Happiness is fleeting. Happiness is an abstract concept. Happiness is a subjective experience. And the world has happiness on the brain. Following this year’s edition of International Day of Happiness, the global community was reminded that with mass suffering taking place in Yemen, Ukraine, and Palestine as we speak, we ought to spread happiness by sharing positive messages, connecting with people, and donating to those in need. But how does Sarah El-Abd, a researcher at the Happiness Research Institute in Denmark, define happiness? And how does she, as an expert, pursue it? Here, we share seven key takeaways from our conversation.
On the definition of happiness:
“Happiness can be defined as the experience of joy, contentment, or positive well-being combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful, and worthwhile. Personally, I’m of the opinion that happiness means something different to every person, and I would therefore define happiness as the way that an individual really feels about his or her own life in that sense.”
On the pursuit of everlasting happiness:
“We often answer the question, ‘Can we be happy all the time? And why?’ And of course, the short answer is ‘no’ – nor should we be. Happy people are happy the majority of the time, and this is perhaps because they have a positive outlook or they live their life in a positive context with well-founded structures. However, negative things can also happen to happy people, and it’s important to remain conscious of how life is treating us overall in that sense.”
On why some societies are happier than others:
“The World Happiness Report usually explains the difference in happiness across countries through six factors: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and the perceptions of corruption. In addition to these factors, each country has cross-cultural nuances that also contribute to differences in happiness, so it’s important to understand that some countries cannot push happiness forward with their GDP per capita, for example.
However, we can push happiness further through freedom to make life choices or generosity or perceptions of corruption because these don’t need to happen on an overall country level basis – as long as you feel them in your everyday life and local community. It’s one of those things where small changes create larger effects, so if we lower perceptions of corruption in local communities or even within our own circles, then that in itself is bound to potentially create a difference in happiness.”
On Nordic countries ranking high in happiness:
“It’s known that all of the five Nordic countries are consistently ranked within the top 10 of the happiest countries in the world, and I do believe that Denmark inspires other countries to increase the quality of life for their citizens. We are exceptionally good at decoupling wealth and well-being and, after our basic needs are met, we realise that more money is not conducive to more happiness – so we focus on other things that increase our quality of life instead. In other words, it is the small things that really matter. These include spending more quality time with friends and family, and enjoying the good things in life.”
On observations around happiness during the pandemic:
“It’s the small things that can help us find happiness when times get tough, and we found that there has been renewed interest in the Scandinavian concept of hygge during the pandemic. Hygge has been referred to as the perfect night in – it’s during this phase that we must spend an increased amount of time indoors, that practising hygge can help make the best of the conditions that we are living in.
It’s a very culturally significant concept to Danes, who have long used hygge as a survival strategy for winter, when it gets really dark and cold and gloomy here in Denmark. With the pandemic still presenting challenges, hygge has been – and continues to be – one of the ways that we seek comfort. And for happiness purposes, we hope that it continues to play a role in people’s lives because it really is very relevant.”
On the debate around money buying happiness:
“There is an understanding that wealthier countries tend to rank higher in happiness. However, when we bring that down from a GDP per capita to GDP per person perspective, this isn’t necessarily the case. Look at the Easterlin Paradox, for example, which explored what happened to the happiness of a country’s citizens as the GDP per person increased. The two did not always go hand in hand, and it was therefore evident that correlation did not imply causation.
When we go back to GDP per capita, yes, some of the wealthiest countries are some of the happiest countries, but the wealthiest country is not necessarily the happiest. The likes of Finland and Denmark boast strong economies and have ranked high in recent years, but they certainly aren’t the wealthiest. Similarly, larger economies such as China and America simply don’t rank as high. Money is interesting to explore from a happiness perspective and, up to a certain point, it’s very relevant – but there is a threshold.”
On the happiness hacks that she swears by:
“With happiness, I think it’s important to always take a few steps back – you can sometimes get very focused on one of the six factors that make countries happy. For example, if you live in a country that’s ridden with corruption, you may question your ability to be happy. But it’s really about taking a step back and realising that there are other factors, perhaps shifting focus to the high levels of generosity instead.
Failing in one factor doesn’t necessarily mean failing in all six factors, right? Each carries a good amount of weight. Another happiness hack that I swear by is communication, especially after the pandemic. While relationships are at the core of our being and our happiness, a lot of us are reviewing and re-evaluating what these relationships are and how happy they make us.”