International Day of Happiness: reflecting on what makes us happy

Here’s a simple question for this fine Tuesday morning – are you happy?

A deceptively simple question, but it is one that many of us may find it difficult to reply to with a simple response.

For, despite all our progress – especially in health, knowledge and technology – happiness appears to be just as elusive now as it was more than 2,000 years ago, when the Greek philosopher and teacher Aristotle concluded that more than anything else, men and women sought happiness.

One thing which has changed since Aristotle’s time, is that we now have an International Day of Happiness – a celebration established by the United Nations in 2013 which marks 20 March as an opportunity to recognise the importance of happiness in the lives of people around the world.

The International Day of Happiness can be a useful time for us to reflect on what makes us happy, and how we can make positive changes in our lives that are likely to enhance our happiness.

For instance, while it is a truism that money doesn’t buy happiness, it has been shown that money can buy experiences (like holidays, music concerts, nights out), which in turn can promote happiness.

Interestingly, however, it has recently been shown that it is not the experiences per se that promote happiness, but the fact that we are able to share the experiences with others.

Ultimately, it seems as though it is the social dimension of the experiences, rather than the experiences themselves, that are crucial for happiness.

This chimes with my own research at Nottingham Trent University, which explores the relevance of social group memberships – family, friends, community, sports groups, hobby groups – for our wellbeing.

This work comes from the Social Cure perspective within social psychology, which argues that it is the extent to which we identify with (or feel a subjective sense of belonging to) our social groups that is consequential for our wellbeing.

In order to study the relationship between group identification and happiness, my colleagues and I gathered survey data in Italy and Scotland from almost 4,000 people. We measured the extent of their identification with their family, local community, and a third group of their choice. We also measured their satisfaction with life, a key component of happiness.

We found that the more participants identified with each of the three groups, the higher their satisfaction with life. There was also an additive effect: the more groups participants identified with, the higher their satisfaction with life. We found these results stood up even after we accounted for participants’ gender, age, employment status and their extent of contact with the members of each group.

So what do these results mean for us on International Day of Happiness? Well, I think this research shows that it is hard to achieve happiness alone: it is a collective project that involves us interacting with others.

Being aware of the important role that social groups play in determining our health and wellbeing is crucial, as is making efforts to join groups with which we are likely to identify: those that share our values, ideal, interests, and goals.

Finally, it is important to cultivate multiple group identifications: it means that we are not ‘putting all our eggs in one basket’, and different groups can provide us with different types of social support – emotional, financial, informational – allowing us to build a rich and supportive social landscape.

All of which means that if you are looking to spend a little money today in order to increase your happiness, you could do far worse than sharing an experience with one of your social groups: sometimes, when spent on doing things with others, money can buy happiness.

Further reading