We are living in a great time: state-of-the-art health care, favourable living conditions, an abundance of goods and services. Yet we are no happier than our ancestors.
Why do we have so much difficulty in achieving happiness?
This is what the author Greg Easterbrook calls the “paradox of progress” (The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse, Penguin Random House, 2003).
Living conditions are improving, but people are not happier. Why? Our day-to-day life has certainly become dizzying and our schedules seem to be constantly overloaded. Year in and year out, however, Canada is one of the world’s ten happiest countries, according to the annual World Happiness Report produced by the United Nations. Based on several social and economic criteria, however, gross domestic product (GDP) remains the most important item on the list.
Is the production of wealth in a country truly representative of the well-being of its people? If that were the case, it would be a lie to the adage that money does not make people happy.
Although it is evident that some income is necessary to live a decent life, the increase in wealth is far from a guarantee of happiness. In the United States, the height of happiness would have been reached in the 1950s. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Western society experienced unparalleled prosperity: a rapid rise in household income, the invention of several products that revolutionized everyday life — cars, television, household appliances. Since then, American welfare levels have been stalling despite a steady increase in wealth.
The Hungarian psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi made it his research topic. In a text published in October 1999, ” If We Are so Rich, Why Aren’t We Happy? “, in the journal American Psychologist, already he wondered: if we are so rich, why are we not happy?
He begins by quoting our expectations, which are increasing at the same rate as our living conditions are improving. When you get used to an advantageous financial situation, it’s hard to settle for it and not see any bigger than your belly.
The other explanation is well known. We often compare ourselves to those who have the most possessions rather than being satisfied with what is necessary for our comfort. As a result, it’s hard to be happy when the neighbour fulfils all his desires before us!
According to him, the proof par excellence that money does not lead to happiness is the difficult reconciliation between the accumulation of wealth and socio-personal spheres, such as family, friendship and leisure. As our energy is increasingly focused on accumulating as much money as possible, every second devoted to another activity is seen as a potential loss of income. The Swedish economist Stephen Linder was the first to describe this situation. According to him, as a person’s income increases, it becomes less and less “rational” to spend time on something other than accumulating money.
To better represent a nation’s level of satisfaction, should GDP be replaced by the BNB, gross national happiness? This is an original idea developed by Bhutan. Instead of relying on economic performance as an indicator of well-being, this small country in the Himalayas relies on the quality of human relations and nature. Each new project must go through the BNB screen to assess its impact on this index.
Without completely eliminating the economic argument, it might be necessary to revise its importance in the calculation of happiness. The former US Attorney General Robert Kennedy even said in 1968:
“GDP measures everything except what makes life worth living. »
The genes of happiness
We don’t all have the same propensity for happiness. Indeed, some people seem to be gifted to be happy while others struggle to achieve this state of full satisfaction.
The explanation could lie partly in our genes. Genetic variants associated with feelings of happiness were found in 2016 by a team of Dutch researchers. This would explain why happiness is perceived differently from one person to another. A gene has even been characterized as a serotonin sensor, a hormone that is called ” the molecule of happiness “.
If our genetic profile does not allow us to secrete the chemical molecules essential to our happiness, why not induce it with drugs? Because it would miss an important characteristic to pursue happiness, according to the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi: the feeling of being master of the attainment of his happiness.
Follow the flow»
The psychologist is at the origin of a concept that has become a cult: that of the flow, or the optimal experience. For him, the secret of happiness lies in this design. It is a state of fullness achieved by carrying out an activity.
“I began to look at creative people and artists to try to understand what made them want to continue doing things that didn’t necessarily bring them fame or fortune but gave meaning to their lives. They often reached a state of ecstasy in which reality no longer exists, ” he explains.
Everyone has already experienced this moment when, totally absorbed by a task or objective, time, pain, fatigue or personal problems seem to be neutralized. It’s the flow. By recreating the conditions necessary to achieve this optimal experience, it would represent a further step towards the pursuit of happiness. An option that would probably be more effective than wealth in achieving it!