giving, moving, and smiling: Power habits

Mar 24

Let's get right to the punchline this week. It's Finland for the win, again. If you missed last week's blog, I mentioned that the world's happiest nation (ranked 1 amongst countries by the World Happiness Report [WHR] for the last 5 years), a health turnaround story from the '70s would once again be put to the test. Well, although Denmark made a run at the title, let's just say there were no bracket-busters in this version of March Madness. This of course leaves me with some questions.

How are they doing it? Why aren't we higher on the list (currently the US is 15th despite Americans being largely satisfied)? How does this information boil down from the societal level to us as individuals? What can we take from the research this year and use?

In fairness, like I did last year around this time, summarizing 166 pages of content in a few hundred words leaves more out than in, but there seem to be some gems worth knowing about.

First, in order to understand what "happiness" (more accurately "subjective well-being") entails, it's important to understand the factors that add up to the happiness score, there are 6.

1. Financial Health (measured by gross domestic product per person)

2. Social Support (measured by the number of people who truly have our back, that is, we can call on in times of trouble, no matter what)

3. Healthy Life Expectancy (not just how long we live, but how long we'll fully function)

4. Freedom to make Choices (aka "autonomy" and "agency")

5. Generosity (aka "prosocial behaviors" like how often we give to charity or invest in our community)

6. Perception of Corruption (our belief in the trustworthiness of our institutions, especially government) 

While I find it fascinating how well these 6 factors seem to align with the 5 ELEMENTS we so often tout, they also track closely with Maslow's first version of the famed "hierarchy of human needs". Similar to his theory that humans fulfill the first 4 needs in that pyramid (basic health, safety, belonging, esteem) in order to "level up" to the 5th (thriving), the logic behind the WHR scoring appears to show that happiness is not something we are born with, but something that can be achieved when BOTH (a) our basic needs are met and (b) we are doing good things in a free and just environment. If this is true it stands to reason then that working on ANY of the gaps can help. Yet, as is the case in so many areas that touch our ability to live healthily and thrive, there appear to be 2 especially long levers, something that is supported in the latest research.

The first comes as no shock to anyone who reads this blog - MOVE. Earlier this year a team of researchers in Australia reviewed more than 1000 studies involving nearly 140,000 people and found that movement, in the form of exercise, was the most consistently potent strategy for improving anxiety, depression, and distress (which by definition factor into happiness and is captured in WHR item 2, Healthy Life Expectancy). While high-intensity bursts seemed to have the greatest potential and there were specific subsets of people who enjoyed an even better than average effect, the main takeaway was: exercise worked better than traditional care (medication + counseling) for more people, more consistently.

The second comes from deep within the 2023 WHR and lives squarely in their 5th area: Generosity where a new wrinkle on the "golden rule" seems to be proving itself. While "doing unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a version I'm most familiar with... the 2020 evidence from a University of Texas and University of Chicago research partnership on happiness seems to suggest there's more benefit than the satisfaction we get for doing the right thing. When "random acts of kindness" were tested, the giver felt happy, the receiver felt happy (more than expected) AND like positive social contagion, it was far more likely to spread. 

When we ask people who are committed to health and safety why they put in the time and effort in one way or another the answer is clear: My paycheck pays the bills, but I really work for ____________. That blank is always very colorful and almost always said with a smile. In one way or another, we all work for happiness. If we pull these levers we can get there sooner.

Have a great weekend,

Mike E.