ILLUSTRATION: DEARBHLA KELLY
We are, apparently. Despite toppling over an economic cliff, Irish happiness is proving itself robust. What exactly is going on, asks Catherine Cleary
We are standing at a busy city junction. Each car that drives past throws up a sheet of dirty puddle water. I have three wet children in tow and a drowned-rat dog. Every time a car almost splashes us we laugh. Later, we will be tired and cold. Everyone will grumble. But for this moment we are weirdly, almost defiantly, happy.
I’m fascinated by happiness. I spent over a year chasing it writing a book about trying new things. Despite toppling over an economic cliff, Irish happiness levels haven’t crashed. We have only recently slipped out of the top 10 happiest European countries. And we’re world leaders at seeing happiness in the rearview mirror. When the question was asked in a World Gallup Poll (2008-2011) “Were you happy yesterday?” Irish people answered such a resounding “yes” that we shot to the top of the list.
The happiness industry is huge. The word is sprinkled over books (Amazon lists almost 30,000 with happiness in the title), academic studies, newspaper headlines and political manifestoes. It may be only a matter of time before governments establish Departments of Happiness.
But here’s the problem with happiness science. How happy do you feel now? Yes you, reading this magazine. I could send someone in a white coat to take a spit swab and test it for cortisol (the stress hormone) levels. But otherwise I can’t tell anything about your happiness without asking you. The science of happiness is entirely subjective. We can really only measure it by asking people how happy they are.
Consultant psychiatrist Brendan Kelly says this paradox makes happiness science “inherently daft”. Happiness is so multi-dimensional that one person’s version could be “a hundred times different” to someone else’s in precisely the same life circumstances.
“There is no underlying biology of happiness,” he says. We can’t measure it like cholesterol. Linking a bodily substance like saliva to happiness is, he believes “pretty spurious.” In happiness science, the lab rats are filling in their own reports.
So why do the Irish score well in happiness surveys? Do we lie? Are we in the grip of a national happiness delusion? Or is our personal happiness ring-fenced from the misery and anxiety of Austerity Ireland? Kelly is not surprised that our happiness levels have dipped rather than plummeted. We have a set point for happiness famously shown in the winning-the-lottery or losing-a-limb research. The lottery win obviously results in the winner’s happiness level shooting up. A catastrophe such as losing a limb will make someone utterly miserable. But both groups later return, roughly, to their previous happiness levels. “There is more stability in it than you think,” Kelly says.
That stability also explains what knocks the happy-ever-after shine off those big-ticket purchases. The rush of pleasure we get from the trophy house, the car, the designer bag, doesn’t last. We adapt to what we have and our happiness level settles again like sediment in a bottle after a vigorous shaking.
Having a baby gives most people a surge of happiness, Kelly says. Within two years that extra happiness has evaporated. “Does it mean you should have a child every two years? Of course it doesn’t.”
The relationship between happiness and money is especially interesting. People with lower incomes who live in more equal societies report higher happiness levels than the very rich in unequal societies. Poverty makes us unhappy. But once a basic level of income is achieved more money does not equal more happiness. What seems to matter more is contentment at a wider societal level.
The Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway and Finland are top of the class in happiness studies. The weird blip in this success story is that these happy countries also have the highest suicide rates.
“My guess is that having a very coherent social setting is good for most people,” Kelly says. It’s conducive to well-being but it may also, for a minority, make it harder to fit in.”
The importance of equality was highlighted, Kelly explains, in a study where a majority of people said they would take a $50,000 (€37,500) salary over a salary of $100,000 for the same job. It makes no sense until you realise the $50,000 salary was paid in a scenario where the average salary was $25,000. And the $100,000 was offered in the context of a $200,000 average. People preferred to halve their salary than to feel less well off than the majority.
“Stop comparing yourself to others. That’s the bumper sticker for happiness,” Kelly says. The biggest shift in Irish attitudes to happiness is that we now believe income is the most important factor to maintain it. Until the recession took a real hold the answer to that question was always “health”. Kelly believes our ideas about happiness are shifting and the 10 per cent increase in joblessness is a big factor.
“Unemployment is uniquely corrosive of happiness. It hits our self image and self regard. And if national unemployment levels increase 10 per cent [as has happened in Ireland going from 4 per cent to 14 per cent between 2003 and 2011] everybody’s happiness is affected.”