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Why bother to improve happiness?

Over the last 40 years or so, every wealthy country on the face of the planet has seen a remarkable increase in depression - a condition that is now up to 10 times more pervasive than it was in the 1960s, depending on whose research you look at. And it is affecting people at younger and younger ages.

Clinically depressed teenagers are no longer a rarity. An epidemic of depression is blighting the lives of our young people at a time when, in theory at least, they never had it so good in terms of money in their pockets, easier access to education right though to university, a glittering array of gadgets and entertainment devices - iPods, PCs, DVDs, X-boxes etc. Depression is also debilitating many middle-aged people, preventing them from doing their job properly - or even from holding down a job at all.

It turns out that our forefathers were right - money and material possessions are not as important to happiness as we often think. Yet policy-makers tend to focus on increasing our spending power, on the assumption that with more in our pockets and a wider range of choice to spend it on, we'll feel happy and prosperous. Prosperity is important to us, but once we have enough money to cater for our basic needs, money isn't on its own enough to create a sense of well-being in individuals or societies.

If we want to reduce the high levels of ill-health, crime and poverty that plague many of our communities; if we want to see our children blossom and develop into fully-rounded adults; then spreading a little more happiness is a surprisingly effective - and inexpensive - way of achieving our goal.

Happiness is worth bothering about because:

Happy people are healthier people 

A nine-year Dutch study into the elderly found that those who were happy, optimistic or generally satisfied with life had around 50% less risk of dying over the period of the study than those who were unhappy or pessimistic. Other research has found that people who are happy and contented seem to be at less risk from conditions like hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, colds and upper respiratory infections. When they receive a flu vaccine, people who are rated as very happy by psychologists develop around 50% more antibodies than the average. The other side of the coin is that depression can exacerbate the impact of a wide range of illnesses.

Happy people cope better with illness

A positive outlook seems to reduce the perception of pain among people who are ill. Laura Kubzansky of Harvard University tracked the health of 1300 men for a decade and discovered that those who believed themselves to be optimistic had 50% less heart disease than those who didn't. Note that they didn't actually have to be optimistic, they only had to believe themselves to be optimistic to gain the benefits.

Research by Robert Emmons of the University of California found that people who write down every day all the things for which they were grateful, are not only happier than others, but are also more likely to take exercise, get regular health checks and are more energetic, enthusiastic, and alert. 

Happy people live longer

A study of 180 nuns demonstrated that those who started out in their vocation with an optimistic outlook generally lived longer than their more pessimistic sisters. A large-scale research project which tracked the lives of more than 2000 Mexicans, aged over 65 and living and working in the USA, found that those who had a positive outlook on life were half as likely to die and half as likely to become disabled.

Happy workers are productive workers 

Since 1998 the pollsters at Gallup have surveyed the happiness levels of the US workforce. In September 2004 only 29% of staff said that they felt engaged with their work, while a whopping 55% were not engaged. The remaining 16% considered themselves to be 'actively disengaged.'In analysing their research, Gallup argues that many employers fail to understand that while pay and benefits are important to their staff, they are not the clinching factors in whether people are happy at work.

What people want is a supportive boss and strong friendships among their colleagues. If an employee can answer 'yes' to the statement 'I have a best friend at work' then they are likely to be engaged with their job, have a strong sense of belonging and be more productive.

Thomas Wright, professor of organisational behaviour at the University of Nevada, reckons that employee happiness accounts for as much as 10% to 15% of the variance in performance between different workers. In a 40-hour week, that could mean up to three-quarters of an hour's lost productivity per day. Managers who don't attend to the happiness of their staff are unlikely to be getting the best out of them. 

Happy people are much more positive 

A positive frame of mind makes us much more creative, generous, and constructive. We seek what is right in a topic, not what is wrong. Thinking 'out of the box' is much easier when we're positive, because we see more opportunities and potential. When we feel negative we search for problems, reasons for not doing things, for not hiring a particular individual, for not pursuing up a new opportunity. 

Happy people are more persistent in attempting to solve problems

They give in less often, they work away at complicated tasks for longer than people who are unhappy.

Happy people are more altruistic than unhappy people

They have more empathy with those in need and are more generous when it comes to donating time and money to charities. Happy people are less focused on themselves, they are keen to share their good fortune with others.

Happy children outperform unhappy children on almost every measure

They have more persistence, they are better at problem-solving and exploration, they are more independent than their peers, they approach life with more enthusiasm. Happy children find it easier to build relationships and friendships, they have more casual friends and more close friends than their less happy peers.

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