Professor Gilbert is a brave soul. After years of listening to his mother’s advice about how to be happy, he conducted an experiment that proved her “partially” wrong.
Apparently Mrs Gilbert was always banging on about how money, marriage and kids were the secret to a happy life.
But Professor Gilbert, now a father and grandfather, had quite enough of that kind of talk.
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Does money buy happiness? Until very recently, the surprising consensus among economists was that no, it does not. At least, not beyond a certain level needed to secure the most basic needs of food, shelter and care.
Beyond that, as countries get richer they don’t necessarily get happier, the theory goes, because happiness is a relative concept. It’s not the amount of money you have that makes you happy, but whether you have more money relative to other people.
You only get happier if you beat the Jones’s, or at the very least keep up with them. Happiness, on this account, is a zero sums game - with gains for one person only coming at the expense of another. The idea dates back to a seminal paper published in 1974 by a US economist, Richard Easterlin, titled “Does Economic Growth Improve the Human Lot?”
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We all need to learn to be happy for other people’s success. That’s what they say. And it doesn’t sound too hard.
I, for one, considered myself quite accomplished at taking pleasure in other people’s achievements. I had the facial expressions and the requisite turns of phrase down pat. Then someone pretty close got something I really wanted. Within a second I realised I knew nothing about being happy for others people’s success.
Being happy that your colleague was able to go to their family reunion in Azerbaijan with four generations in attendance. Being happy for your best friend because the actuary she’s been dating for 10 years has finally proposed to her. Being happy for your cousin because he has been awarded a lucrative grant to study sea cucumbers in the Sea of China. This is not really being happy for someone else’s success. It is merely demonstrating that you’re not a pathological misanthrope.
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Remember when ‘happy’ was just something you were? Or weren’t. Good days, bad days, happy days, sad days – all jumbled in a life you lived rather than thought about too much.
Today happiness is a commodity; a ‘goal’, a ‘revolution’, a ‘project’. It’s what we want for ourselves and our children. “Yes, please,” we’d say to the doctor if she could vaccinate against sadness, along with the usual measles and mumps. Anything to immunise ourselves against pain and unease.
I write this because I’ve had an awful week – made somewhat worse by the book I’m reading (for work, not pleasure) called The Happiness Project. Ironically, as my world filled with woes, I read chapter after chapter about one woman’s attempt to “lighten up”, “be serious about play” and “keep a contented heart”. “I am happy,” writes Gretchen Rubin in her mega-selling memoir, “but I’m not as happy as I should be.”
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Part of knowing yourself means working out the things, or perhaps the thing, you are good at. This isn’t always simple and it may require a very open mind. Knowing yourself also entails working out the things you are not good at. This is generally a lot easier. In fact, if you’re having any trouble with this bit it’s time to tell your mum you’re moving out.
One of my strengths is identifying the negative side to any person, place, animal or thing. I am like a falcon; where others see a sea of golden wheat, I will see the rat. No field is too wide or densely planted.
Not only can I zero in on the negative like a raptor, I use what I find sustainably: maximising the mileage I get from each negative detail and regularly reusing information.
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If nothing else, the upcoming budget week shows us the priorities of the government. We all know by now that this government is increasingly laying its political fortunes at the feet of a budget surplus and hoping that this will continue to drive down interest rates. It is one way that are attempting to deal with the feeling that the cost of living is continuing to rise.
There are rarely any major surprises on budget night: sure, the occasional announcement captures us off guard but after weeks of leaks and warnings about ‘tough decisions’, we all know what to expect. Then the sales job begins and we continue on our merry way.
The problem is, however, that a treasurer will never look us in the eye and tell us unpleasant truths. Sure, we are told that it is time we tighten out belts, but never will one admit to the limitations of both their projections or the very flawed models they are working with.
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In the movie Into the Wild, screened on SBS this weekend, 23 year old Christopher McCandless abandons his possessions, burns his birth certificate, gives his life savings to charity and hitchhikes his way to Alaska.
It’s a bold and somewhat romantic journey of self-discovery about fighting the inner demon, across a variety of incredibly picturesque parts of rural America. A kind of idyllic and over-blown version of what many people experience as they come of age in their twenties. Except that in this version, the journey of self-discovery ends in tragedy.
After three years on the road, and several encounters with people from all walks of life, McCandless dies starving, alone and trapped in the wilderness, having just realised that the secret to real happiness is a life that’s shared with others.
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No matter where you are right now, if you listen really hard, you can probably hear Gotye and Kimbra’s song Somebody That I Used To Know. Hell, you’ve probably been humming it all day. It’s as ubiquitous as the waft of cherry blossoms and has racked up 140,000 sales (double platinum!), 6 million views on YouTube and a legion of international twitter fans via Ashton Kutcher, Katy Perry and others with actual music taste.
It’s a very sad song making a lot of people very happy. So why has Gotye and Kimbra’s paean to pain resonated with music fans all over the world? It’s a tricky question but one I can answer for you, curious reader.
Partly, it’s about empowerment. A tight arrangement, catchy verses and soaring chorus can make you forget all about that person what dun you wrawwwng. But mostly it’s not about that at all. Mostly it’s about recognising – almost subliminally – that a sad song has more truth in it than a happy song.
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Oprah Winfrey (depending on which figures you believe) has anywhere between 25 and 45 million people tuning in every week to watch her uplifting combination of positive thinking and self-acceptance.
This “Oprah Movement” love Oprah and they hang on her every word – if Oprah says Australia is a nice place then somewhere between 25 and 45 million people are going to believe it.
That is why Julia is so keen to be on the show and give Oprah a warm Prime Ministerial hug.
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As we tumble towards the festive season, on the back of an interest rate hike, with a bleak Christmas predicted for both retailers and consumers, once again I find myself sinking into a Santa-induced depression.
I truly hate this time of year.
And once again I find myself seeking temporary relief from my woes in the pages of the self-help books hidden under my bed.
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(Update, Thursday): Ricky Ponting is at it again. The Australian captain is master of understating the negatives in a losing performance whilst always finding something good to say about his team. And today, here’s a headline from the Times of India - and OK, it is just a summary headline, but it encapsulates Ponting’s piercing analytical style.
For all his success as a batsman and captain the loss against India has seen the Aussies slide to an unconscionable fifth in the world rankings. Ponting’s leadership was publicly questioned during the game when Shane Warne tweeted: “How the hell can hauritz bowl to this field ?? Feeling for hauritz , terrible !! What are these tactics ? Sorry Ricky but what are you doing”. It’s not often this happens, but Warney was probably speaking for the whole country.
There’s more from Ponting here at Fox Sports. To be fair the skipper did say last night that the Australians have “got to be harsh on ourselves”. Though his preceding sentence was: “If I had’ve made 200 in the first innings, the result might have been different.” No kidding. The original column follows below.
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On the eve of his appearance at Sydney’s World Happiness Conference last week, Edward de Bono was asked what type of people he thought would attend the annual two-day series.
“I don’t know,” he replied. ‘‘I do know, however, that people are becoming more interested in happiness. Happiness as an industry is becoming more visible.”
A kind of warming observation on the surface, but dig a little deeper and I think you’ll also find that our “pursuit of happiness’ is beginning to resemble more of a crazed quest. But it won’t get us anywhere until we accept that feelings of sadness, bewilderment and loss are also a completely normal part of the full experience of life.
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Does your new model six-cylinder car make you happier? What about that new in-home cinema, complete with HD-TV, surround sound, and reclining couches? You think so. How about the holiday you recently took with the family?
Unfortunately, as humans we are not that good at predicting, understanding, or acting in a way that makes us happy. This lack of knowledge is even more pronounced when it comes to the relationship between what we buy and how happy it makes us.
Have you even considered how happy various purchases you’ve made have actually made you?
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Is it just me or is happiness starting to get unnecessarily complicated?
It feels like every time you turn around someone else has written a book that offers the key to what seems like one of the most confusing and elusive experiences since the dawn of time - being happy.
So what does anyone stand to gain from French President Nicholas Sarkozy’s proposal to bring the happiness phenomenon to public policy making?
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Last week we held a public event we call Sydney Conversations – a series of talks we host where, with the aid of a panel of speakers, we get to look closely at a topic that’s making the news, and get the news behind the news, so to speak.
Our Conversation was around the topic ‘How much is enough?’. The idea was to look at the link between money and happiness, or money and unhappiness as the case may be.
The Happiness Institute’s Tim Sharp talked about the sources of happiness: he said that having meaningful and purposeful pursuits is the path to happiness, coupled with the quality relationships we have in our lives. That happiness had nothing whatsoever to do with money.
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