You’ve ticked off all the items on the “Good Life” list: you exercise daily, have a healthy diet with good general health and sufficient sleep, and your interesting job affords you many luxuries. Beyond that, your primary relationship is going well and you enjoy your friends and hobbies. You say you are satisfied, but secretly you know: happiness still eludes you. What has gone wrong?

A new take on wellbeing: Gross National Happiness

Like increasing numbers of people, you could be waking up to the need to take your happiness quest to the next level. There is a new mindset for happiness gaining ground: namely, that greater wealth does not yield greater happiness and in fact true happiness is not attained only by self-focused individual effort. Back in 1972, the then King of Bhutan realised this, promoting the concept of Gross National Happiness, and even saying that it was more important as a measure of wellbeing than the Gross Domestic Product.

The United Nations picked up on the idea, adopting a resolution in 2012 which proclaimed March 20th the “International Day of Happiness”. It recognises happiness and wellbeing as universal goals and aspirations of human beings around the world. Significantly, the U.N. said the world needs a new economic paradigm to achieve this, one recognising that sustainable social, economic, and environmental development are equal contributors to gross global happiness.

Wealth up, happiness not

You may agree with this general idea, but wonder what it has to do with you. Here are some telling statistics. The average income in the United States is about five times higher than it was in 1900. Australians are about eight times richer than a century ago, as our GDP has increased significantly since then. But surveys measuring happiness (which have only been conducted since the 1940s) show little or no increase in happiness levels over the last five decades. In fact, many argue that our collective happiness has decreased slightly. What’s going on?

It’s the Joneses, mate: they’ve got a new luxury car

Happiness researchers explain that, while people who are really poor are less happy than those who are well off, greater income does not produce greater happiness once people have their basic needs met. All of society’s wealth has been increasing, so while people are absolutely better off than before, we are relatively no better off than our fellows, whose wealth has also been growing. Happiness psychology understands that result, noting that we are forever comparing ourselves to others, and if we feel like we are coming off second best in the comparison, we are dissatisfied.

Yet pursuing greater acquisitions (you know: the need to “keep up with the Joneses”) in order to favourably compare is leaving us restless and unhappy. India and Nigeria, for example, have purchasing power of 5 and 6, respectively (on a scale of 100) and life satisfaction scores of 6.7 and 6.59. Meanwhile, the United States has top purchasing power of 100, yet its life satisfaction score is only 7.73: barely better for all the extra capacity to buy stuff.

When young Australians were studied recently, 80 percent said that they were satisfied with their lives — including lifestyle, work or study, relationships, accomplishments and self-perception — but 50 percent were experiencing one or more problems associated with depression, anxiety, anti-social behaviour, and alcohol use.

The happiness riddle

So how do we convince the bluebird of happiness to come sit on our shoulder? The Happiness Assembly notes research which claims that, while we can thank about 50 percent of our happiness state on our genes (e.g., traits of extraversion or optimism) and 10 percent on external circumstances (making it hard to be happy when one is being tortured, imprisoned, or in pain), fully 40 percent of our happiness quotient is within our individual power to grasp.

But here’s the catch: more and more research is showing that it doesn’t happen when we operate from our old mindset of only tuning into self-focused personal gain and maximising short-term profit. Looking out for “me” at others’ expense is a selfishness which separates and isolates us. Rather, what brings the most profound contentment is following a purpose-filled life of meaning and meaningful connections with others. Paradoxically, it is this way of doing life — being connected to and looking out for others — which creates (sustainable) wealth and true wellbeing for us.

On a practical level

Paramahansa Yogananda, who founded an organisation showing how all religions had the same universal truths, said it most simply when he noted, “If you want to be happy, you must include others in your own happiness.” Yogananda practiced what he preached by making sure that, every day, he did three things: exercise, meditation, and helping someone. You don’t have to be rich or famous to do this (though you may leverage more resources if you are). What about these ideas?

  • Offer to help clean your sick neighbour’s house or weed her garden
  • Sponsor a child through an international charity (such as World Vision)
  • Make regular visits to a lonely community member
  • Volunteer your services to Lifeline, a local op shop, or somewhere that suits your interest and skills
  • Mentor a beginner at something you do well.
  • And note your sense of life satisfaction as you are doing these things, or afterwards. It might just be as high as Bhutan’s!

Written by Dr Meg Carbonatto, B.S., M.A., and Ph.D.


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