I was listening to NPR on my commute home (I’m a D.C suburbanite, after all) and a story about happiness came on. I’ve always been intrigued by happiness. Why is it some people seem to be naturally happy while others have so much difficulty getting and maintaining happiness? Is it a genetic thing? Does it have to do with brain chemicals? Is it environmental? societal? Or more likely, a combination of factors? In a story, entitled Don’t Hurry, be Happy, University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson stipulates that the busier you are, the happier you are. According to the story, “People who report being the happiest, 8 to 12 percent of Americans, say they almost never feel rushed and they do not have time on their hands they don’t know what to do with.” So basically, the less unstructured free time you have, the happier you are. And conversely, if you have a lot of free time on your hands that you don’t know what to do with you probably aren’t very happy, at least according to Robinson.
While it may seem counterintuitive to think that busy people are happier people, I think it does make sense. Now that I’m busier and have very little free time on my hands I feel happier than I have in a very, very long time. I feel like I have control over my time and I am making very deliberate decisions over how I want to spend my non-working time. I haven’t turned a TV on in months and I rarely have more than an evening or two when I don’t have anything planned. I definitely feel a lot happier now than when I was spending my evenings watching Snapped and Women who Kill late into the night. And usually, when I do watch TV or movies, I find that I do so because there’s something I really want to see, not because I’m bored and TV is my last resort. In fact, there seems to be a negative correlation between TV and happiness. According to the story, “The more people watch television, the less happy they are…I think it’s just the fact that television is an activity that people choose to do when they don’t have anything else to do.”
And despite the fact that people tend to think of D.C as a stuffy, competitive place, we’re actually pretty happy as a metropolitan area. I’m guessing being busy probably has something to do with it. A recent Gallup Poll found that D.C is the only large city to crack the top 10 happiest cities list and takes first place in the top five happiest large city list, beating out San Francisco, San Jose, Denver and Minneapolis. Maybe that’s because we are so fit, make a lot of money, have plenty of cultural and entertainment opportunities to choose from, are home to a competitive and highly educated singles scene and enjoy a vibrant coffee/cafe culture. Whatever the reason, it seems that the more you have going on and the more you enjoy these activities, the higher your quality of life.
The U.S as a whole is actually also doing pretty well in terms of happiness. A recent survey by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the U.S is the sixth happiest country in the world. Which actually surprises me, because I don’t remember the U.S being in the top 10 in any recent happiness surveys. According to this group, the happiest countries are: Australia (how do they always sustain such high levels of happiness??? Maybe a combination of a high standard of living and lots of sunny days? But the rest of the countries on the list have less than ideal weather, so that can’t be it…), Sweden, Canada, Norway, Switzerland, the U.S, Denmark, the Netherlands, Iceland, and the United Kingdom. So how is it that so many places that pay such high tax rates (70% in Denmark) consistently make the list of happiest places? According to another NPR story featuring Dan Buettner, Danes don’t have to worry about putting their kids through college, affordable health care or being able to retire — because the government takes care of all of this. And happiness is as much about decreasing your worry as increasing your joy. Buettner identifies six components to happiness: Community, workplace, social life, financial life, home and self. You can read more about happiness according to Buettner here. While I can’t imagine the U.S EVER going for a 70% tax rate, I am glad to see we are cracking the top 10!
So, loyal blog readers, any more ideas on what makes a person/city/society happy?