Happiness is hard to quantify, but for the third time since 2012, the World Happiness Report has done just that: gathered data from around the world and ranked countries from most to least happy. It’s not just a feel-good exercise. The goal of the report is to build recognition of the elements most likely to create happiness within nations and promote their spread across the globe. A successful society, after all, is measured not just by its affluence but by how satisfied its people are with their lives.
In making its rankings, the report looked at several variables, including real GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, freedom from corruption, generosity and less tangibles such as having someone to count on and the perceived freedom to make life choices. Switzerland took the top spot; the U.S. came in at No. 15.
Importantly, the report also boiled down the latest neuroscientific research on happiness, and, in doing so, revealed four key supports for well-being. They serve as handy tools for assessing our personal happiness potential. Consider how you would rank yourself on these:
- Sustained positive emotion
Happiness isn’t just about feeling pleasure, research shows; it’s about holding on to that feeling even as circumstances change. Studies using imaging technology indicate that most of us show similar activation of reward-related brain regions in response to positive stimuli. Some people, however, especially those who are depressed or stressed, show a diminished ability to sustain that brain activation and, thus, the positive emotion. Those with longer responses to positive stimuli report greater psychological well-being, defined as sustained happiness that isn’t directly dependent on what is happening at the moment.
Ask yourself: Are you able to savor the good in your life even in the midst of the bad, or does happiness feel fleeting?
- Recovery from negative emotion
The flip side of savoring the good is bouncing back from the bad. It’s sometimes called resilience or grit – that ability to move forward and adapt despite adversity. Studies that looked at the parts of the brain implicated in fear and anxiety confirm it isn’t how strongly a person reacts to a negative event that matters in terms of well-being, but how quickly the person recovers.
Ask yourself: When bad things happen, are you able to shake them off? Or do negative emotions linger long beyond the events that provoked them?
- Pro-social behavior and altruism
Studies of the neural processes behind our social nature and our ability to feel empathy and compassion confirm what most of us already know: It makes us happy to make others happy. The parts of the brain related to positive moods, for example, are activated more strongly when giving rather than receiving. Through empathy, we can feel what another is feeling, and compassion helps us convert that empathy into helpful action. These feelings are even stronger when we feel a social connection with a person. Put these together and the result can be a virtuous cycle in which pro-social behavior increases the bonds between people, which boosts well-being, which leads to more pro-social behavior, and so on.
Ask yourself: When you connect with others, do you feel you get as much as or more than you give?
Studies indicate that our minds wander about half the time, and when they do, we are less happy than when we are focused on the moment or task at hand. Mindfulness has garnered much attention of late as a technique to promote well-being by intentionally bringing our minds back into the moment in a nonjudgmental way. By doing so, we minimize “affective stickiness,” that tendency for our attention to be pulled involuntarily toward emotionally distracting thoughts. It also helps us be less ruled by our wants – things we previously found rewarding but which so often stand in direct opposition to our happiness. It’s one reason mindfulness has proven so helpful in addiction treatment.
Ask yourself: Do you find yourself ruminating on the past or future, or do you most often live in the moment?
The good news is that no matter how you currently rank yourself on any of these well-being measures, change is possible, thanks to what researchers now know about the plasticity of the human brain. The World Happiness Report notes that many countries have developed training programs to cultivate traits that promote happiness – things such as mindfulness, kindness and generosity – and some of these programs reveal measurable brain changes in participants in as little as two weeks.
Therapy can also play a role in helping us stake a claim to happiness. Among its many capabilities, therapy can teach us to think in ways that boost our ability to cope with adversity.
Happiness and well-being, thus, should not be thought of as fixed states that are the bounty of a lucky few, but as skills that each of us, by knowing what to work toward, can improve upon.