Happiness: the need for learned helpfulness

Can you believe it? Apparently, people who live in places considered to be the happiest are more likely to take their own lives, according to new research.

The phenomenon is caused by what is called ‘relative comparisons’ – your happiness is determined by how you perceive your satisfaction according to others.

This was brought home to me by the example from earlier research by Martin Seligman, the guru of the school of positive psychology (rather than psychology being focussed on people’s problems, why not use it to maximise the positive, and encourage and facilitate greater personal happiness.)

In Seligman’s study people were asked if they would prefer three week’s holiday a year, while everyone else received four weeks, or would they take two week’s holiday, and everyone else have one week.

Rather than maximising your personal asset – i.e. have more holidays, you are driven to preferring your relative asset compared to others: to be happy you need to think yourself better off than those around you.

Back to the latest research, published in the Journal of Economic Behaviour and Organisation, it found the highest suicide rates were in countries where overall happiness was considered highest: Canada, USA, Iceland and Ireland.

According to Professor Andrew Oswald, from the University of Warwick: “Discontented people in a happy place may feel particularly harshly treated by life. Those dark contrasts may in turn increase the risk of suicide.”

Interestingly, the subject of happiness is becoming not just a subject in its own right, but also a cause. There is even a new national organisation, Action for Happiness, created to promote happiness. http://www.actionforhappiness.org/ 

I too have developed some products based on ‘Happiness at Work’, because at the heart of creating better environments, more supportive of being happy, I believe,  is the need to think more flexibly and be more creative. I call it ‘learned helpfulness’.

So, even in the happiest places, the need to be flexible to adapt and respond to different strands and pockets of a minority, dissatisfied culture is paramount.

By using some core creative processes and tools it is possible to engage whole communities in the task of being happier: but don’t expect everyone to be singing off the same hymn sheet; in fact, don’t expect everyone to be even singing.

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