Se­ri­ous about hap­pi­ness

Joyce Fe­gan meets Meik Wik­ing who has writ­ten a guide on how to raise our level of hap­pi­ness

Irish Examiner - Feelgood - - Fitness -

“These are tough tur­bu­lent times” — are not the first words you hope to hear from a hap­pi­ness ex­pert.

Meik Wik­ing is CEO of the Hap­pi­ness Re­search In­sti­tute in Copen­hagen and he has just writ­ten The Lit­tle Book of Lykke.

Lykke (pro­nounced luukah) is the Dan­ish word for hap­pi­ness and is some­thing Meik is very se­ri­ous about. He is, af­ter all, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist whose pre­vi­ous ca­reer saw him work in a think­tank on sus­tain­abil­ity.

He ex­plains that his or­gan­i­sa­tion is about find­ing sci­en­tific ways to im­prove the qual­ity of peo­ple’s lives.

“Hap­pi­ness can be per­ceived as some­thing fluffy. At the in­sti­tute, we try to be dry and sci­en­tific and let the ev­i­dence and data speak for it­self,” he says.

And how did a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, with a back­ground in so­ci­ol­ogy and eco­nom­ics, end up be­com­ing the CEO of hap­pi­ness in­sti­tute?

“I had a re­ally good friend and mentor at the com­pany I was at and he be­came very ill and died over four or five months when he was 49.

“Back in 1998, my own mother had also died when she was 49. So it was two im­por­tant peo­ple to me that had died when they were 49.

“When my mentor died, I was 34 and so I started to think: ‘If you only have 15 years left to live what are you go­ing to spend those years do­ing? Are you go­ing to con­tinue spend­ing an­other seven or 15 years at this com­pany or are you go­ing to cre­ate this thing, that might be dif­fi­cult and risky, but could also be re­ally amaz­ing?’

“Two months af­ter­wards I quit and then I es­tab­lished the Hap­pi­ness Re­search In­sti­tute on Fe­bru­ary 1, 2013. It started out with me, a desk and what I thought was a good idea and a bad lap­top and now we’re do­ing well. We have po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists, econ­o­mists, psy­chol­o­gists, we’re work­ing on three ques­tions: how do we mea­sure hap­pi­ness, why are some peo­ple hap­pier than oth­ers, and how do we im- prove qual­ity of life.” This is where The Lit­tle

Book of Lykke comes in, bring­ing read­ers on an al­most paint-by-num­bers, sci­en­tif­i­cally backed-up ex­pe­di­tion to hap­pi­ness.

To start, there are three main di­men­sions by which we can self-as­sess our hap­pi­ness. The first is our over­all level of con­tent­ment, the sec­ond is the kind of emo­tions we ex­pe­ri­ence on a daily ba­sis, and the third is called eu­dae­monic.

“It’s the an­cient Greek word for hap­pi­ness, that builds on Aris­to­tle’s per­cep­tion of hap­pi­ness and to him, the good life was the mean­ing­ful life, so we have a sense of pur­pose. So, for ex­am­ple, kids have a pos­i­tive ef­fect on that one.”

When we have as­sessed those three di­men­sions, we can then walk through the six key ar­eas that Meik has high­lighted in his book to im­prove our hap­pi­ness.

These are to­geth­er­ness, com­mu­nity and re­la­tion­ships, money (but not nec­es­sar­ily mat­tresses full of it), health, free­dom, trust and kind­ness.

So which should we look at first?

“When we look at the global data, whether it’s Ire­land or Den­mark or the US, one of the best pre­dic­tors of whether peo­ple are happy or not is whether they are happy with their re­la­tion­ships. We’re in­ter­ested in how do we shape good con­di­tions for com­mu­ni­ties or re­la­tion­ships or a sense of be­long­ing or a sense of to­geth­er­ness, to flour­ish.”

In his book, Meik uses the ex­am­ple of a sub­urb in Perth, Aus­tralia, where a woman who had suf­fered from de­pres­sion greatly im­proved her own com­mu­nity by ask­ing lo­cals what their in­ter­ests and abil­i­ties were. The neigh­bour­hood started a mini-li­brary, a choir, set up a pizza oven, rolled out pet-sit­ting ser­vices and started af­ter­noon tea mee­tups — ev­ery­one’s hap­pi­ness flour­ished as a re­sult.

Com­mu­nity is some­thing that is even more im­por­tant to fo­cus on con­sid­er­ing we live in a time of milli-sec­ond con­nec­tion via so­cial me­dia.

“In 2013, we did an ex­per­i­ment at the Hap­pi­ness Re­search In­sti­tute where we looked at the ef­fect so­cial me­dia had on dif­fer­ent in­di­ca­tors of life sat­is­fac­tion, sat­is­fac­tion with so­cial life, jeal­ousy and dif­fer­ent things. We ran­domised 1,100 peo­ple into two groups; con­trol group were told to con­tinue as they usu­ally do and the treat­ment group were told to take a week’s break from Face­book and then we tested them af­ter­wards.

“Pretty much ev­ery in­di­ca­tor we mea­sured seemed to have im­proved for the treat­ment group.”

He says so­cial me­dia has height­ened hu­man be­ing’s propen­sity to com­pare them­selves with oth­ers.

“I think we can’t help but be af­fected when we see all these amaz­ing pic­tures of ev­ery­body’s else lives, peo­ple get­ting mar­ried or run­ning a marathon or in Bali and it’s the same day.”

Meik also pays spe­cial at­ten­tion to kind­ness and ref­er­ences a Robin Hood-type fig­ure in Bri­tain, called the Free Help Guy, who gave up his cor­po­rate job to seek his “worth in more than pounds and pen­nies.”

The Free Help Guy helped a stranger over­come his fear of fly­ing, a cou­ple find a home­less per­son to give a spare room to, and a fa­ther and son to re­unite.

But when it comes to fos­ter­ing hap­pi­ness from when we are chil­dren, it is not the three di­men­sions nor the six key ar­eas that mat­ter.

“There is the ex­pres­sion ‘be­ing a tiger par­ent’ where you sort of push your kids and de­mand re­ally high lev­els of aca­demic per­for­mance, and I think Dan­ish peo­ple are a lot more what they call ele­phants moms and dads, where it’s much more about nour­ish­ment, try­ing to help that lit­tle per­son be­come what­ever per­son they are meant to be.”

So does this stuff re­ally work? The fi­nal word goes to the Free Help Guy who says: “My heart beats like it has never done be­fore.”

REACH OUT: Meik Wik­ing, inset, be­lieves a strong con­nec­tion to com­mu­nity is key to hap­pi­ness.

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