Thriving? Or just surviving?

In this article I want to discuss an interesting book called Thrive by Dan Buettner. The book provides some very unique lessons on how to live a happy life. The book is not about science behind happiness. Instead it derives lessons on happiness based on the anecdotal evidence that is already present in some of the world’s happiest countries. I personally like this approach of studying happiness because happiness is subjective. Only you know if you’re happy with your life. There are so many variables and inputs that control an individual’s happiness that it would be extremely difficult to study happiness in a lab. Looking at some of the happiest populations around the globe and learning from them reminds me of my time I spent with my grandpa. Not just because spending time with my grandpa made me happy but also because his wisdom and teachings about life were completely aligned with what Dan Buettner gathered from the happiest countries in the world.

So what makes us happy? Before we try to answer this question let us first try to understand happiness. Dan Buettner interviewed experts on happiness around the world and this is what he gathered.

Understanding Happiness:

What is happiness? Happiness is a contagious feeling resulting from people thinking positively about their lives and reporting enjoyment, trust, and respect in life and other people. Happiness is an experience of joy, contentment, positive well-being, and satisfaction of a meaningful life. The feeling of optimism about the future and reporting lesser health problems, stress, sadness, and anger. Happiness cannot be measured and only the individual experiencing happiness can know if they’re happy. We all have the potential to be happy in our own way. We all have unique things that make us happy. But there are certain things that we all have in common, that make us happy. For example, no one likes to be hated by everyone around them, that will make anybody unhappy.

50% of our happiness is controlled by our genetics, 10% by life circumstances, and 40% is controlled by how we think and seek out experiences every day. True sources of happiness are in the way we think and experience life, in expressing gratitude, being kind, and compassionate. True happiness comes from living and pursuing your life’s values. Mahatma Gandhi once said, happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.

Can money buy happiness? 

I think we all know the answer to this question. If you’re someone living in poverty, then yes, money can make you happier. But beyond the threshold of poverty, additional money does not improve happiness. Money has the power to make you happy, initially, but not forever. The money you spent on your new car is only going to make you happy until you get bored of that car. So the answer to this question is that money cannot buy happiness but it can definitely make you less sad.

Lessons from the happiest country in the world, Denmark:

Denmark ranks number one in the world when it comes to happiness. Denmark has a very low unemployment rate and a very small gap between the rich and the poor. Danish people are modest and are satisfied with their lives. Even the royalty in Denmark is modest and sensible. Danes value status and economic equality. Consensus is very important to Danes and as a result everyone is heard and has a voice. If you think flaunting your new Mercedes is going to get you looks of awe, then you’re wrong, not in Denmark. In Denmark you are going to get some nasty looks instead. Ambition is frowned upon in Denmark, people don’t take jobs based on pay. Children are taught to be free to try out a job and it is ok to fail at it, as they are protected by a social safety net. This social and economic safety net is built upon by the working population of Denmark which pays some of the highest taxes in the world. The high taxes nudges them away from pursuing material wealth while providing education for the youth and healthcare for the old. The working population does not have to worry about retirement since the necessities for the old are covered and are paid by the next generation. This is that very same next generation that had their tuition covered by these retirees, and this cycle of prosperity continues which is why people are happy to pay high taxes.

Danes are also very trusting and trustworthy people and they trust their government due to lack of corruption amongst public officials. Danes possess a great work ethic, they’re inclined to work hard, independent of financial incentives. They work just enough, 37 hours a week with an average of six weeks of vacation a year. Danes are not workaholics. They believe that working too hard or too long is a waste of time, and their motto is ‘get your job done and pursue other things in life such as hobbies, art, friends and family’. A very high percentage of the Danish people are part of clubs which provides a place for social interaction. More than 30% of Danes volunteer. Cities in Denmark are built to optimize physical activity such as biking and walking. Denmark also has a number of art and folk schools which gives people a chance to get engaged and challenged to learn new skills and talents throughout their lives.

But Denmark did not always top the charts in happiness. Experts believe that things changed in Denmark and people became happier when Denmark gave up the ambition to become a world superpower and started focussing resources inwards i.e. on the people of Denmark. This is reflected in Denmark’s governance and the attitude of the people. Danes do not aspire to accumulate great wealth or achieve world dominance. Danes are not climbing peaks but rather have the satisfaction of sitting at a high plateau.

So I am not surprised at all after looking at Denmark’s social, political, and economic policies as well as the attitude of its citizens towards life, that they are the happiest bunch on this planet. But not everybody can live in Denmark. And we don’t have to live in Denmark to be optimally happy. Rather, we can learn from the people of Denmark and seek out experiences in every day life to create our own happiness, regardless of where you reside. We can adopt Denmark’s attitude towards life, work, family, friends and strangers. We can learn to become more tolerant like the Danish and be more respectful, compassionate and kind towards every living being on this planet. It is almost impossible to have unhappy people in a society where everyone treats everyone with respect without prejudice and has love, compassion, kindness and gratitude in their hearts.

Dan Buettner summarizes the lessons he has learned from his travels and research from around the world and teaches us how to incorporate these lessons in our daily lives in order to live a happy life, regardless of where you reside. In Dan Buettner’s words “You can shape your own environments to live better longer, too. The best way to do that, as we’ve seen, is to follow the practices of the world’s most experienced thrivers: Set reasonable goals for your life. Seek out a place to live where people are already thriving. Choose a community where you can live out your interests. Find a modest house in a neighborhood of other modest houses, with neighbors you can call friends and sidewalks that let you walk where you need to go. Recognize your purpose in living each day. Take time to appreciate the arts. Find a job that you love without worrying too much about the salary. Find a hobby that fuels your passions. Take six weeks of vacation no matter what. Set your life so that you’re physically active everyday. Spend six hours a day with your lover, kids, and a handful of TRUE friends. Meditate, pray, or nap daily. And call your mother”.

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