What makes us happy? (It’s not what you might think.)

What makes us happy? (It’s not what you might think.) March 2, 2015

By Faisal Akram from Dhaka, Bangladesh
By Faisal Akram from Dhaka, Bangladesh

In the United States, we place a premium on being happy. (Cue the Pharrell Williams video.) Yet, a recent study shows that not all cultures approach life the same way. In a story titled “Not Everyone Wants to Be Happy” at Scientific American, social psychologist Jennifer Aaker points out that our perception of happiness varies according to where in the world we live.

Aaker mentions a Victoria University of New Zealand study that shows “the desire for personal happiness, though knitted into the fabric of American history and culture, is held in less esteem by other cultures. It seems there are many parts of the world that view personal happiness, defined as “experiencing pleasure, positive emotion, or success”, with suspicion.

When Taiwanese and American students were asked about the meaning of happiness, American participants considered happiness to be the supreme goal of their lives, a primary reason for their existence. But Taiwanese participants placed an emphasis “on attainment of social harmony” or a sense of community and belonging.

The author wonders if we, in America, don’t have our priorities out of whack, focusing too much on the self and our own personal happiness. In Aaker’s words:

Perhaps we need a more balanced approach to happiness in American culture. Personal happiness is beneficial in some contexts, a limitation in others. In some moments, we may need and benefit from feeling good, but in other moments, we might be better served anchoring on a balanced, meaningful life focused on others.

Further evidence of the importance of focusing on others can be found in a story on Business Insider, “Does success bring happiness? Or does happiness bring success?” The article cites a Harvard researcher, Shawn Achor, who looked at people who were highly stressed, in this case, students in the demanding and competitive environment at Harvard University. He found that many of the students who “burned out” had cut themselves off from one of the greatest predictors of happiness: our social interaction with others.

He discovered that the students who “increase their social investments” during moments of stress—those who worked with and supported others—actually coped better and were more successful and happier. He found the exact same thing was true in a study of Fortune 100 companies. His advice:

Want to resist stress, increase productivity and get a promotion? Then don’t just seek social support — provide it to others.

This theory seems to be backed up by a recent story in the Wall Street Journal that asks the question “Can Money Buy Happiness?” Elizabeth Dunn, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, conducted research that found while earning more money “tends to enhance our well-being, we become happier by giving it away than by spending it on ourselves.”

The takeaway: happiness is found not in our own self-centered actions, but by reaching out to, connecting with, and helping others. But it’s an idea that seems to run counter to the American concept of looking out for number one.

As I often do, I looked through the writings of my spiritual mentor, the businessman turned philosopher John Templeton, for additional insight on happiness and success. And Templeton, writing in his book The Worldwide Laws of Life, shares a similar sentiment:

The greatest happiness in life comes not from the comforts and pleasures that money can buy but from the investment of the days of our lives in a purpose that transcends purely personal interests.

Templeton points out that we need to commit our resources—ideals, love, talents, time, energy, money—to the activities that support our larger purpose. And I believe this purpose needs to be a continual pursuit, something we incorporate into our lives each and every day.

Helen Keller once said, “I do not simply want to spend my life, I want to invest it.” And maybe that’s what it’s all about. Investing ourselves not just in our own selfish pursuits, but in the lives of those around us. We’ll feel better and be happier because of it.


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