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Blog: What Makes Us Happy



By Liza Ottlakán, Independent Evaluation Unit, Green Climate Fund

The world celebrates the UN International Day of Happiness every 20th of March. At first glance, dedicating a day to happiness does seem idle. But when you stop and think about it, the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of everything we do. As people working in international development we may be focused on reducing poverty, improving health, building schools or improving the environment, among other human development goals. Yet what they all have in common is improving people's well-being. In order to evaluate whether these efforts actually succeed, we need to tackle fundamental questions such as: What is happiness? And how do we measure it? The following blog from Liza Ottlakan at the Green Climate Fund's Independent Evaluation Unit looks at this fascinating topic through the lens of available evidence and climate change.

In 2012, the United Nations adopted a resolution that recognised happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations of human beings. It invited all Member States to develop their public policies in a way that better captures the importance of the pursuit of happiness. The resolution also called for Member States and organisations within the UN system to observe the International Day of Happiness on the 20th of March.

This unique initiative seems like a step in the right direction towards a future we would all like to for those who come after us. It is evident that policies play a crucial role in shaping the future. Of course, the pursuit of happiness through evidence-based public policy raises some challenges on its own. And here, at the Green Climate Fund, we also need to ask what impact will climate change have on it?

Humanity has been grappling with understanding the concept of happiness for thousands of years. Through insights from great philosophers, spiritual leaders and, more recently the field of psychology, we understand that happiness is not only one feeling. It encompasses many different emotions, such as contentment, gratitude, connection, or hope.

About 2500 years ago, Confucius thought about happiness as an outward-oriented sentiment that one can raise by lifting the welfare of others. Aristotle saw moderation, acceptance and the cultivation of all emotions as the pathway to happiness. Meanwhile, epicurean thinkers argued that happiness is the absence of pain and the sum of sensory pleasures. The rise of the industrial era brought along the utilitarian thought, advocated by Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill, which once again argued that happiness is found in actions that enhance the well-being for the greatest number of people. Meanwhile, Buddhism teaches that equanimity, compassion, and detachment lead the way to happiness. The complexity of the concept is indisputable, and so is the fact that there are different cultural approaches to finding happiness, and all should be equally honoured.

Science has also given us some useful insights. It taught us is that there is not one area of the brain or one chemical that is responsible for the sensation of happiness. Dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin are some of the main neurotransmitters responsible for raising our level of happiness from its genetically coded, and individually differing baseline.

If the pathway to happiness varies across cultures, and there is also variation in individual needs and experience, then how could we best measure the changes in the levels of happiness in a country and build public policy around the evidence?

As a common reference point, researchers differentiate among four different types of happiness. The first is a general level of well-being, referring to overall life satisfaction. The second refers to a trait, supported by one's genetic profile. It can also be a specific emotion experienced at the moment. Last, but not least, it can also be interpreted as satisfaction triggered by sensation.

To study subjective well-being, researchers focus on two types: the general level of well-being, and the momentary emotion. However, in designing policy that improves the general level of happiness of people, it is important to distil the factors that enhance or hinder happiness.

Researchers at the London School of Economics have done exactly this. They have identified factors, such as physical health, income, education, partnership, and mental health, and tried to estimate how the variation of these affect the overall variation of happiness. Based on the availability of data, they examined four countries: USA, Australia, Britain, and Indonesia.

What they have found is that mental health has very significant effects on happiness, and every time outweighs the effect of physical health, while income only explained a very small percentage of variations in any given country. Even then, it is the relative income that matters the most, and so is the case for education. Having a partner seems to be a more important factor in Western countries, while in Indonesia this is less prominent.

In the same study, the researchers also considered whether aspects of childhood development can predict how satisfied an adult will be with life. Once again mental health was a prominent factor, with the mental health of the mother being a key determinant of the happiness for a future adult.

One of the world's most prominent and famous studies, the Harvard Grant Study, followed more than 200 men from 1938 for over 80 years. This robust, longitudinal study had countless findings. But one of the most outstanding revelations to cut across all observations might be that the capacity to form intimate relationships correlated with whether the subjects will be flourishing in all aspects of their lives. (Vaillant 2008) George Vaillant, who has led the study for more than 30 years, famously put this main finding into a straightforward five-word conclusion: "Happiness is love. Full stop."

So, with philosophy and science at our disposal, what can we say about the impact of climate change? Will it make our societies less happy? Will it have any effect at all? To what extent could we attribute changes in happiness to climate change? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that climate change will affect health and well-being directly, through extreme weather events, as well as indirectly, through impacts on ecosystems, such as shifts in disease patterns, or through societal systems manifested as undernutrition or mental illness due to food insecurity, stress, conflict, displacement, and economic losses.

Perhaps what we can conclude is that climate change will definitely not make it easier to pursue happiness. Policies that strengthen social systems, aim to provide income, and food security, prevent families or communities from disruption or separation, and care for the mental health, especially that of mothers, stand a chance at mitigating some of climate change's worst effects on happiness within our societies. On an individual level, we can all support these efforts by revisiting our own behaviour and consuming in a more environmentally conscious way. And as for the International Day of Happiness, a small and simple way we can honour and contribute to this universal pursuit, is by enhancing the welfare of others and expressing our gratitude and appreciation to those colleagues, friends, family that surround us.

Thank You for reading!

Some recommended material:

The World Happiness Report 2018

An online course on the Science of Happiness by UC Berkeley

A TEDx Talk by George Vaillant

Liza Ottlakán is an evaluation associate at IEU. She is passionate about finding ways to apply abstract theories of social sciences to everyday practice.