fundamentally important to us in Western society, yet so poorly understood in a true sense.”

“General acceptance of mainstream views of what makes us happy runs the risk of over simplifying and possibly minimising personal experience and personal reality.”

And the reality is that we are not a law of averages and whether an activity makes us feel happier likely depends on the joy we get from it. The nuance of our lives – and what we enjoy at one point versus another – can be hard for crude science to capture.

That means that happiness can be found in gratitude, in nature, in socialising, in meditation, in physical activity – or it cannot. It can be found in the beauty that surrounds us and in the broad brushstrokes of our lives. But it can also be found in the moments and details, like being with the one you love on an 26-degree sunny day, overlooking a beautiful body of water.

“I believe in the power of intuitive understanding for most people of what makes them happy,” says Vissel. “And we really should trust ourselves and ignore the noise.”

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