Last March, just in time for International Day of Happiness (March 20), the United Nations released the 2019 World Happiness Report, which is an annual survey that ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be. This year’s World Happiness Report focuses on happiness and the community, investigating how happiness has evolved over the past dozen years, with a focus on what drives that evolution, such as technology, social norms, conflicts and government policies (you can access the report here:https://worldhappiness.report/)
In glancing at the report’s findings, it doesn’t really surprise me to learn that the top five happiest countries are Nordic (Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and the Netherlands, in that order), or that the United States has been slipping in happiness in the last three years. This year, we are number 19, while last year we were 18; in 2017, we were 14. In fact, we have declined in our happiness level every year since the report began in 2012. This is despite the fact that prosperity in the US is on the rise, and violent crime is in decline—two factors that logic says should help increase national happiness.
Lots of people have speculated about the causes of our declining happiness. Some researchers pin the blame on declines in social capital and social support. Others believe it’s due to the changes in how we spend our leisure time, noting the rise in use of digital media and the decline of face-to-face interactions. The report’s co-author, economist Jeffrey Sachs, suggests that it’s the prevalence of addictions in American society — including gambling, social media use, video gaming, shopping, consuming unhealthy foods, exercising, and engaging in extreme sports or risky sexual behaviors —that might be fueling our decreasing happiness.
The societal reasons for our declining national happiness may seem overwhelming obstacles, but there are certainly things we as individuals can do to increase our own happiness, the happiness of our families, and, in turn, the happiness and well-being of our communities. The Gallup folks who conducted the happiness surveys didn’t contact me for my opinion, but I would have told them that, generally, I’m a happy person, despite the ups and downs that life offers. This hasn’t always been the case, however. I don’t think I’m a person with a naturally high happiness set-point; rather, I’ve found that there are deliberate actions I can take on a regular basis to increase my overall happiness and well-being. In no particular order, I share them here with you:
- Get outside. I notice that my happiness and well-being increase in direct proportion to the time I spend outside in nature. The Japanese even have a word for the practice of going outside for health benefits: shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing.”
- Pray. One of my goals for my sabbatical was to develop a regular prayer practice, which I did. I notice that I am not as centered or grounded on the days that I allow my practice to slip.
- Practice Gratitude. I have a practice of nightly journaling, and the way I conclude my entry for the day is to name the things I’m especially grateful for. In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.
- Do Something for Others. I’m blessed that my vocation puts me in a place to serve others, both those that I know and those I don’t. There’s lots of research out there showing that giving of ourselves boosts our own happiness, while making our communities better places to live.
- Pet the Cat. This is another research-driven activity; studies show that pet owners experience greater health and happiness than those without pets. I love having a cat, and I think she likes me back.
- Limit Screen Time. There’s some research that suggests that adults spend up to 11 hours a day interacting with media, and that the more screen time teens have, the less happy they are. It’s really easy for me to zone out in front of YouTube in the evening, but I’m happier if I don’t.
- Ditch Social Media. I took a social media sabbatical along with my church sabbatical last fall. After I got over the mindless impulse to constantly check Facebook, I found that I really didn’t miss it. Once I returned from sabbatical, I found that I didn’t feel the need to check in every day. Although I do miss connecting with my far-away friends, I think I’m happier for not being constantly engaged online.
- Develop Community. My happiness increased immeasurably in my thirties when I reconnected with my faith and joined a church, and I can’t imagine not being part of a faith community. Being connected to a group that is working toward the greater good deepens my faith and sustains my hope.
- Cultivate Casual Friendships. Casual friendships are the folks you connect with regularly but don’t have a close relationship with—the barista at the coffee shop, the folks in your exercise class, the people at the dog park, the parents in the school drop-off line. You see them every week, but don’t know them well. A recent study shows that cultivating these relationships—learning names, saying hello, sharing brief conversations—increases happiness and a sense of belonging in the community—and it makes the world a kinder, friendlier place.
- Make Stuff. I don’t feel right unless I’m making something with my hands—whether it’s a project on the knitting needles, a felted art piece, or a great new recipe. One of my goals this year is to make more time for making more art.
What makes you happier? If you try one of these ideas, or have another one to share, let me know! I hope that by sharing these practices and cultivating our happiness here in our community, we can start reversing the trend of our nation’s declining happiness.