Who's happy?

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

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.”

Until the most recent study the European Social Survey showed our happiness levels in small but steady decline. We went from 7.94 in 2005 (on a zero to 10 scale zero being extremely unhappy and 10 extremely happy) to 7.55 in 2009.

But the survey carried out between September 2011 and January last year put us at an average happiness level of 6.8, a much more significant drop.

In a recent research paper with colleague Anne Doherty, Kelly looked at the other side of the equation and the serious national indicators of unhappiness. In 2011, 525 people died by suicide, a 7 per cent rise on 2010, and a sharper increase than in recent years, indicating what could be a delayed reaction to the downturn.

“At European level,” Kelly and Doherty wrote, “there is strong evidence that every 1 per cent increase in unemployment is associated with a 0.79 per cent rise in suicides.”

They also looked at the pills, the level of anti-depressants and anxiety medication being prescribed from the boom years to the bust. In 2006, 4.4 per cent of people said they had used anti-depressants. In 2010/11 that had risen by just 0.4 per cent to 4.8. The much larger increase has been in the use of sedatives and tranquillisers which have jumped to 6.5 per cent in recent years compared to 4.7 per cent at the height of the boom.

And yet the prescription levels are still much lower than for north of the Border.

“Interestingly, in Northern Ireland the rate of anti-depressant use over the previous year is almost three times that in the Republic of Ireland [12.0per cent, compared with 4.8 per cent] and the rate of sedative and tranquilliser use is almost double [11.0 per cent, compared with 6.5 per cent].” So what can we do if the answer to the “are you happy now?” question is a resounding, “No.”

Dublin-based psychotherapist Patricia Allen-Garrett runs a happiness workshop she calls the Happiness Ratio. What does that involve? Firstly, she explains to people the idea of negative thinking. It’s part of being human. “It’s what kept our ancestors alive.” In a negative mindset you have a Teflon approach to praise – it slides off easily – she explains and a Velcro attachment to criticism. It sticks fast.

In smaller groups she gets her students to look at the various areas of their life where they experience gratitude or kindness and get a sense of a “whole-hearted life”. People will often describe it as a rediscovery of something they had lost. “How have I forgotten that I needed to be grateful?” She follows up by asking people what positive habits they have managed to stick with. Her students have been therapists, social workers, teachers and charity workers. She’s also worked with drug addicts, whose problems stem from the same area. “We all try and find connection. We’re hard-wired for connection. With an addiction, a least healthy one is chosen.”

To Allen-Garrett, happiness is a three-tiered thing: cognitive, emotional and spiritual. In her workshops people answer the question what makes them happy with everything “from wine to sex to music, George Clooney, a movie to chocolate”. These are what US psychologist and self-help guru Martin Seligman calls the “hedonistic treadmill”, she says, things that are immediate and fleeting.

“It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t engage in them,” Allen-Garrett says (phew), “but we need to realise that they won’t give us enduring happiness.”

Whether you see happiness science as woolly psychobabble or incisive and important thinking there is increasing evidence that people who say they are happy are demonstrably healthier. Studies suggest having more friends can boost your immune system. One study found that happiness could add nine years to your life span. Happily married men get seven years extra, their wives get four.

Happiness over a lifetime tends to be U-shaped. Children and young people are happy. In mid-life happiness dips and then it rises again, not quite to childhood levels but close. So what can we do if we are struggling with persistent feelings of unhappiness?

Dr Conor Farren, a consultant psychiatrist and senior psychiatry lecturer, has just published a book called The U-Turn – A Guide to Happiness. He feels it is a deeply personal issue separate to any national happiness measurement.

“It’s astonishing how two people who have the same boxes ticked – wife, kids, home, job, car – can have profoundly different happiness levels.” To him the surveys give a glib idea of happiness.

“They can give hints but people answer in the moment, so they might just have had breakfast or have a half-day off work. Those surveys that say we’re twice as happy as the Germans – I don’t think that gets to the essence of that. I don’t place too much store on the national stereotype that we’re great craic in pubs so therefore we’re happy.”

Happiness, in Farren’s book, is a “knowing contentedness”. Being happy takes work. “I have to work on it on a daily basis and I’m a relatively happy person.” It starts with understanding our emotions. “Why am I unhappy and how the hell can I get out of it?” The single most important support to deep happiness is self esteem, he says. “If we have low self esteem that can lead to periods of unhappiness, anxiety and depression.”

His book is based on the idea of being able to fix that. “If you think poorly of yourself you have to recognise that is not a normal state. It is not normal to dislike yourself.” As a country, Ireland doesn’t have “a brilliant self image and so we over compensate. We tend to be very sensitive to what other people think of us. If you look at Americans, they’re not obsessed with what the world thinks of them.”

There are five basic happiness maintenance steps that Farren recommends building into our lives. Firstly, you get a good guide or self-help book, then talk it out with friends or counsellors. We must exercise three times a week for 45 minutes, “really robust cardiovascular not just walking the dog”.

We must do some form of aggressive relaxation (this does not mean meditating with a frown on your face) but actively relaxing with yoga, tai chi or meditation. “And finally if it’s too much, get professional help.”

What makes him happy? “I do try and relax aggressively. The real thing is interaction. For me it’s based on how I’m dealing with the people around me, my family, people I work with.” That tuning in to others, like happiness, is a work in progress.

For six weeks last summer, every Thursday psychology PhD student Karen Hand asked thousands of people how happy they were feeling now and with life in general. Working with Trinity psychology professor Malcolm MacLachlan, Hand was running the National Happiness Experiment with volunteers who agreed to answer weekly questions by text. Interestingly, three-quarters of the happiness guinea pigs were women. Every week they texted the mobiles of 3,309 people in 28 counties in Ireland. The idea was to gauge happiness over time. The textees could have been in the bath, or on the bus or in a hospital waiting room when they read the message. The subjects texted back rating their happiness on a scale of one to 10.

The National Happiness Experiment found that the average happiness level was between a six and a seven, similar to the ESS studies. People under 20 and people over 60 were happiest. Having children didn’t make you happier but parents and grandparents were more satisfied with their lives. Men and women were equally happy. Those people who ranked themselves as more religious were happier. The weather, surprisingly, had no effect.

Hand and MacLachlan’s readable, witty book, Happy Nation? Prospects for Psychological Prosperity in Ireland, goes further than giving the results of the experiment. They say Irish policy makers can do things to make us happier. Their foundation stone is equality in health and education.

In the spirit of “why waste a good crisis” they argue that the recession is a chance to reframe our national objectives. We already know economic growth doesn’t lead to happiness, they argue, so making happiness a national objective allows us to redesign a system that’s not working.

They cite a famous Harvard study in 2010 which saw two groups given money for shopping. One group was asked to shop for themselves the other to shop for other people. “At the end of the shopping trip those who had spent the money on others were happier.”

What makes her happy? “My kids, my husband, my work . . . but if I think of a context for my happiness it’s probably a sense of urban community and the things that go with it. There are only 23 houses on our road but about five and half years ago we started an annual street party, where everyone brings food and drink out on the street.”

Why does she think Irish people score themselves highly in happiness studies? She believes it’s down to those connections we make with each other. “What we do have going on is these close ties with friends and family and in general that’s what’s buoying us up.”

Even if it is a mass delusion, Hand argues, it is a positive one. We begin to believe the stories that we tell about ourselves. The next step, she says, is working to make those stories true.


Conor Farren’s The U-Turn A Guide to Happiness is published by Orpen Press. Happy Nation? Prospects for Psychological Prosperity in Ireland, by Malcolm MacLachlan and Karen Hand, is published by the Liffey Press.

A Month of Somedays, by Catherine Cleary, is published by Londubh Books

Sign In

Forgot Password?

Sign Up

The name that will appear beside your comments.

Have an account? Sign In

Forgot Password?

Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In or Sign Up

Thank you

You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.

Hello, .

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

Thank you for registering. Please check your email to verify your account.

We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.