Happy days in Ireland

 

Madam, – The Gallup global wellbeing survey ranks Ireland 10th out of 155 countries in terms of wellbeing (“Survey finds Ireland in top 10 when it comes to wellbeing”, April 25th). Sixty-two per cent of Irish people rate themselves as “thriving”, compared to 44 per cent in Germany.

This is no surprise. In 1998, 44 per cent of Irish people rated themselves as “very happy”, compared to fewer than 20 per cent in Germany. In 2010, Ireland was ranked fifth best place in the world in the world to live, in the UN Human Development Index.

Wellbeing and happiness are complicated. The biggest single determinant of wellbeing and happiness appears to be genetic inheritance: studies of identical twins reared apart show that over 40 per cent of variation in happiness is attributable to genes we inherit from our parents. Happiness is also associated with younger and older age, but not gender: until recently, women rated themselves as happier than men, but women and men have recently converged in terms of happiness.

Happiness is also statistically associated with good health (especially mental health), stable upbringing and community, religion, democracy, social capital and being employed. Employment is especially important: a 10 per cent increase in national unemployment makes everyone unhappy (regardless of whether they are employed or not). Happiness increases with income up to $20,000 per annum (adjusted for purchasing power parity), but there is little increase beyond that point. Relative income matters: a majority would choose $50,000 when others receive $25,000, compared to $100,000 when others receive $200,000.

These research findings are group-level associations, useful to guide policy at community or national level. On this basis, it is hoped that Irish policy-makers follow the examples of France, US and England in considering wellbeing and happiness when developing social and economic policy in the years ahead.

At individual level, similar factors may usefully inform strategies for increasing individual happiness, although an explicit, single-minded focus on the pursuit of happiness may not always yield the expected results. Sometimes, becoming absorbed in another interest or activity, rather than explicitly pursing happiness all of the time, will produce a deeper, lasting enhancement of happiness.

In the words commonly attributed to the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, it may turn out that “happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.” – Yours, etc,

BRENDAN D KELLY,

MD FRCPI MRCPsych,

Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry,

Department of Adult Psychiatry,

University College Dublin,

Eccles Street, Dublin 7.