A Research Paper By Luis Chang, Executive Coach, UNITED STATES
Almost a couple of decades ago, in a brief encounter with my friend Jorge Yamamoto, a distinguished social psychologist from the Catholic University of Peru in Lima, he related to me he was immersed in international research on happiness involving his university in association with an English university. They were analyzing what made people happy in different countries. It is then I started to feel curious and intrigued about what were the sources of happiness.
This paper aims to discuss some insights that experts have found in their studies and research on happiness which might be useful to coaches in helping their clients address situations of unhappiness, disillusionment, or the like.
In Pursuit of Happiness: What We Commonly Seek Does Not Bring Happiness
In his book “La Gran Estafa de la Felicidad” – “The Happiness Great Scam”, Jorge Yamamoto includes the findings of the research and studies he has undertaken over more than a decade. Although it would be sensible to think that people in rich countries are the happiest, what is it, questions Jorge, that those nations have higher rates of suicide, anxiety, and depression than those of middle-income countries. The research he was involved in, that covered diverse countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, found out that happiness was present in communities in poor countries whose contexts were quite different from the widely spread individualism that characterized rich countries.
Happiness experts state that the pursuit of happiness is an old one and dates back to ancient times. However, for Yamamoto, happiness as the supreme goal of life is quite a recent idea in history and is not found in all cultures. It is instead a cultural movement that started in the United States with the idea of the great American dream and has been widely amplified by the huge marketing apparatus and communications media. However, evidence showed that many people and societies that dedicated their lives or generations to pursue that dream ended up in unhappiness. The scam argues Yamamoto, is to make believe that material possessions and social status bring happiness. And the great scam is to make believe that the supreme goal of life and society is the pursuit of happiness.
Tal Ben-Shahar, a renowned psychologist who teaches happiness at Harvard University and holds the record of the course with the largest number of enrolled students in history (1400 in a semester), also argues that success, wealth, or fame do not bring happiness. Many successful, wealthy, and highly accomplished individuals are not happy. While they may reach significant milestones and success, or earn more money, they will experience temporary increases in their wellbeing, but those increases in happiness are not permanent.
The Utmost Importance of Relationships
So, what brings happiness? The single most overwhelming and clearest finding in studies of happiness is that personal relationships are very important in the lives of happy people. Jorge Yamamoto found that many communities in Latin America were significantly happier than the rest of the world. What sets them apart is the great importance that relationships with family members and friends are placed in daily life throughout the lifetime in Latin American culture, unlike the first world’s culture steered by the ideal of an individualistic life by which an individual is expected to solve their problems and live autonomously. Moreover, Yamamoto explains that our brains are wired to reach out to others, a trait that dates back to ancient times when men and women lived in tribes or communities to survive, and that is part of human nature.
In the multi-nation study Yamamoto contributed to, he found that, despite the wide difference in culture, context, and geographical locations of the many communities researched, the satisfaction of two single distinct needs predicted the highest levels of happiness in all of them: to form a family and to live in a nice place. Both are at the heart of the concept of tribe, the ancestral environment where men and women evolved and developed. And they also reveal how interpersonal relationships play a major role in attaining wellbeing.
Citing Martin Seligman, Tal Ben-Shahar explains that what differentiates happy people is their solid, intimate relationships, be they romantic, family or friend oriented. Those relationships are not necessarily perfect but help individuals to be better persons, reach success or be happy.
One of the strongest pieces of evidence about the immense value of personal relationships is provided by the Harvard Study of Adult Development, “possibly the longest study of adult life ever done” led by Robert Waldinger, a Harvard psychiatrist, and Zen priest. Waldinger’s team and his predecessors tracked the lives of 724 men for 75 years. According to him, about 60 of the original 724 men are still alive, and Waldinger and his team are studying the more than 2,000 baby boomer children of these men. Writes Waldinger, “From this study, one important lesson about what makes for the good life emerges time and time again. Simply put, good relationships keep us happy and healthy.” In addition, he found that loneliness kills and is toxic. At any time, one in five Americans will report that they are lonely. It is not the number of friends you have or whether you are in a committed relationship, but it is the quality of the relationship: good warm relationships. The most satisfied in their relationships are the healthiest. Finally, good relationships protect our brains.
Gratefulness and Altruism
According to Tal Ben-Shahar, grateful people are happier, more optimistic, and healthier, with a stronger immune system. He explains that when you give thanks for something, you express “appreciation” for it, and what you “appreciate” increases itself in value. He encourages you to express gratefulness through journaling or spending more time with your loved ones.
Laurie Santos, who teaches the popular course “Psychology and the Good Life” at Yale and whose 2020 online version was followed by over 3.3 million people, explains that we can learn to be happy from the behavior observed in happy people like devoting time to socialize and spend time with the ones who are important to us, thinking about other people, doing good things for others, and being grateful for what we have. Santos recommends writing the things for which we feel grateful as it is a powerful resource, particularly in times of more stress.
Happiness Is Also Acknowledging the Negative and Accepting the Possible
We may think that happy people do not have negative emotions. Instead, negative emotions help us in our search for happiness, says Tal Ben-Shahar. Only psychopaths and the dead do not experience pain, so having painful emotions is a good sign. Being happy does not mean being happy all the time. When we reject negative emotions, they are reinforced. If we, nevertheless, allow them to flow through us, they will most likely go away.
On a similar note, for Laurie Santos, being happy is not about smiling all the time and thinking positively. Instead, acknowledging the obstacles -however negative- is fundamental to be successful and reach our goals.
Laurie Santos recommends not to compare our situation with that of others. We tend to think in relative terms and falsely assume that other people experience many more good things and fewer bad things than we do. That kind of comparison is detrimental to our satisfaction with life. Santos advocates that, instead of focusing on the bad things that happen to us and complaining about them, we would be better off by changing our chip and focus on the good stuff for which we should be grateful.
Moreover, Santos says that we are so worried about changing our circumstances -rather than changing our behavior- that we do not have the time nor willingness to help others who need us, advocating again for the need to be an altruist to be happy.
Jorge Yamamoto outlines an interesting definition of happiness: simply put, “happiness is kindly accepting what we have come to live and, from that point, taking a small step forward; without comparing ourselves with others, understanding how we can be better persons, better family members, and better members of society; adapting to what comes -be they big or small challenges- and discerning what is fundamental”. He explains that happy people have sensible expectations of how they can manage the resources they have at hand to satisfy their needs, without complacency, but are willing to move forward through small steps.
Being Present and Mindfulness
In the modern world, we are increasingly involved in multiple activities that are not allowing us to fully experience and enjoy each one. Consequently, people are not present and not conscious of what they do. Tal Ben-Shahar recommends we build “islands of sanity” by simplifying our lives, doing consciously one thing at a time, practicing meditation and mindfulness, and doing things like spending time with a friend or devoting time to reading.
Building a Meaningful Life
In her TED Talk four years ago, Emily Esfahani Smith, journalist, and author questions our obsession with happiness and asks whether there is more to life than being happy. She advocates that seeking meaning is the more fulfilling path and cites Martin Seligman defining meaning as coming from belonging to and serving something beyond yourself and from developing the best within you. People who have a meaningful life are more resilient, do better at work and school, and live longer. From the studies Emily Esfahani Smith conducted, she found four pillars for a meaningful life:
- It “comes from being in relationships where you are valued for who you are intrinsically and where you value others as well. True belonging springs from love”.
- “The key to purpose is using your strengths to serve others. Without something worthwhile to do, people flounder. Purpose gives you something to live for, some “why” that drives you forward”.
- “Transcendence states are those rare moments when you’re lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, your sense of self fades away, and you feel connected to a higher reality”, and it could happen at church, watching art, or writing if you are a writer, to say a few examples.
- That is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. For Emily Esfahani Smith, this narrative helps us understand how we became us, brings clarity, and is something we can edit and retell. Storytelling is a powerful tool as we can change our story by reflecting on our life thoughtfully and by coming to new insights and wisdom that ultimately help us build a more meaningful life.
Emily Esfahani Smith finishes her talk with a powerful statement: “Happiness comes and goes. But when life is really good and when things are really bad, having meaning gives you something to hold on to”.
Rituals and Good Habits
Most experts, including Yamamoto, Ben-Shahar, and Santos, reckon the great value of some basic habits that contribute to building happiness in our lives. It is not enough to know or understand them, but we need to practice them and turn them into habits or continuous rituals, such as:
- Regular physical exercise. According to Ben-Shahar, physical exercise liberates norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine to the brain, reinforcing our health and increasing our wellbeing. Santos mentions that only a half-hour of cardio a day is as good as an antidepressant.
- Get enough sleep. The lack of sleep negatively affects our ability to fully enjoy what we do. Increasing sleep time helps us prevent mental health symptoms, according to Laurie Santos.
- Meditation and mindfulness. Meditation helps us be more present in our daily activities rather than thinking about concerns not related to the actual moment.
- Set times for meetings with family and friends.
Most of the findings and advice from happiness experts and researchers are very much common sense and are somehow in the teachings preached by the founders of ancient religions and philosophies of life: do good, take care of your loved ones, love thy neighbor, be concerned about and serve others, and work for the common good (your community’s or your society’s). What may have happened is that our modern culture of today that pushes us to increase our material possessions (and keep buying and consuming goods and services) and gain prestige and fame has drifted us away from the real sources of happiness. Those sources are both inside us and around us. And we only need to practice very simple rituals or habits, and never lose sight that our families and friends are indeed our most important and indispensable companions in the never-ending journey to happiness.
In this paper, “happiness” can be defined indistinctively as subjective wellbeing, fulfillment, or satisfaction about life.
Jorge Yamamoto. La gran estafa de la felicidad (Spanish Edition), Grupo Planeta - Perú. Kindle edition.
Jorge Yamamoto, op. cit., Kindle position 2123-2127.
Tal Ben-Shahar, Video “La ciencia de la felicidad” (“The science of happiness”) interviewed by Zuberoa Marcos BBVA Aprendemos Juntos.
Jorge Yamamoto, op. cit.,Kindle position 1007-1021.
Ibíd, position 1097-1116.
Robert Waldinger, Video TED Talk, “What makes a good life? Lessons from the longest study on happiness”
 Happiness Course
Laurie Santos, Video “Ser feliz no consiste en sonreír siempre y pensar en positivo” interviewed by Zuberoa Marcos, BBVA Aprendemos Juntos.
Ignacio Fernández Reyes, Video “Capítulo 6: Jorge Yamamoto en Un Espacio de Encuentro”
 Jorge Yamamoto, op. cit., Kindle positions 1898-1900.
Emily Esfahani Smith, Video TED Talk, “There’s more to life than being happy”