It’s another gloomy morning in Ottawa. The wind sends ripples across students’ clothing not unlike those seen in the puddles of melt water collecting in the depressions of the sidewalk. Clouds hang over Algonquin College, gaining monopoly over the skyline and threatening punishment from above. It’s early; a quarter to eight and all I can think is how badly I miss my first semester, when I never had to get up before nine. I’ve started drinking coffee on these mornings, which is something I’ve rarely ever had to resort to, but without it I find myself nodding off in some of the less engaging lectures.
It’s in moments like this that I wonder about happiness. I’m infinitely grateful to be in college, taking a program I love, and in an interesting city. Even though the whole of my being is on its knees pleading for a few more hours of sleep, I’m happy to be where I am. As I look around, I wonder how many people share that sentiment since happiness is something for which everyone is constantly striving. While all the other organisms on this planet exist merely to reproduce and further their survival, we have become affixed on the struggle to improve our lives whenever (and however) possible. It’s of such interest, in fact, that studies and surveys are conducted all over the world in order to compare, contrast and gauge the levels of life satisfaction. They include questioning countries, sexes, races, ages, socioeconomic groups and even body types. People want to know if there’s a secret out there to a happier life.
How Do You Measure Happiness?
The default for measuring life satisfaction in surveys and studies are rating scales of 1-10, 1 being the worst and 10 being the best possible life, and the Likert scale, which asks subjects to indicate how they feel with answers like “strongly disagree,” “disagree,” “neither agree nor disagree”, “agree” and “strongly agree”. Political and health-related organizations worldwide have taken to uncovering the statistics behind human happiness, and have generally called it “overall life satisfaction.” In the most recent worldwide survey performed by the World Values Survey Organization, Canada was ranked fifth in the global standing for life satisfaction, with a mean average of 7.8 out of 10. On the top of the list, Denmark and Ireland tied for first with a mean average of 8.2. The question remains, what are the factors that make people so happy?
Some of the answers may be surprising. For example, a 2008 study from Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found that taller people, on average, report being more satisfied with their lives. After more than a thousand interviews per day from January 2nd to July 7th, 2008, Gallup found that men above average height score approximately one-seventh of a step higher on the satisfaction scale than their shorter counterparts. This may not seem like much, but Gallup’s data has suggested that for a man’s height to increase from below to above average would be equal to a 29 percent increase in income in terms of satisfaction. Of course, this is not to say that shorter people are always unhappy, or that taller people are perpetual conduits of joy; there are exceptions to the rule.
Obviously height can’t be the defining factor for a happy life, especially since the lifestyles we lead today are so complex and multi-faceted. In order to find more insight into what makes people happy, human health has to be brought into the equation. In 2007, the American Journal of Health Studies devised a three-page survey on life satisfaction and its relation to physical, occupational, spiritual, psychological and social health. The results were, perhaps not surprisingly, that all five dimensions of health were significant factors in relation to life satisfaction. More importantly though, the study found that social health was the highest indicator of life satisfaction, followed by psychological and then occupational. Even more interesting is the fact that physical health rated last in the standings, which is quite the opposite of the results of my interviews. Everyone I ask tells me that physical health is very important to them. When I ask my friend Allison, she says “I believe you need to feel good about your physical self to be emotionally satisfied, and that includes exercise and activity.” This was also true of my mother, who tells me her physical health and activity are a huge part of her life. I can’t imagine how people can be truly happy while having to worry about their physical health and wellbeing.
Can You Find It In Your Pocket?
Speaking of worry, what does everyone seem to be concerned about these days? Money of course! The debate is never-ending: Freddie Mercury’s singing “Money Can’t Buy Happiness” while Kevin O’Leary sings the praises of his vast riches every week on Dragon’s Den. Is money the main key to life satisfaction? Well, that depends. In a recent study of 450,000 Americans, Princeton University found that there is a “magic number”; a salary of $75,000 a year. No one is so naïve as to think that money has no bearing on happiness; it’s a requirement for survival. We need it for food, shelter, clothing and everything else, but Princeton’s study found that after reaching $75,000, the satisfaction from an increased income no longer improved. This means that to an extent, money can buy happiness, but only until people have enough to make sure they can take care of their family and themselves. This also coincides with every interview I conducted. When I ask my friends and family how important they believe wealth to be to life satisfaction, the consensus is that people will be unhappy if they are poor, but once they are comfortable financially other factors become more prominent. One friend I interviewed, who is attending Sir Sandford Fleming College, says “I am currently under a lot of stress because I don’t have a lot of money, and the stress really adds to my life dissatisfaction,” which I think is typical of most people. Stress has a negative impact on every dimension of human health.
Finally, we come to the social health of life in more detail with love, marriage and family. Do they really contribute to life satisfaction? For that I went straight to the source; my source that is. When I think of the average married couple, my parents come to mind. After 25 years of marriage, I feel like they might have some answers about happiness that I can use. Sitting down to interview my dad, I’m not exactly sure how things are going to go. At times he can be a little intimidating, and I can’t shake the feeling there’s something he’d rather be doing. He looks at me through the tops of his reading glasses and puts down his paper, articulating each word very matter-of-factly. I can’t help noticing that he’s letting his moustache grow even longer. “Procreation is the ticket to satisfaction,” he says, “I became more satisfied with the first child.” That should probably be all I can take, but I have to keep going. “I believed I would be more satisfied,” is his answer to how he thought marriage would affect his life satisfaction and a simple “No” follows my question about whether he ever felt being married or having kids would make him less satisfied. My mother, sitting on a stool in the kitchen, pipes up, “Having a mate and children is the best! Children are a part of you, they complete you.” It makes sense. Every other species in the world is living to survive and reproduce, why should humans, in this sense, be any different?
I’m still wondering about marriage though. My parents are a success story, and even then, was it really the marriage that made them happy? A study published in 2003 in the Journal of Personality and Psychology has shown that marriage does make people happier, but only for about two years. After this extended “honeymoon period,” the study subjects reverted to their original life satisfaction score. The study also reported that those who are already happy are the people who make their marriages work. The unhappy people either don’t get married, or can’t take the strains and eventually divorce. It seems disappointing at first, thinking that marriage doesn’t necessarily bring all the happiness I imagined, but then marriage isn’t always synonymous with love.
I'm beginning to find that there is no exact and defining factor for determining happiness. Naturally, everyone has an opinion, and most people are glad to help. In all of my interviews, I’m asking for advice on how people can become more satisfied with their lives and something my younger sister says seems fitting: “If you’re not satisfied with your life, change it. You have the power to do anything you want, including making your life better.” The only person who can really help you find true happiness in life is yourself, and there seem to be countless paths to choose on the way. All we can really do is try to make the best choices we can… and try to go to bed earlier before 8 a.m. class.
By: Tom Garbutt