You know what makes me happy? Just knowing that someone cares whether I am or not. I'm not talking lasting happiness, or deep-down satisfaction, just a pick-me-up sort of thing. So when I read that Bhutan, the tiny country landlocked between China and India, tallies a Gross National Happiness index, I felt cheerier for the people there and figured they must feel pretty good too.
Bhutan's happiness project, launched nearly 4 decades ago by a 17-year-old King, has prompted some positive thinking about the environment and socioeconomic development, according to Cathy Shufro's recent article in the Yale Alumni Magazine. (The Yale connection is that several government officials studied at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.)
In 1972, the royal adolescent claimed that Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product-easy to say if you're a really rich teenager. So he added GNH to the constitution. By the 1990s, this kid's ideas led to the so-called four pillars of happiness: environmental conservation; cultural preservation; good governance; and sustainable and equitable socioeconomic development. Shufro's piece, which explores Bhutan's environmentalism, explains how integrating happiness into the equation is good for the individual and national soul.
And yet all this happiness talk got me thinking about what really makes us happy, particularly if your government isn't reaching out to you. A new study, published in Emotion, suggests it may be a lot simpler than previously thought. According to the scientists, your happiness is the result of genes, life circumstances and positive activities. It's tough to tinker with the first two, so scientists focused on the third.
The investigators, from the University of California, Riverside and the University of Missouri, compared two mood-boosting strategies among about 300 undergraduates. Volunteers got course credit for participating, which should have made them feel really good from the get-go.
Students were divided into three groups. One group spent15 minutes once a week for 8 weeks writing something optimistic about their future selves. For instance, one week they were asked to describe the perfect future romance. For subsequent weeks, they focused on the perfect job then education, then social life and so one.
The second group spent the same amount of time writing a letter of gratitude to someone who did something good for them. They didn't have to send it, but they were told to remember those altruistic gestures, write about them in detail and how that may have changed their attitude.
The third control group wrote weekly about their life's activities.
Everyone filled out mood surveys before the study, right after, and again six months later.
The authors said their findings are "especially revealing" because they found that it not only takes a feel-good strategy but you need to be motivated to make it work. That is to say, the students who felt the best afterwards were not only writing about an idea future or reminiscing about the good old days, but believed that these activities would boost their overall well-being. I figure it's like weight loss. It doesn't matter whether you Weight Watcher, Jenny Craig, or low-carb it, as long as something motivates you not to eat so much.
Which, of course, brings me back to Bhutan. I guess the lesson is that if you truly believe your country cares about your happiness (a GDH, say) it may inspire you to do do-gooder things (community service, recycle, for example) and all of things may actually make you feel better. Think of it as positive thinking on a national scale.