The key to happiness: pain, politics and poverty

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What makes Norwegians happy? Photo: Shutterstock
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Long, dark winter nights, the government getting you down, and Christmas bringing an endless cycle of shopping and debt? Well, latest research reveals suffering, bad politicians, and money problems can actually make you happier. The Local meets Professor Joar Vittersø of the Arctic University in Tromsø, who explains why being happy is more about sufferance than smiles.

What made you interested in the study of happiness?

I read some philosophy when studying at university some years ago. I came across the story of Socrates drinking wine, walking around on the squares, discussing with people, and thought this would be a good life. When I was younger, reading about him, I thought I'd like to do the same and discover what makes a happy and meaningful life.

What makes you happy?

Freedom. That I have the possibility to live my life on my own terms. The freedom of not having anyone tell me what to do. Many of the tasks I do every day, I get to do in my own way. This possibility is dependent upon living in a decent society.

Why do you argue challenges in life are important to people's happiness?

There are two main strategies in trying to achieve happiness, exemplified by an expression in Norwegian - "Hvordan du har det og hvordan du tar det" ("How you are doing and how you are coping"). The first strategy, connected to how you are doing, is dependent upon good conditions in the society we live in, such as a good political system of governance. The second strategy is exemplified by how you are coping. This is connected to your personality and what makes you as an individual happy. For example, for some people , sunbathing on the beach makes them happy. Happiness, I argue, is about getting the balance between attaining stability in life and being open to life's changes. Most research has focused on achieving stability in life. "Pleasure” is a term they use to tell us that this stability is present. However, self actualization (understanding and finding ourselves) is just as important a factor for happiness. I think happiness is both about maintaining stability in life and overcoming the challenges that the process of self actualization gives us.

How is politics an important factor for reaching happiness?

Good governance creates a good society and this is a strong factor in our personal happiness. But one of the major problems is that politicians are often in conflict with what we feel would be the best way to run the country. Politicians often seem to ignore research and do what we may consider 'the wrong thing'. Climate change is a good example of this. Research about climate changes take an awful long time for the politicians to accept and react to. They demand more research, but don't accept the results when they are presented. Greater respect for research within politics would lead to a happier society.

What makes Norwegians happy?

Norway has a well-developed welfare system and a work system for people where they are respected for their needs. Norway is very high up on most statistics concerning the 'happiness of the population'. Countries where there is a big difference between rich and poor tend to have unhappy populations, while countries, like Norway, where the difference between rich and poor is small, tend to have a happy population.

What can Norway learn from other cultures about happiness?

Norwegians can do a lot of things in their lives to become more happy. The Danish, for example, enjoy life much more, being for example more indulgent about drink and food. On the other hand, though, Danes seem to have shorter lifespans. The Norwegians have less ability to enjoy the immediate opportunities arriving in life the same way the Danish do. We have so much in Norway, and this makes us appreciate less what we already have. We can learn a lot from the South Americans, who are very satisfied with the little they have. Norway is, by the way, on top of Europe in moaning about our conditions. If we whined less, we would be much more content with life.

How significant is money to happiness?

This is a little complicated. Money is mainly the resource that helps us realize the values we seek in life. Money also has a strong symbolic value. As long as we focus on getting money, and not on the means to get it, we might get a happy life. People who have more money than others, have a tendency to become more egoistic and to care less about other people. This does not create happiness. Studies actually show that when people focus their attention on money they become less able to enjoy their subjective experiences. People dreaming of winning a lot of money in lotteries, believe that the difference between their life before the lottery win and after it will be enormous. But this is not the case. In searching for happiness, money can help in some ways, but not all.

Does the media help or hinder happiness?

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The media is dependent upon advertisements encouraging people to be dissatisfied with what they have. They focus upon creating a large audience of readers. For both these reasons, Norway's media can be especially superficial. When for example this week, the newspaper Bergens Tidende printed their entire front page in black because their local football team, Brann, lost an important match, they prioritize wrongly. This absurd decision reflects a supposed "world view" loses touch with its own reality.

What should a 'happy' media focus more on?

Media should focus on the important aspects of life. Like the fact that politicians and decision-makers are about to ruin our environment and our democracy. Media should keep them accountable, every minute, every day. And the media should not waste their enormous power on creating a world view in which the worst conceivable scenario is a lost football match. Media should also develop a better understanding of social sciences. The knowledge we get from higher education and research should come back to the people to sustain public knowledge, be respected and used by people. Everyone wants a good life for themselves and their families, but they don't respect the facts that tell them how to achieve these goals. Perhaps the language of happiness is too weak for the media? It is a challenge for the media to discuss happiness. When the Norwegian Commission on Human Values had their debates, they were often ridiculed by the mass media.

What is the main message of your new book?

My book, which I am currently writing and will be hopefully out next year, is a criticism against modern-day research on happiness. It is a criticism of happiness only involving stability in life, and also happiness theory not embracing openess to change. The theme of my book is “the science of life satisfaction”.

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