By Michael Pascoe

Mike is a research student at the University of Cardiff. In summer 2019, he undertook a BSA Media Fellowship with BBC Wales, sponsored by the Society for Applied Microbiology. Here, he reports from the  British Science Festival at University of Warwick.

Since time immemorial, philosophers, spiritual leaders and life coaches have pondered the mysteries of finding true happiness. However, has anyone ever tried to use science to calculate the solution? Nattavudh Powdthavee, Professor of Behavioural Science at the University of Warwick, has been attempting just that and believes scientists may have cracked the happiness equation in just a few decades.

To calculate happiness, we must first define what it means to be happy. Powdthavee uses three measures to achieve this. Cognitive happiness measures our overall life satisfaction whilst our affective wellbeing assesses how we feel at any one moment. Finally, our eudaimonic happiness indicates how meaningful we perceive our lives to be.

Whilst it is often touted that money cannot buy happiness, Powdthavee’s research demonstrates that it plays key roles in both cognitive life satisfaction and affective wellbeing. At any given time, people who are rich are happier than those who are poor and wealthier countries tend to rank higher in global happiness polls. However, increasing the overall wealth of a country doesn’t appear to increase happiness of its citizens. This contradiction, termed the Easterlin Paradox, raises interesting questions about how much value our society should place on economic growth when it doesn’t lead to improved wellbeing.

A person’s wealth status relative to their peers appears to play a significant role in determining their life satisfaction. Despite netting over £140,000 each year, many of the UK’s top 1% of earners are still looking up, unsatisfied with their lot in life. Their regular contact with the top 0.1%, who rake in millions each year, makes their income seem paltry by comparison.

For many, the satisfaction gained by earning more than one’s peers exceeds the happiness gained by earning more money overall. Consider this: Would you prefer to A - earn £75,000 per year whilst your peers earn £50,000? or B - earn £100,000 per year whilst your peers earn £125,000?

If you chose the former option, you’re in good company. A live poll of the British Science Festival audience revealed that a staggering two-thirds would prefer the first option, even if this meant they would each take home £25,000 less each year. When it comes to money and happiness, the relationship is indeed complicated.

Age also had a strong impact on happiness. Whilst many of the festival audience believed we’d be happiest in our mid-life, when income peaks, Powdthavee revealed that many actually experience a “mid-life low”. Whilst the young and old report high life satisfaction scores, there is a marked decline, which begins at 25 years and reaches a low at 50. Work-related stress, migraines and a mid-life crisis conspire to chip away at our happiness.

Subway train at rush hour. Source: Chang Hsien 

Commuting also had a remarkable impact on happiness. I was shocked to learn that compensating for the stress and unhappiness caused by commuting an extra hour each day required a £40,000 increase in annual salary. Whilst some of this can be offset by saving money on housing, its overall negative impact on happiness certainly curbed my enthusiasm for a future life in suburbia.

In an interesting turn, Powdthavee discussed that the mid-life crisis may not be a response to unmet aspirations from earlier in life, as conventional wisdom suggests. Instead, behavioural studies on great apes has hinted at a biological origin. Just as we do, chimpanzees experience a nadir of happiness in their mid-lives. Unfortunately for the chimps, they lack the means to compensate by purchasing sports cars or taking up sky-diving.

Whilst losing a spouse or going through a divorce is often considered one of the most impactful events in someone’s life, research suggests people adjust remarkably quickly to the change. Happiness returns to previous levels within only 2 years of becoming widowed. Meanwhile, long-term unemployment and poverty are situations to which people do not adjust.

“So, what’s the secret to unlocking happiness?” you might ask. Apart from earning more than your peers, Powdthavee suggests maintaining positive social relationships, staying connected to your community and practicing gratitude. If this fails: “Get a dog”!

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