Happiness - We all just need a little faith and a point of view

Research shows that people are happier the more they engage with others; but trust, health and income also help

Karen Gram
Vancouver Sun
Saturday, October 28, 2006

When economist John Helliwell and neuro-scientist Richard Davidson meet this afternoon for an invitation-only conversation about happiness, one thing will likely become clear. Happiness isn't something that just happens to us. We gotta make it happen.

Helliwell and Davidson have both devoted their careers to the pursuit of happiness, but they come at it from opposite ends of the spectrum. Their conversation, hosted by the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education, picks up where the Dalai Lama left off last September, says Victor Chan, the founder of the centre.

"They are both world leaders in this area," he says, adding that cultivating well-being is a very significant part of the centre's programming. Davidson was recently named one of Time's 100 most influential people of 2006 and Helliwell is a world-renowned pioneer in well-being measurement.

Using population surveys, Helliwell -- economics professor emeritus at the University of B.C., author and co-author of the book Bowling Alone -- has identified, measured and compared social factors that lead to happiness. He says people will be happier the more they reach out and engage with others, and they will be very happy if their engagement makes other people happy too.

"It turns out there are some pretty good aspects of the human personality," he says. "There are lots of bad ones, but one of the good ones is that they really like to do things for other people."

Helliwell says other factors, such as trust, physical health, income (in some sectors at least) and consumption all play a role.

Trust tops the list, he says, noting that, without it, people feel fearful. If people have trust in their neighbours, the police, the government and especially workplace managers, they will be able to relax no matter where they live.

Income, on the other hand, is relative. While having more of it than your neighbours significantly affects the happiness of those at the low-income levels, at a certain point it stops making any difference.

"Within our societies, once you go above the median income, there is hardly any increase in subjective well-being," he says.

And, while it is true that people in rich countries tend, on average, to be much happier than those in developing countries, their happiness is more related to factors such as having a corruption-free and efficient government than to income.

"Trust in government is the same, whether from a rich or poor country, but income is less important in high-income countries compared to the poor."

Helliwell says his research demonstrates a need for policy makers to change the way they do things, because the social determinants that make us happiest -- connecting with others and trust -- are the same factors social scientists have observed disappearing from society.

"We have been drawing back, fearful, and that is a standard result that occurs when trust levels drop. Everyone withdraws. So we have to have a situation where it's not absolutely stupid to tell people to reach out and be trusting. You have to provide a social environment in which this type of reaching out is possible for the old, for the young, for the infirm, because it helps them all."

While Davidson, a University of Wisconsin professor and the director of the Waisman Laboratory for Brain Imaging and Behaviour, agrees that external circumstances play some role in modulating happiness, he says it is also clear that how we interpret events affects our happiness.

While people tend to think they have no control over their emotions, Davidson has shown that people can learn to be happy, just like they can learn to play the violin. It just takes practise.

"More than any other organ in our body, the brain is built to change in response to experience," he says, adding that scientists have shown that the plasticity lasts a lifetime and that the most plastic of circuits are those that regulate emotions.

"Our work has led us to the view that happiness is a skill that is not fundamentally different than any other skill that benefits from training," he says. This is relevant for policy-makers because the skill could be taught at school.

Davidson is famous for his work scanning the brains of Tibetan monks, whom he calls the Olympic athletes of brain training, and who say they are extremely happy. Images of their brains backed that up, showing considerably more activity in the area known to regulate happiness.

But he has also taught ordinary people various forms of meditation once a week for eight weeks, urged them to practise everyday and then compared their brains before and after.

"We found demonstrable changes that we can measure in the brain," he says. "It appears that we can strengthen and cultivate these emotional skills through the kind of training that various meditation practices afford."

Four months later, the effects were still evident, but the subjects had also decided to keep practising meditation. Davidson suspects that, like physical training or music, you need to keep practising to maintain expertise.

"But most people who go through this want to keep practising because they can taste the benefits that are accruing as a consequence of what they are doing."


© The Vancouver Sun 2006
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