x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

True happiness is all in the mind

While the concept of happiness can seem difficult to define, it does seem that the UAE has done a good job of creating a happy society, at least according to a major annual study.

What is happiness and how do we become happy?

This is the type of question, seemingly impossible to answer, that has engaged thinkers from at least the time of Aristotle, the Ancient Greek philosopher who lived in a period when the distinction was being made between the pleasure of the moment and long-term satisfaction.

While the concept of happiness can seem difficult to define, it does seem that the UAE has done a good job of creating a happy society, at least according to a major annual study. The World Happiness Index, commissioned by the United Nations, last year ranked the country as the 14th-happiest in the world, up three places from the year before and the highest position of any Arab country.

In times past, such surveys might have been given short shrift by policymakers and the public. But in recent decades, new insights from economics, psychology and neuroscience have given greater credibility to the science of happiness.

Today, researchers can use sophisticated imaging techniques to pinpoint these feelings of pleasure and desire in the brain.

And large-scale, robust surveys by happiness economists are identifying what makes us happy.

“Neuroscience has a lot of potential to shed interesting light on some of the biological processes behind happiness,” said Aleksandr Kogan, a psychology lecturer at Cambridge University in England.

While Dr Kogan describes the results of the work so far as “promising but preliminary”, it has already yielded many fascinating results.

Neuroscientists Morten Kringelbach, of Oxford University and Denmark’s Aarhus University, and Kent Berridge, of the University of Michigan, have written that the mechanisms for “fundamental” pleasures, such as those derived from food, have brain mechanisms that overlap with those for “higher-order” pleasures, such as those coming from music or art.

The brain contains numerous “hedonic hot spots”, each measuring about a cubic centimetre, linked to pleasurable sensations such as tasting something sweet. They are scattered through the brain but act as an integrated whole.

“There are some parts of the brain that are linked to things like reward and positive emotions,” said Dr Kogan. “But like most complex processes, a lot of the brain is involved.

“There are many, many areas of the brain that appear to be linked to happiness.”

Neuroimaging techniques, which can show the parts of the brain that are active when experiencing pleasurable sensations such as eating chocolate, have also highlighted the role of the “hedonic cortex”, which involves several regions of the brain, according to Kringelbach and Berridge.

After a person has eaten a certain type of food to excess, and the pleasure from consuming it has dwindled, stimulation of the cortex falls away. Negative emotions such as envy, can also be localised.

While there remain many unanswered questions, particularly when it comes to higher-order pleasures, many of the factors that cause us to be happy – or which, surprisingly, do not contribute to happiness – have already been identified by economists and psychologists. A key finding has been that while developed societies have become many times richer in real terms over the past half century, people don’t seem to be getting much happier. Or so they tell happiness researchers, at least.

“It may be people have an innate sense that although we’re getting richer than our grandparents, we’re not getting far happier,” said Professor Andrew Oswald, from Warwick University in England, regarded as one of the founders of happiness economics. “Perhaps we need to understand that apparent puzzle.

“That would help explain why the systematic study [of happiness] has taken off: governments do recognise that there’s a lot of discontent even among rich countries.”

Part of the problem, it seems, is keeping up with the Joneses. If everyone has a new TV, yours doesn’t seem quite so shiny – that is, so long as basic standards are met. If everyone is cold and hungry, no one is happy. So if everyone is getting richer, our expectations increase and a higher standard of living does not bring the benefits that might be expected. There is, as Prof Oswald puts it, a “neutralisation effect”.

This could also be why expatriates in the UAE tend to be happier than the average, something indicated by the UN study.

As Prof Oswald explains, when people move to another country, at first they still use the standard of living of their home country when considering how well off they are.

In the UAE, with its absence of income taxes and sometimes higher salaries, expatriates often enjoy a better standard of living than back home. So they perceive themselves to be well off and are therefore happy. But this does not last for ever.

“You compare to the old comparison group, [yet] that wears off and you compare yourselves to your neighbours,” he said. He also notes that workers in the UAE are making an investment in their future, something that can also promote long-term happiness.

Aside from material considerations, which appear to have only a fleeting impact on happiness, several other factors are important. In countries that are democratic, peaceful and open to trade, reports of happiness tend to be higher. Clean air also contributes, an effect observed even without individuals being aware of the air quality.

Studies have also suggested that marriage, a strong family life and a large circle of friends promote happiness, as does a diet rich in fruit and vegetables.

Importantly, these effects do not wear off in the same way as the benefits of wealth. So, suggests Prof Oswald, we should look beyond material things to find happiness.

“It’s difficult for people to give up their BMW because they believe it makes them happier,” he said. “It doesn’t.”

newsdesk@thenational.ae