Is A Happier Society Possible?

Is A Happier Society Possible?

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If we do want a happier society, the first thing we have to do is to reassert the Enlightenment ideal – to agree that happiness is the objective for our society. But that has to translate into individual behaviour, which means that everybody has to make that their personal objective in life. In other words if we ask the question “how should we live?” the answer is: we should each aim to produce the most happiness we can in the world around us, and the least misery.

But then of course there is the question of how we do that, in our own lives and through the kinds of policies and institutions that we advocate.

Causes

That depends on what determines happiness. The central aim of social science should be to determine the conditions that produce happiness and how these conditions can be generated. But we do already know a good deal, as a result of the huge burgeoning of ‘happiness studies’ in the last 30 years. So let’s review some of what we know and what follows from it:

Income

We will begin with income, because we suppose the dominant idea in post-war culture has been that if we could all become richer, that would be the best measure of progress. And it is certainly true that in every single society that has ever been studied, richer people are happier than poorer people. It is also always found that extra income does more for a poor person than for a rich person, and the impact of extra income is roughly inversely proportional to the income the person already has. So if you focus on income you would want to increase average income and to reduce the inequality. That would just about sum it up.

But the shocking finding is that over time in rich societies like ours, the huge increase in average income since the 1950s has not been accompanied with any increase in average happiness – not even in the golden age up to the 1970s when inequality was actually falling. We know the reason for this: what people in rich countries care about is not their absolute income but their income relative to other people. Although some economists deny this, their results depend heavily on evidence from poor and middle-income countries.

In more advanced countries, we have abundant evidence that relative income is what people care about. And it is of course impossible to raise the average level of relative income. If one person goes up, someone else has to go down. It is a zero-sum game. So, at the level of society, raising average income is a fruitless goal. It will happen anyway but we should not sacrifice to that goal other things that really could produce a happier society.

Relationships

Those things are all to do with the quality of our human relationships – in the community, in the family, and at work. In our external world the most important single factor affecting our happiness is whether we feel other people are on our side.

We are suffering from a philosophy of excessive individualism, in which many people are encouraged to believe that their proper goal in life is to do the best they can for themselves rather than contribute to the lives of others. This is quite the wrong message to send to our children.

But none of this is inevitable because, as we have said, some societies are much more trusting than others. As Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett have shown, the trusting societies are also more equal, and our societies in Britain and the U.S. have become less equal. We do not think that more inequality is causing lower trust or vice versa. We think that both are reflecting the growth of individualism.

Altruism

But can we reverse this? The first point is that social trends can be reversed. Britain in the 18th century was increasingly anarchic and licentious but this trend was sharply reversed in the early 19th century, which ushered in an era of much more social responsibility.

We also know that there are important elements in our nature which we can build on to produce a more altruistic society. Clearly we have a dual nature. On the one side is the strongly egotistic nature based on the struggle for survival and to be the alpha male or female. On the other side there is the biological basis of altruism.

Here are two interesting experiments. The first is about empathy. Two friends (A and B) are put in a laboratory and Person A’s brain is wired up. First he is given an electric shock on his hand and then his friend is given the same shock. In each case, person A’s brain is activated in the same brain area. Fellow-feeling is a real feeling based on identification with the friend.

The second experiment is about good and bad behaviour. People play a game which tests if they are trustworthy by whether they share their money with another person. When a person behaves well, his brain is activated in exactly the same place as when he receives some other reward like chocolate.

This is a crucial experiment for the theory of morals. For it shows that virtue can be its own reward. As they say, if you want to feel good, do good. That of course was the basis of Aristotle’s theory of good behaviour – that good behaviour has to be learned as a habit and then the virtuous person will experience pleasure when he behaves virtuously (not always of course, but generally so). In our view that should be the foundation of moral education rather than the dreadful Kantian doctrine that you cannot do your duty from habit. The revival of altruism in the 21st century cannot be based on the hair shirt, but it can be based on a warm-hearted understanding of human psychology.

Work

Obviously it is important to have work if you want it. But the quality of work is also crucial. One of the most depressing things is this: that when people make a diary of the previous day, recording how happy they were in each episode, they were least happy when spending time with their boss. What a dreadful situation.

We know from psychology that the three main factors which make for satisfying work are:

Mastery. Doing work which is challenging but which you can manage successfully.

Control. Having enough discretion in how you do the job.

Purpose. The feeling that what you do is worthwhile and part of some wider whole.

So the time is ready for radical cultural change, away from a culture of selfishness and materialism, which fails to satisfy, towards one where we care more for each other’s happiness – and make that the guiding raison d’être for our lives.

Refresh Your Mind For 10 Minutes A Day, Simply By Being Mindful

Refresh Your Mind For 10 Minutes A Day, Simply By Being Mindful

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When is the last time you did absolutely nothing for 10 whole minutes? Not texting, talking or even thinking? Mindfulness expert Andy Puddicombe describes the transformative power of doing just that: Refreshing your mind for 10 minutes a day, simply by being mindful and experiencing the present moment. (No need for incense or sitting in uncomfortable positions.)

“Well, whatever it is, meditation offers the opportunity, the potential to step back and to get a different perspective, to see that things aren’t always as they appear. We can’t change every little thing that happens to us in life, but we can change the way that we experience it. That’s the potential of meditation, of mindfulness. You don’t have to burn any incense, and you definitely don’t have to sit on the floor. All you need to do is to take 10 minutes out a day to step back, to familiarize yourself with the present moment so that you get to experience a greater sense of focus, calm and clarity in your life”.

Andy Puddicombe (born 23 September 1972) is the founder of Headspace, a digital health platform that provides guided meditation training for its users. He is a former Buddhist monk with a degree in Circus Arts.

10 Ways That Chocolate Can Benefit Your Health

10 Ways That Chocolate Can Benefit Your Health

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Before you reach for that Snickers, remember this: While chocolate can do the body good, the study certainly doesn’t go as far as proving a causal link between eating more chocolate and losing weight. Keep in mind that all chocolate was not created equal: Dark chocolate packs more of a health punch overall, but even the bittersweet varieties can be high in calories, fat and sugar.

However, treating yourself to a small amount of chocolate regularly is definitely a health message we can get behind.

  1. It Reduces Stroke Risk

A 2011 Swedish study found that women who ate more than 45 grams of chocolate a week had a 20 percent lower risk of stroke than women who treated themselves to fewer than 9 grams of the sweet stuff.

  1. It Boosts Heart Health

Regular chocolate eaters welcome a host of benefits for their hearts, including lower blood pressure, lower “bad” LDL cholesterol and a lower risk of heart disease. One of the reasons dark chocolate is especially heart-healthy is its inflammation-fighting properties, which reduce cardiovascular risk.

  1. It Fills You Up

Because it’s rich in fiber, dark chocolate can actually help keep you full, so you’ll eat less, Dr. David Katz, founding director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center told The Huffington Post. Regular chocolate eaters might do themselves a favor by treating themselves to a bite instead of snacking on “11 other things first” he said. Dark chocolate does the trick much better than milk, according to a small study from the University of Copenhagen, and may even reduce cravings for sweet, salty and fatty foods.

  1. It May Fight Diabetes

A small Italian study from 2005 found that regularly eating chocolate increases insulin sensitivity, thereby reducing risk for diabetes.

  1. It Protects Your Skin

Forget what you’ve heard about chocolate causing breakouts: Dark chocolate is actually good for your skin. The type of antioxidants called flavonoids found in dark chocolate offer some protection from UV damage from the sun. And no, that does not mean you can skip the sunscreen!

  1. It Can Quiet Coughs

Can’t stop coughing? An ingredient in chocolate called theobromine seems to reduce activity of the vagus nerve, the part of the brain that triggers hard-to-shake coughs. In late 2010, the BBC reported that scientists were investigating creating a drug containing theobromine to preplace cough syrups containing codeine, which can have risky side effects.

  1. It Boosts Your Mood

There’s no denying that indulging your sweet tooth every once in a while feels great. Enjoying food is part of enjoying life, points Dr. Patricia Fitzgerald. Chocolate eaters also report feeling less stressed.

  1. It Improves Blood Flow

Cocoa has anti-clotting, blood-thinning properties that work in a similar way to aspirin, Dr. Fitzgerald writes, which can improve blood flow and circulation.

  1. It Improves Vision

Because of chocolate’s ability to improve blood flow, in particular to the brain, researchers at the University of Reading hypothesized in a small 2011 study that chocolate may also increase blood flow to the retina, thereby giving vision a boost.

  1. It May Make You Smarter

That boost of blood flow to the brain created by cocoa’s flavanols seems to make people feel more awake and alert, and, in a small British study, perform better on counting tasks.

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