What is happiness – while we all might define and view happiness from differing vantage points, we seem to know it when we have it! Happiness has been individually sought after, scientifically studied, taught at Harvard University, and filmed in a documentary entitled Happy directed by Roko Belic.
So, why study happiness? Are there benefits to feeling happy? Can happiness actually be measured?
Roko Belic, an Academy Award nominee for his film Genghis Blues, sought to combine scientific studies and measurements of ‘happiness’ with personal interviews, observations of communities, and anecdotal reflections to study the question ‘What makes people happy?’
A secondary question that intrigued Belic was, ‘Is there a link between happiness and longevity?’ His film crew traveled to 14 countries, conducting interviews with researchers, communities, social groups, and individuals who shared their lives and perspectives with Belic to address these questions as he created and directed the documentary Happy.
The science of happiness research is well founded and cited in Belic’s film. Dr. Ed Diener Ph.D., referred to as Dr. Happiness, has made a life study of what comprises ‘happiness’ and how this manifests across cultures and countries. Diener’s twenty-five years of research has led him to discover four contributors to a ‘happy life.’ Psychological wealth is more important than monetary wealth, including creating goals and maintaining engaging work. Secondly, happiness benefits health, relationships, and work. A third component is our thinking and attitudes towards our life and circumstances. Fourth, Diener counsels us that it is critical to set expectations about happiness as no one can be intensely happy all the time.
Dr. Diener further developed the concept of “Subjective Well Being” (SWB) to empirically measure happiness. His decades of research verified that being happy provides the foundation for a rewarding career, successful marriage, and a long, contented life – opposing those who might pursue these aspirations in order to experience happiness. Happiness comes first!
To investigate the link between longevity and happiness, Belic and his crew traveled to Ogimi, Okinawa. Dubbed the ‘village of longevity,’ Ogimi boasts the world’s highest percentage of centenarians with 14 among the 3000 inhabitants and 158 people over 90 years of age.
Belic was captivated by a strong sense of community and compassion exhibited by everyone in Ogimi – indicators of happiness that researchers have linked to a high happiness quotient. After visiting the Ogimi Community Center where senior women danced enthusiastically doing the ‘whatever we want’ dance, Belic embarked on a visit to a local preschool. He was curious to learn what future 100 year old Okinawans did as children and what elements of happiness existed at their tender age.
A foot race was scheduled that same film day which provided colorful clips of young children racing down small-town streets. They were greeted, hugged, and warmly congratulated by grandmothers as they finished their run. Belic made a surprising discovery when he was told that most of the grandmothers present were not related to these preschoolers. They were simply at the foot race to be part of the community. A smiling grandmother explained “Everyone here is my family – these are all my grandkids.” Belic highlights this as an extraordinary example of the interconnectedness found in Japanese culture.
A sense of community and doing things together is a consistent aspect of happiness worldwide. In Namibia a bush man who lived in a humble tribal setting and hunted with a bow and arrow, described his perspective on happiness. To answer Belic’s question – what made them happy? – the tribal elder responded, “Doing things together and being together is what makes us happy.” He added, “…as long as we’re together, it is fun.”
Personal stories validated the elements of happiness that Dr. Diener and other research psychologists discovered while studying happiness and subjective well-being.
Fishing, crabbing, and exploring the Louisiana Bayou from a young age, Roy Blanchard enjoys its’ beauty and tranquility. Blanchard, now a grandfather, continues to find solace and splendor on the water. He exudes a warmth and appreciation for sharing meals, laughter, and stories with his close knit family. Nature’s wonder as well as love of family and community kindles Blanchard’s happiness and sense of well-being.
In a very moving story, Melissa Moody describes her life as a former beauty queen who was tragically run over by a truck, resulting in horrific injuries including major disfigurement to her lovely face. Grappling with such a life changing ordeal, she initiated finding gratitude as a way to establish a new foundation for life. Her calm, peaceful countenance is a testimony for what Dr. Diener found in his studies; that is, those who accept their external circumstances are able to transform them and experience happy, fulfilled lives.
Andy Wimmer is a former banking executive who became a volunteer at the Mother Teresa Home for the Dying and Destitute in Calcutta, India. He describes the joy and purpose he feels as he cares for people who are in grave need. As Wimmer stated, “…[m]ost important is to show them that they are loved by God; they are not forgotten, that their life is precious, that someone cares… For me, my life is like a loan given from God, and I will give this loan back, but with interest.”
Building and maintaining a positive mindset can start with meditation as research has documented in studies of positive psychology and happiness. How can we cultivate such a mindset? Gen Kelsang Nyema presented a TED Talk in 2014 which focused on the alignment of our states of mind regarding happiness and our realization of it.
Nyema advised that we need to stop outsourcing our happiness and tying it to dependence upon what is outside ourselves, including external circumstances or other people. She emphasized, “Happiness and Unhappiness are states of mind and therefore their real causes can not be found outside the mind.” Meditation can enhance this mindset and help us cultivate this stable peace of mind.
Nyema posed questions to the TED Talk audience, challenging them to reflect on their personal level of happiness. 1. Are you having a good day? 2. Why are you having a good day? 3. Tomorrow, would you rather have a good day or a bad day? Nyema proposed meditation as a tool to free us from any external conditions and focus our minds on happiness.
Belic’s findings confirm that happiness is GOOD for you – contributing to healthier and longer lives; better relationships; more creativity; more peaceful problem solving; and most importantly – that happiness is contagious!
How does happiness affect leadership? If employees are happy, they will be healthier and more productive. Company climate surveys prove a strong correlation between employee satisfaction and company loyalty, supporting reduced recidivism and longterm organizational success.
How can leaders encourage and promote happiness within their organizations, communities, schools, and families? Contact me to start the conversation regarding the lessons from Happy and positive psychology that you want in your leadership style. Start your leadership journey NOW! firstname.lastname@example.org
Karen Haley Allen, M.A., is an international leadership coach and retreat facilitator. A former leadership and global business instructor at UC Berkeley, Dominican University and ITU, she founded HALEY ALLEN ASSOCIATES – “Our mission is to challenge and empower leaders and their teams to align their deepest values with business results.”