What really makes us happy?

Mankind is plagued by crises: there is the climate crisis, which is making the earth increasingly uninhabitable. The war of Russia against Ukraine, which frightens people, deprives them of a peaceful life. The corona pandemic, which makes people sick and sometimes even kills them. The inflation that makes people poorer. And that’s not all of the crises that are happening around the world right now. They cause stress and worries, they burden the psyche. Therefore, from the point of view of the United Nations, the value of happiness is currently more important than ever.

Every year on March 20, the International Day of Happiness reminds us that happiness is not only important for each individual, but also for society as a whole. The United Nations established it ten years ago. On this day they publish their happiness report, the “Word happiness report“. “Happy people are healthier and live longer,” says happiness researcher and economist Karlheinz Ruckriegel from the Technical University in Nuremberg.

But what actually is happiness? How do you become happy(er)? And can we give our own happiness a boost?

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The Perma model

The word happiness has countless definitions. For some, happiness is being healthy, being free, or not being alone. Others equate happiness with success in professional life or an unexpected windfall. Happiness research is primarily interested in well-being happiness. “Happiness is the positive assessment of one’s own life, one’s own life situation,” explains sociology professor Hilke Brockmann from the Constructor University in Bremen. Everyone’s recipe for happiness is very individual.

In positive psychology there are five building blocks that make up a fulfilling, happy life:

  1. Experience positive emotions.
  2. The opportunity to contribute your strengths and pursue your interests.
  3. have relationships with other people.
  4. achieve and achieve goals.
  5. achieve and achieve goals
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It is the so-called Perma model. P stands for positive emotions, E for engagement, R for relationships, M for meaning and A for achievement.

Older people are happier

Being happy depends on several factors. Age, for example, plays a major role. Medical professor Tobias Esch from the University of Witten/Herdecke, who has been researching the reward system of the brain and the experience of happiness for 20 years, speaks of a “satisfaction paradox”. Despite physical ailments and illnesses, older people are generally happier and more content than middle-aged adults, says the expert. “Amazingly, the most important driver for this is aging itself.”

In the course of life, the type of happiness changes, explains Esch. Young people were looking for fun and thrills. They rush from moment of happiness to moment of happiness, which is intense but fleeting. In later years, the “Valley of Tears” follows: a phase of life in which many are especially happy when stress and unhappiness take a break.

Professional career, children, relationship problems, building or buying a house, some parents already in need of care – many people face a lot of challenges during this time. “You have a lot of obligations that stick like a log to your leg,” agrees the sociology professor Brockmann. “You slip into a middle hole.” Later, life satisfaction increases again. “You are still fit enough to enjoy retirement. You have time to reinvent yourself and experience something new.”

From the age of 60, people usually don’t need much to be happy, as Esch found out. They felt a profound, enduring sense of happiness and contentment—despite the ailments of old age. “As you get older, you emancipate yourself from the idea of ​​being healthy all round, as long as your existence is not threatened.” At the end of life, the last one and a half to two years before death, satisfaction then statistically decreases again.

Does money make you happy?

Another happiness factor that comes up again and again is money. In 2010, Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman was in one study came to the conclusion that money can actually increase personal happiness – but only up to an annual income of 75,000 US dollars, i.e. the equivalent of around 70,000 euros. One Work Eleven years later, psychologist Matthew Killingsworth had shown that the feeling of happiness continued to rise steadily well above 75,000 US dollars.

Now the two researchers have joined forces and created a new one study published. In it they write that more money definitely increases personal happiness. But that doesn’t apply to everyone. “The exception is people who are financially well off but unhappy,” Killingsworth said. “If you’re rich and unhappy, for example, more money doesn’t help.” For everyone else, more money was associated with greater happiness to varying degrees.

Harvard study: Social relationships make you happy

Harvard University in the US has been studying what makes people happy for more than 80 years. It’s the most comprehensive long-term study, which has accompanied around 2,000 people from three generations in their quest for happiness since 1938. The Harvard researchers contradict the results of Kahneman and Killingsworth: According to their findings, it is not material things that make people happy, but good social relationships.

“The people who were happiest, who aged the healthiest, and who lived the longest were the people who had the warmest relationships with other people,” study leader Robert Waldinger said in a report last month interview. Not only couple relationships are meant, but also friendships, family or relationships with neighbors. It is important to actively cultivate these relationships “in small steps every day or every week” and keep them alive.

Happiness can be learned

Everyone is ultimately the architect of their own fortune – this saying is actually true to a large extent. “You can learn happiness,” says medical professor Esch. How happy someone is is also a matter of type. For example, some people emit the neurotransmitter dopamine faster than others or break it down more slowly and are therefore more willing to take risks. The effect of the genes is around 30 to 40 percent. “That means more than half of life satisfaction can be learned.”

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But how does that work? From the point of view of happiness researcher Ruckriegel, a realistic view of the world helps: “We perceive negative things much more than the positive ones.” Sport, social contacts, having a meaningful task and getting involved for others or the community also make you happy – and of course a certain amount of income. “But this measure is grossly overestimated. In any case, one thing is clear: If you focus on making money, you will not be well on your way to happiness.”

RND with material from the dpa

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