The Prime Minister couldn’t help hearing when we Australians complained about doing it tough. She’d been trying her best, but the opinion polls just kept getting worse. “What do people want?” she asked herself. “How can I make people happy?” Then she had an idea.
“What if I appoint a Minister for Happiness? If I can make voters happy surely I will get more votes. I can see it now…”
Radio announcer: The Opposition Leader this morning announced his opposition to the appointment of a Minister for Happiness, insisting “Australian’s don’t want to be happy!”
“Why aren’t Australian’s happy?” asked the Minister for Happiness
Australia appears to have everything it needs to be a happy country. We have a peaceful lifestyle with little physical discomfort, the freedom to make our own choices and express our opinions, the right to vote, abundant food to eat and resources to trade, relatively fair work conditions and free healthcare and public education. We have a higher than average life expectancy (1), a comfortable climate to live in, four weeks holiday a year and a high GDP.
With all our wealth and comfort, you would expect us to be a nation of happy, or at least content, individuals. But are we really?
“I’d like to point out that suicide is one of the leading causes of death in young people, second only to road accidents (2), and if the current rate of reported cases of depression and other anxiety disorders is anything to go by, then it looks like there are plenty of unhappy Australians. The 2007 Mental Health Council of Australia statistics show that almost half the population, (45.5%), is likely to experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime. Around 1 million adults and 100,000 young people live with depression each year. In the period 2006 – 2007, 20% of 16 – 85 year olds experienced some sort of mental disorder. That’s more than 3 million Australians! (3) Mental Illness is costing the government $20 billion a year (4)” the Health Minister commented.
“Ahem…“ said the Minister for Housing. “Might I add that mental illness is not the only worrying issue here? I think it is worth noting that only around 55% of the population owns their home outright (5). The other 45% of the population is either burdened with large rent or mortgage repayments, the insecurity of temporary accommodation or they are one of the 105,000 Australians who don’t have any home at all (6)”
“Don’t forget the rate of lifestyle-related deaths” said the Health Minister. “The 2009 Australian Medical Association report on obesity estimated that 9,500 deaths occur annually in Australia as a result of diseases and conditions such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer that are attributable to excess weight (7), to which low self esteem and poor diet contribute.”
“Instead of appointing new Ministers, the Prime Minister should concentrate on getting the Ministers she already has to do their jobs properly” said The Opposition Leader
“Let’s assume that Australia meets the basic human needs of its population” said the Prime Minister. “Apart from simply surviving, what else do we need to live enjoyable, worthwhile, fulfilled, happy lives?”
What is Happiness?
Ed Deiner, a psychologist from the University of Illinois makes a good point on what he recognizes as happiness in an overview of his study entitled “Defining and Measuring Happiness (Subjective Well Being)” (8).
“Life satisfaction, pleasant emotions, and unpleasant emotions are separable, different components of happiness and unhappiness. Life satisfaction differs from the affective components of happiness in that it is based on a reflective judgment. In addition, there is the distinction between eudaimonic happiness and hedonic happiness, the first being characterized more by virtue and reason, and the latter being characterized by pleasure. We argue that each facet of well-being is deserving of scientific study, regardless of which one researchers might argue is true happiness.”
“I suggest we take a fresh look at happiness and reexamine our understanding of what it is exactly” said the Minister for Happiness. “Unfortunately His Holiness The Dalai Lama couldn’t be here today. I was lucky enough, however, to attend the Happiness and Its Causes Conference in Brisbane recently where His Holiness and colleague Alan Wallace talked extensively on this topic (Alan Wallace is founder and director of the Santa Barbara Institute of Conscience Studies and a leading Buddhist scholar).
“Prime Minister, how happy do you think the struggling Australian taxpayers feel when they hear that their hard work is paying for tickets to a Happiness Conference?” said the Opposition Leader
Alan Wallace recognizes a clear difference between happiness caused by external stimulus, “the type of happiness that arises because of some stimulation or something good happening to us…” and genuine happiness which he describes as “a type of satisfaction that endures, that is cultivated… well being that arises independent upon stimulation… without external support” (9). His definition would suggest that the fleeting kind of pleasure we seek in material things, favorable circumstances and enjoyable activities is not genuine happiness.
Also according to His Holiness The Dalai Lama (in dialogue with Natasha Mitchell at the Happiness and Its Causes Conference in 2011), happiness is a calm mind, a mental state of satisfaction. This state of mental satisfaction he considers to be the result of spirituality or “dealing with the mind.” He also stresses that spirituality cannot be bought, but something that people can “only develop through their own mental training”. However, the cultivation of spirituality and intellect are not to be confused, as His Holiness The Dalai Lama acknowledges that intellect alone, without heart, can bring a lot of disaster (9).
Similarly Eckhart Tolle in his book “Power of Now” speaks of the joy and peace to be discovered in accepting the present moment and all that it is. Observing without judgment, acknowledging that nothing is lacking. (10)
The Buddhist viewpoint also gives great importance to the role of compassion in cultivating happiness. In addition to the mental training of the intellect (increased awareness of reality, reduced ignorance), compassion is the practice of combining the awareness and acceptance of reality and the very Buddhist concept of selflessness. Or as The Dalai Lama puts it “Compassion, take as a seed. Then we use human intelligence, then reasoning, (and) add a kind of warm heartedness.” Compassion is an essential part of happiness because “it allows us to understand. (an)Altruistic attitude brings (us) together” (9). “Now, in order to build a happy world, a peaceful world that ultimately depends on compassion. So our target should be a compassionate world…” (11)
So what I’m proposing is that compassion is perhaps a value that is underestimated in our western culture because it is more about understanding and connecting with others, rather than satisfying our own personal needs. Maybe our definition of happiness should have more to do with acceptance and understanding than with pleasure and personal satisfaction?” finished the Minister for Happiness
“The Australian people are compassionate. What the Government should be asking for is forgiveness” said the Opposition Leader
How do you cultivate a calm mind, a mental state of satisfaction, an acceptance of what “is” and compassion?
Ron Leifer MD points out in his book “The Happiness Project “ (12) that religious faith is one way that people find more mental calmness and therefore more happiness. He says there are two paths that people tend to follow in their search of happiness through religion (12, p 12 – 13) One goes in the direction of obedience to a God who has the ultimate authority to judge what is right or wrong (exoteric path). The other is more about searching within and removing your own barriers to happiness (esoteric path).
The exoteric path relies on the belief of a superior external agency or ‘God’ who needs to be pleased by following prescribed rules or doctrines. The followers of this path also tend to believe in divine justices, such as rewards for the virtuous and punishment for the sinners. This belief, in Leifer’s opinion, seems to imply that virtuousness is a source of happiness for the exoteric path followers. Ron Leifer believes that ‘the relationship between virtue (doing the right thing) and happiness has been largely forgotten or deeply repressed in modern society.” (12, p 12)
“I can hardly believe what I’m hearing!” said the Opposition Leader. “Is the Prime Minister telling me that I should go to church?”
The esoteric path, on the other hand, believes that knowledge and awareness, or wisdom, is the way to unlocking the secrets we hide from ourselves. “The keys to the kingdom of happiness lie in wisdom… What makes wisdom wise is that it helps us to find a greater degree of happiness and to reduce the load of sufferings we impose on ourselves and others.” (12, p 14) Leifer describes this path as being more about living in harmony with life by facing and accepting facts. This also includes accepting one’s own desires and fears and to “differentiate good desires and fears from those that cause us pain and suffering.” To find a graceful balance between “grasping for happiness through our desperate, compulsive, instant satisfaction of our desires,… or rejecting, denying or repressing desire and pleasure as if they are “the doings of the devil.” (12, p 15)
The esoteric path usually involves a personal transformation or “spiritual awakening as a result of these steps” (13), which involve actual changes in behavior. This concept is also used in many 12 step recovery programs for addicts, adapted from the Alcoholics Anonymous 12 steps. Personal action is crucial to the success of these recovery programs. As the addict progresses on their path to recovery they will discover that many of their “defects of character” (13) are actually the very obstacles that prevent them from finding fulfillment and happiness. The concept of personal transformation agrees (and may well have originated from) the Buddhist view that ‘the primary cause of suffering is attachment to self – a state of ignorance which creates the ego.” (12, p24) Much of modern psychotherapy also practices these principles by examining the patient’s responses to external events and ‘working through’ the painful emotions using increased awareness, acceptance and realization (actual change in behavior) (12, p 19 – 21).
Dr Tim Sharp, Chief Happiness Officer of The Happiness Institute, recognizes that gaining a national level of happiness is a very complex business, and that realistically nothing is likely to work for everyone, and certainly won’t work all the time. He does identify, however, some of the most basic needs that humans need to live generally happy, contented lives as safety, secure housing, access to adequate food and water, financial stability and communal support. After the basic needs are met, democracy, stable politics, tolerance, access to good public health, education and transport, equity in the workforce and equity in wealth are also likely to increase the chances of more people achieving happiness (14).
“I knew it! All this talk of happiness is just a front for wealth redistribution” said the Opposition Leader. “She wants us to believe that we will be happier if we give her all our money! Will the next announcement be a tax on frowns?”
Tim Sharp believes that our national happiness could be improved if we were to put more emphasis through the media and in schools on values such as tolerance, fairness, justice, perseverance, optimism and hope, love and kindness. Tim Sharp advocates the importance of education, and the difference that positive psychology learnings could have if more widely introduced into our education system. “Imagine if every child learned how to think optimistically, build their resilience, develop and foster positive relationships and use their strengths? Surely that would, over time, lead to a happier and better society with more flourishing and fewer problems.”(14)
“Social engineering!” cried the Opposition Leader
Alan Wallace (11) mentions that “…there is a quality of genuine happiness [Tibetan translation], that arises by leading a truly ethical way of life. A benevolent way of life, an altruistic, a caring, a loving way of life. And so this is a quality of wellbeing that comes not from what we’re getting from the world, but from what we’re bringing to the world.
And so when it’s something that arises because of what we bring to the world, no-one can take it away. If you’ve been kind in the morning to another person and afterwards you feel a contentment, a kind of satisfaction about that. No-one can take it away, right? Whereas for the corrupt person, whose happiness is all derived upon getting things from the world, take away all that support, take away all the support, put them in a room by themselves and now see how happy they are. “ (11)
Ed Diener from the University of Illinois also found that “The happiest people all appear to have strong social relationships.”(8)
“So why are these simple lessons not given more priority or at least as much as is given to educating young people into high income paying careers?” asked the Minister for Happiness. “Maybe we also need to rethink what it is we really want to achieve in our lives and redefine our concept of success”.
How do you measure happiness?
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure” said the Prime Minister.
“So how is the Prime Minister going to measure happiness?” asked the Opposition Leader. “Is she going to go around counting smiles?”
There tends to be a general understanding that success has to do with wealth. But what if we were to change the focus of our attention away from wealth and relate success to our level of happiness? Gross Domestic Profit (GDP) is the most widely used comparative tool for measuring performance (or success) of a country’s economy. It is relatively easy to calculate, based on tangible figures, yet has its limitations.
Measuring happiness is a bit more complicated, but it can be done. Simply measuring monetary transactions may be a more convenient, concrete method for measuring performance (compared to measuring Gross National Happiness which is more complicated to measure, since there are many different interpretations and aspects of happiness or well being which can be used as factors for measuring happiness (see appendices 1 – 3)) but how does the total amount of money exchanged within a country determine our enjoyment in what we spent it on? What exactly does it tell us about our well being as individuals? Is this really a fair indication of our ‘success’ as a country?
“If we didn’t have a strong economy, we wouldn’t be able to afford the great standard of living we have now, and I can assure you that Australia would be a much unhappier place if you were to take that away” said the Opposition Leader.
The concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has been around since the 1970’s and is gaining worldwide interest. It was the former king of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck who first came up with the concept and then began developing a road map back in the 70’s for implementing a GNH index into Bhutan (15).
The GNH index was officially adopted into Bhutan in November 2008 with the introduction of full parliamentary democracy and the coronation of the 5th King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgy Wangchuck. Bhutan has benefitted greatly and continues to enjoy a high GNH. A big part of their success could have to do with the GNH being compatible with Bhutan’s existing culture of Buddhist spiritual values.
“And now we are all to become Buddhists!” said the Opposition Leader.
The Buddhist ideal suggests that beneficial development of human society takes place when “material and spiritual development occur side by side to complement and reinforce each other.”(16) The four pillars of GNH are the promotion of sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and the establishment of good governance (16). International scholars have observed that these four pillars are generally transcultural and a nation doesn’t need to be Buddhist to value them (16). In fact if you take a look at some of the indicators and developmental areas used in compiling the GNH index, (appendices 1 – 3) they are all indicative of the quality of life that we Australians value.
Treasurer: Yes, I’ve had a look into these. But what about Ed Deiner’s study from the University of Illinois, which compared nations to each other using a scale he developed called subjective well being (SWB). His study focused on factors relating to happiness and quality of life, like all the others, but his findings were that “high income, individualism, human rights and social equality correlated strongly with each other, and with SWB“(17) Wouldn’t this be an argument in favor of the importance of GDP?
The GDP cannot be disregarded completely. It may be another contributing factor of GNH, however, in another study by Adrian G White of the University of Leicester in 2007, “A Global Projection of Subjective Well-being: A Challenge to Positive Psychology?” (18), the Satisfaction With Life Index (SWLI), (developed as part of the study) ranked Bhutan 8th out of 178 countries. Australia ranked 26th in the same index. In 2010 Bhutan had a relatively low GDP of US$598 per person (a GDP of US$1.397 billion (19) and a population of 2,337,211(20)). Compare this to Australia which in 2010 had a GDP equivalent to US$56,000 per person (GDP of US$1,236 billion (19) and a population of 21,885,016 (20)). So you can’t automatically link a high SWB with high income. This correlation may be more coincidental or indirect. It could be argued that Bhutan’s success in the Adrian G White survey has more to do with Bhutan’s focus on making GNH a priority despite their low GDP. Other low GDP countries may not have done so well, in the Adrian G White survey simply because they have not adopted this concept as a priority in the same way as Bhutan has. Not that Bhutan is particularly interested in competing with other countries. Their stated goal is “to maximize whatever they see as GNH, not compare numbers with other countries.” (16)
Can the government create ideal conditions for happiness?
Dr Tim Sharp of the Happiness Institute tends to think that a large component of being happy has to do with personal choice. Once our most basic needs are met, it would appear that it is up to the individual to create their own happiness. Education may play an important role in helping people to learn ways to be happier, but we can not necessarily impose happiness on everybody, or expect to be happy all the time. Tim Sharp believes that one of the most effective and beneficial ways to promote happiness and well being is through wider education of positive psychology in schools and to teach new skills and ways to train ourselves to be happier and more resilient (14). The Happiness Institute suggests you can choose to be happier by practicing the following disciplines every day (21):
C = Clarity (of goals, direction and life purpose). Happy people set clear goals and determine clear & specific plans to ensure these goals become reality.
H = Healthy Living (activity & exercise, diet & nutrition, and sleep). Health forms a crucial part of the foundation to happiness. It’s hard to be happy if you’re literally sick & tired all the time
O = Optimism (positive but realistic thinking). There’s no doubt that happy people think about themselves, others and the world differently. Among other things, they search for more positives.
O = Others (the key relationships in your life). Research strongly indicates that happy people have both more and better quality relationships. So make sure you devote time to developing and fostering your key relationships.
S = Strengths (your core qualities and attributes). Rather than spending all their time trying to “fix” their “weaknesses”, happy people spend more time identifying and utilising their strengths.
E = Enjoy the moment (live in, and appreciate the present). The past is history, tomorrow’s a mystery, and today’s a gift – that’s why they call it “the present”. Live in the moment and enjoy life more.
Allan Wallace reminds us that “there’s not just one method (to happiness): not just meditation, not just science – complementarity. And if we brought this into education – not bringing in Buddhism, but training young people how to really become scientists of their own experience, and ask through their own experience: what truly makes me happy? ” (9)
“The general agreement of the experts seems to be that happiness is more about appreciating and enjoying the things we already have, rather than seeking fulfillment and pleasure in external things” said the Prime Minister.
“Did you hear that?” said the Opposition Leader. “The Prime Minister says that if you aren’t happy you’ve only got yourself to blame.”
Leifer says “happiness is not to be found in the outer, social world, but in transformation of mind which generates wisdom, tranquility and compassion.” (12). So, it can be concluded that happiness is something we mostly cultivate at a personal level, but it can also be encouraged on a community level and methods for increasing happiness can be taught at a national level.
“Our next step is to develop a set of happiness indicators for Australia, and then work out how we can sustain those things that are important to us” Announced the Prime Minister.
“Yes, that’s where the challenge begins” said the Minister for Happiness
Appendix 1 – The Centre for Bhutan Studies Eight General Contributors to Happiness (16)
“Through collaboration with an international group of scholars and empirical researchers the Centre for Bhutan Studies further defined these four pillars with greater specificity into eight general contributors to happiness-
- physical, mental and spiritual health;
- social and community vitality;
- cultural vitality;
- living standards;
- good governance; and
- ecological vitality.”
Appendix 2 – The Seven Development Areas for Socioeconomic Measurement (16)
“The second- generation GNH concept, treating happiness as a socioeconomic development metric, was proposed in 2006 by Med Jones, the President of International Institute of Management. GNH value is proposed to be an index function of the total average per capita of the following measures:
- Economic Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of economic metrics such as consumer debt, average income to consumer price index ratio and income distribution
- Environmental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of environmental metrics such as pollution, noise and traffic
- Physical Wellness: Indicated via statistical measurement of physical health metrics such as severe illnesses
- Mental Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of mental health metrics such as usage of antidepressants and rise or decline of psychotherapy patients
- Workplace Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of labor metrics such as jobless claims, job change, workplace complaints and lawsuits
- Social Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of social metrics such as discrimination, safety, divorce rates, complaints of domestic conflicts and family lawsuits, public lawsuits, crime rates
- Political Wellness: Indicated via direct survey and statistical measurement of political metrics such as the quality of local democracy, individual freedom, and foreign conflicts.
The above seven metrics were incorporated into the first Global GNH Survey.”
Appendix 3 – Overview of the Centre For Bhutan Studies Psychological Well being Survey Report, 2008 (22)
“Research studies around the world have shown that although economic growth has increased steeply over the past decades, there has been no rise in well-being. GNH stands for holistic approach towards governance as it values not only the economic capital but also the social, emotional and spiritual needs of the people. A GNH society calls for the inclusion of people’s perceptions on their well-being. The domain of psychological well-being consists of the outcomes of life circumstances and achievements. For these reasons we should measure this valued outcome so that policy makers are better informed and situations are better assessed. It is essential for policy decisions to be influenced by issues related to psychological well-being. Psychological well-being indicators attempt to understand people’s evaluations of their lives. Currently, we have four broad categories under which we attempt to study psychological well-being of the Bhutanese people. They are life satisfaction, emotional well-being, spirituality, and stress. The findings of this research paper provide interesting policy-related issues but further continuous assessment of well-being would offer policy makers a much stronger basis to making informed policy decisions. Our proposed system of psychological well-being indicators is aimed to not only supplement economic indicators but also to enhance their value by placing them within overall framework of tracking GNH.”
Special Thanks To
Dr Tim Sharp, Chief Happiness Officer, The Happiness Institute
Thanks Also To
Peter, Lawson Street
Residents of Golden Grove Street who gave away their books
and The Gadigal People of the Eora Nation
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