The Other I

September 18, 2019

What makes people happy?

Filed under: Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:21 pm

I started asking myself this question after reading some research on the question.  I’ve reached the conclusion that there are two significant variables.  I’d be interested to know if they match your experience.

Is it money?  celebrity?  family?  a sense of achievement and success?  making it to the top of one’s career ladder?  sexual satisfaction?  physical attractiveness? religious beliefs?

Research suggests the most wide-spread happiness is not necessarily in the world’s richest countries, but in countries where wealth is relatively equal but sufficient to provide universally for our basic needs – nutrition, education, a home, medical care, and relatively free choice.  Norway is an example of this kind of country.

Research does not find that the more money we have the happier we are.  Yes, more money definitely can make us happier, but there is a limit, and it is surprisingly small.

The limit to the amount of money found to increase happiness rests on research in the United States suggesting that about $20,000 made us happier, but as the amounts of money increased, happiness did not.  With inflation, I suspect that the $20,000 might now be too small but we are not talking about millions.  I suspect that if we are employed and not struggling on the poverty line, the money that makes us happier is money that is enough to provide housing and education for ourselves and our children.

To put it simply, happiness is in part an economic issue.  But politicians who think that more is always better are missing a critical point.

The second source of happiness I am certain is far more critical even than economic security.  It is a sense of belonging, of community.   It is why “love is the greatest of these,” why even a small act of kindness can make a huge difference.  It is why helping others, rather than the size of their salaries, is often the key to the deep satisfaction many people achieve at work.  It is why in times of war, persecution, or natural disasters such as tornadoes, floods, or fire, families, and communities make huge sacrifices to stay together, sharing food, and supporting each other often at great personal cost.

Paradoxically, I think it is this need to belong that is the source of the populism that is spreading across the globe and dividing so many of our countries, including the US and UK.  We need to belong, but many of us cannot extend this sense of belonging to all human beings.  Even Christian missionaries often lack this recognition that we are one, spending their time trying to change the cultural values that they find foreign, trying to make the poor “one of us” by convincing them to join the Christian church.  And so we fight immigration, we try to enact universal laws that suit our own religious or cultural values, we don’t like people who dress differently, or who worship a different God – or no God at all.

Personally, I fear that if we don’t evolve to appreciate our diversities, that happiness will elude us, no matter how well off we might feel personally.

What do you think?


  1. The older I get, the less conviction I have that there is any necessary connection – any Universal Law – that correlates virtuous behavior with happiness – at least as it is generally defined in economic and social terms.
    In other words, I fear that it is entirely possible to be greedy, selfish, cruel, vain….and happy. And it is possible to be a complete saint and have to live in misery.
    This is why religions are quick to speak of another world where justice is done (in the case of Indic religions, a future life where karma gets its just desserts). If natural justice worked perfectly in this world, I wonder, would we even need religion or God?
    I would love to live in such a world, where warm humanist and inclusive instincts bring peace and happiness. But in this world they lead to happiness only for those who seek happiness IN virtue itself, not in material outcomes and externalities.


    Comment by psriblog — September 19, 2019 @ 10:47 am | Reply

    • I agree with you completely that there is no universal law correlating virtuous behavior with happiness. Although I myself have never met someone who was cruel, abusive, self-obsessed and bigoted and also happy. In my experience, such people spend a lot of time blaming other people for what they don’t have, and continue to seek happiness through their self-obsessive behaviour. On the other hand, I have also met a very significant number of people who are attempting to live as saints (I was one of them in my youth), and many of them are neurotic, obsessive, and/or lacking in self-confidence, but they are not happy.

      Having said that, the whole question of researching what makes people happy seems to me to be hugely incomplete. For starters, how people define happiness for themselves or others, is hugely variable. What some people claim makes them happy most certainly would not please me in the least. And I think insufficient attention has been paid by researchers to the effects of genetic factors or environmental influences leading to depression, which in extremis, obviously reduces a sense of happiness – no matter how much money or community support or job success one might have.

      So, in short, I think research into what makes people happy offers some interesting hypotheses. But as your comment illustrates, by no means does it offer a convincing or universal “fact.”

      Thank you for taking the time to write your comment. I was hoping to get some feedback like yours.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — September 20, 2019 @ 4:21 pm | Reply

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