Pura Vida

Life in full circle

Have Your Say About Happiness

Join in, become part of the research

My blog has been going on for more than a year now, and I have to say I’ve learned a lot about happiness in that time, particularly the “happiness industry,” the people, organizations and journals that study happiness in all its various forms. By great good fortune, it turns out that one of the most exciting happiness organizations is based in Seattle, near where I live when I am up north, and I want to tell you about this organization so that you can personally join the happiness research project and have a say in understanding happiness, all over the world.

The Happiness Initiative was inspired by Bhutan’s decision to substitute Gross National Happiness for Gross Domestic Product. The King of Bhutan, an enlightened monarch, decided that the personal well being of his citizens was more important than the total GDP of his country, and he coined the term, Gross National Happiness, in 1972. Since that time many nations have decided to include measurements of happiness or well being in their self-monitoring. On April 2, 2012, the United Nations convened a conference on national happiness and released a summary report that you can download here: http://www.earth.columbia.edu/articles/view/2960

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Costa Rica was #12 on the list. Norway, Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands were at the top, and the US was #11. The UN data are based on the so-called Cantril Ladder, the question: on a scale from 1 to 10, where 1 is the worst possible life and 10 is the best, how would you assess your life? This is a question of judgment, not affect, and a single question at that.

By contrast, Costa Rica is again #1 in 2012 in the Happy Planet Index, as it was in 2010. You can read the data here: http://www.happyplanetindex.org/about/The HPI is based on Experienced Well Being (again, the Cantril Ladder) x Life Expectancy divided by ecological footprint.

My gripe is that I think the data one obtains from the Cantril ladder is rather limited, and although it has been validated numerous times, it is fundamentally simplistic. By contrast, the people at the Happiness Initiative in Seattle have gone much farther. They designed a survey instrument that includes many domains of happiness, including affect (feelings right now), life satisfaction, life meaning, and community. The survey takes at least 10 minutes to complete, so it is much longer than the Gallup or World Values surveys, but you can do it online, in your own time, when you feel like it. The survey is in English or Spanish, and you can use it to rate yourself compared to the rest of the world, or you can actually use the survey to improve your own neighborhood by customizing it and using it to show relative satisfaction and dissatisfaction in your own neck of the woods. The general link to take the survey and get involved is http://www.happycounts.org/

For my research, I have designed an open-ended, discourse based interview which builds on the Happiness Initiative survey, and my intention is to interview as many Costa Rican people as possible, using both the online survey and a personal conversation. Therefore, I now extend this invitation to people reading this blog: if you are Costa Rican, and if you want to participate in my study, send me an email via Psych Today, and if you agree to fill out both the online survey and a more discursive personal questionnaire, I will send you links to both. Instead of bashing Costa Rica or extolling it, you, dear readers, have an opportunity to have your say in a detailed but confidential manner.

Many people object to the word “happiness” in this research, as it sounds like “a warm puppy” or some smiley emoticon. Subjective wellbeing can include immediate pleasure, the ratio of pleasure to sorrow, life evaluation, the feeling that one’s life has meaning or worth, or many other things. The Happiness Initiative Survey dispels the notion that happiness is simple. Many studies show that money alone does not buy happiness, for people or countries, although insufficient money can reduce happiness. Family ties, stable communities, trust within communities, and personal safety contribute to happiness, as do a healthy environment, sustainable economy, and freedom from war. Since people don’t agree on the definitions of happiness, it makes a mathematical approach very difficult. I like the Happiness Initiative Survey because it includes many of these definitions. Using the HI Survey plus personal interviews, I hope to understanding happiness in Costa Rica as a gestalt. I have learned that one aspect of Costa Rican exceptionalism is what Costa Ricans mean and expect when they say felicidad, happiness. My current theory is that it means more about current affect, feelings, than life appraisal.

Thanks to the Internet, you have the freedom to join this project personally and contribute your ideas and theories. Take some time to study happiness, your own and other’s, and see how you rank personally and what you can do about it. Then let’s get back together and talk about national and regional differences.

Judith Eve Lipton, M.D. is a psychiatrist and book author. She and her husband David Barash have written about sex, war, and human nature.

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