I.3.3 Happiness and Kindness

We need to distinguish the emotion of joy from the lasting concept of happiness and satisfaction. Happiness and satisfaction can be reached through the rollercoaster ride of mixing positive and negative emotions, as long as the overall emotional balance is positive. In classical Western philosophy, happiness is frequently seen as the ultimate goal in life. Happy people are healthier, lead longer lives, have more friends, and in general are more successful in everything they do. But what is happiness? The goal of lovers, philosophers, and everybody else, it is a vague concept that is extremely hard to pin down. Obsessively chasing happiness as the ultimate goal is a recipe for unhappiness. Only if “the way is the goal”, if we live by the right values and find deep meaning in what we do will we also find true long-lasting happiness. 

A second key point is that it is futile to expect everlasting happiness. Along the way on the journey through even the happiest life, there will always be moments of sadness, sorrow, anger, fear, and disgust. Only if there is some pain along the way on the quest for happiness do we really know what happiness means. A life of constant hedonistic happiness becomes dull and boring. Wild drug-fueled sexual escapades only bring short bursts of fleeting happiness, but not lasting satisfaction with life. Success too early and too easily brings unhappiness. For instance, musicians who become famous early in their lives tend to die young. Amy Winehouse died at 27, as did Janis Joplin, Jimmy Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain, Avicii died at 28, Elvis Presley died at 42, and Michael Jackson at age 50, which does not make the prospects of today’s young stars to reach old age too promising. While we expect material wealth, professional success, and fame to bring happiness, the biggest source of happiness is to be with people whom we love and respect. Thus, the safest and lasting way to happiness comes through giving and receiving unquestioning love to and from other people in the philosophical sense of Aristotle, who calls it “philia”. “Philia” is the deep and trusting friendship between two people, who are giving to the other without asking for anything in return, which according to other philosophers refers “primarily to relationships among close blood kin”.  In other words, we should treat the other with kindness.

People reaching a biblical age are happy people. Reaching old age is an ultimate success metric of having led a happy life. In different studies it has been found that happy old people life longer. In her book “Growing Young” Marta Zaraska identifies three key properties of people reaching a high age:

  • Having good friends
  • Being an optimist
  • Being kind

These three criteria for reaching old age are thus also three key prerequisites of happiness. To measure happiness, and the factors causing it, happiness researchers usually collect information about the happiness of their study subjects in surveys of subjective life-satisfaction. These surveys assess an individual’s overall subjective well-being. Researchers ask questions such as “taken overall, how satisfied are you with the life you lead on a scale from 0 (totally dissatisfied) to 10 (totally satisfied)?” The resulting scores are then used to correlated happy and less happy people with other factors that might influence their happiness, such as income or health. In fact, it has been found that there is indeed positive correlation between income and happiness - up to a point: once a person earns slightly more than the average income of their peer group, there is no noticeable increase in happiness anymore. Named after the researcher who first discovered it, this is known as the “Easterlin-Paradox” . In general, there are other criteria besides money that are more reliable predictors of happiness, such as institutional and social trust. This is one of the main reasons why citizens of the Nordic countries Finland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden occupy top positions in the UN World Happiness report  as they trust their government, institutions, and fellow citizens more than anybody else in the world.  Other criteria for happiness are having the feeling of being in control of one’s own destiny. This includes being self-employed  and thus deciding when and how much to work, but also not being stuck in traffic in a lengthy commute. In fact, researchers found that the duration of the daily commute was a reliable predictor of unhappiness  , as was the decision with whom to spend time. This means that being confined to lengthy business meetings – not having self-control – made people unhappy, while being with good friends – as everybody can choose their own friends – leads to some of the happiest moments for a person .

There are some simple recipes for more happiness: 

  • Create something – Researchers have found that creating something new will release the same happiness hormone oxytocin as when we have sex or eat delicious food. What you create depends on your personal skills and preferences. During the lockdown of the Covid-19 pandemic many people started baking bread or cookies leading to shortages of yeast and flour in the stores. If you are artistically talented, you might want to start painting, as did former US President George W. Bush, and Winston Churchill.
  • Connect with others – Being with people we like is the most reliable source of happiness. So, if you are down, reach out to a friend you have not connected for some time. If you are more adventurous, plan an event that brings you in contact with groups of friends. 
  • Crave nature – Nature and trees are never-ending sources of inspiration and happiness. Patients in the hospital recover faster and need less painkiller when their window goes towards a park than when it faces an empty wall. A walk in the park – but not a walk on a busy street – will make students more productive and creative. So, get up and take a walk in the park and enjoy the trees!

Happiness is not just good for the individual, it is also good for the organization. Happy organizations are made up of happy individuals. Positively entangled organizations are happy organizations. Organizational entanglement means creating an organizational culture that deeply cares about all aspects of employee satisfaction. Happy employees are more productive, and lead to happier customers and suppliers. Happy customers buy more products, and will be more loyal in times of adversity, thus increasing profits and resilience of a company. In a study based on surveys of millions of employees of hundreds of multinational companies done by Gallup, the researchers found convincing evidence of a strong correlation between employee satisfaction, productivity and company performance. Employee satisfaction reduced employee turnover significantly, and increased company profitability, employee productivity, and customer loyalty. For the financial industry, the correlation was strongest between employee satisfaction and customer loyalty and employee productivity. In manufacturing, employee satisfaction was most significant for company profitability. 

In their comprehensive meta-study, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Laura King, and Ed Diener analyzed 225 research papers about happiness, showing a clear link between happiness and success in all aspects of life. This means that it is not just that your success makes you happy, but that having a predisposition towards happiness will make you more successful. Happy people are more successful in all aspects of private and professional life such as marriage, friendships, income, work performance, and health. Happy people are also more social, active and energetic. They engage in more, more diverse, and more active pursuits. Among others, Lyubomirsky, King and Diener list the following consequences of happiness. Happy people are

  • more successful professionally, both having higher income, and obtain faster promotion
  • more popular
  • more extrovert
  • live longer
  • healthier, for instance they show increased immunity against viral diseases such as influenza 
  • more prosocial, more charitable, and willing to help
  • more creative
  • more active and energetic
  • have more friends

This last point, about happy people having more friends is crucial. Not only do happy people have more friends to start with – but the rich getting richer – more people want to become their friends, so they will get even more friends. Being with people we like is one of the key prerequisites for happiness. Even better, if the people we like, like us back.


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