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