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Finding your happy place

We're hard-wired for anxiety, but a five-year National Geographic study has important insights into how to be happy.

Considering the US is the bastion of individual success and the American Dream, it's a little strange to hear an American endorse the Tall Poppy Syndrome. But that's just what best-selling author and explorer Dan Buettner does. "I'm a big believer in it, actually," says Buettner, when asked what he thinks of our esteem-levelling national pastime. Buettner, at the behest of the National Geographic Society, has just published a book called Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way. In it, he argues that a sense of status equality is central to experiencing life satisfaction.

"First of all, when you look at worldwide databases, what is most strongly correlated with happiness is not so much financial equality but status equality," says Buettner, over the phone from hometown Minneapolis. "So if you live in a neighbourhood where everybody makes about the same amount of money as you, you're better off than if you live in a neighbourhood where you have the cheapest house on the block and everybody else makes five times as much as you." Each time you step out the door you'll feel the subtle insecurity and inadequacy.

In Denmark, which surveys hold to be the happiness world champion, there is an equivalent of the Tall Poppy Syndrome: Jante Law - behaviour that cuts success and achievement down to size as unworthy and inappropriate.

The tall-poppy choppers among us, however, shouldn't get too excited. Social equality is just one of a series of factors that contribute to our overall well-being.

Socialising itself is important. Both Buettner and Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychology professor at the University of California and author of The How of Happiness, reckon evolution explains why it contributes so much to our sense of happiness. "We co-operated to do things bigger than we could do as individuals," says Lyubomirsky. "We are rewarded for hanging out with other people and making friends and connections with other people, because those types of people tend to co-operate and they're more likely to get their genes in the next generation."

At the same time, Buettner points out that we are not completely programmed for happiness. "There is an element of us that is hard-wired for anxiety. It's the anxiety that pushes us into seeking security and storing food and doing things that are uncomfortable, because it better ensures our survival."

It's important, he says, to understand that there are two kinds of happiness.

"There's experienced happiness and remembered happiness - or evaluated happiness. Evaluated happiness is when you think back on your life, and you ask yourself, 'Am I healthy, am I in a good relationship, have I achieved the things that are expected of me?'"

True happiness is a fusion of those two ideas, Buettner says. "It's not just what you remember and it's not just what you feel. The problem with just looking at experienced happiness is somebody who drank beers all day long might have a hell of a good day, but are they happy?" Thrive attempts to present a way to achieve both kinds of happiness.

So why study something as apparently self-evident as happiness? "We know," says Buettner, that people who report the highest levels of happiness live about eight years longer than people who report the lowest levels of happiness. They're more productive as workers. They're about a third less likely to get colds. They're less likely to be depressed. They're less likely to commit suicide."

Happiness, as the UK Sunday Times recently observed, is all the rage among policy-makers. British Prime Minister David Cameron back in 2006 identified improving society's sense of well-being as "the central political challenge of our times" and last month he asked the Office for National Statistics to establish a happiness index. As AL Kennedy drily noted in the Observer, happiness levels dipped sharply at the news. It's bad enough, she said, that the coalition is taking an axe to the welfare state. Now taxpayers have to pay for "surveys that will ask if everyone is having a good time".

Where are people having a good time? For Thrive - the culmination of a five-year global study - Buettner travelled to four of the world's happiest places to examine the factors contributing to their citizens' contentment. Drawing on data from Gallup, the World Values Survey and the World Database of Happiness, he chose to visit Denmark, Singapore, Mexico's northern city of Monterrey, and a town in California called San Luis Obispo - each the centre of happiness in their respective regions.

So, why are the Danes so damned chipper? In Denmark, on top of Jante Law, which helps regulate the social equilibrium, people also benefit from a government that provides excellent public services (such as health and education); great access to theatres, galleries and museums; exercise-promoting initiatives like bike lanes and nature walks; and, perhaps most important, a strong social culture. Ninety-five per cent of Danes, Buettner writes, belong to some sort of association - whether it be a labour union or a club for cold-water swimmers.

And this is despite high taxes - on average, for every 100 kroner earned, Danes pay 50 to the Government. That's not to say they're cool with the taxes, but they tolerate them because their basic needs - and then some - get covered. Students, for example, are paid to go to university.

Economic prosperity, meanwhile, has very little correlation with happiness. "Individuals who thrive tend to possess enough money to cover their basic needs," Buettner writes in his book, "but rather than striving for more cash, they focus their time and energy on developing a caring group of healthy friends, working at meaningful jobs, engaging in enriching hobbies, staying in reasonable shape, volunteering and belonging to faith-based communities."

That's why the residents of Monterrey consider themselves so well off, despite being economically disadvantaged compared with their neighbours over the border. By nurturing a strong sense of humour in the face of bleak political realities, by gaining more sense of personal freedom since the political landscape opened up in Mexico about 15 years ago, and by being a party-friendly society, the residents of Monterrey enjoy great contentment. Their supercharged Catholic faith helps them deal with hard times, too, while the steady supply of Vitamin D from the ever-present sun gives them a mood push on a chemical level. (Buettner points out, however, that the escalating violence in the region because of drug wars, which have ramped up since the surveys took place, might have compromised happiness levels in Monterrey.)

The sense of political freedom Mexicans have tasted since the dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party first lost power in 1994 has been helpful, but freedom in itself is not an ultimate determinant of contentment. Take Singapore, the happiest place in Asia. Although the city-state gives up certain freedoms - the ability to buy chewing gum, for one - it in turn provides greater safety and opportunity than many places in the world, especially its neighbours. Singapore also looks after its citizens by providing housing for the poor and it puts great emphasis on education and healthcare.

For San Luis Obispo in California, Buettner points to anti-smoking policies, a strong arts community, a pedestrian-friendly city layout and abundant exercise options as the keys to maximum satisfaction. SLO-politans, as Buettner calls them, also derive immense pleasure from doing volunteer work, thus shifting the focus away from problems in their own lives.

And what about us? According to the surveys, New Zealand performs pretty well when it comes to happiness. The 2008 Gallup World Poll put New Zealand at number eight in the world's top 10 happiest places, and in the same year the World Values Survey had New Zealand as the 15th-happiest country. In both cases, we finished ahead of the US, the UK and Australia.

On the face of it, we fulfil many of Buett­ner's criteria for happiness. New Zealand is a peaceful country with enough wealth for our basic needs, we don't have vast differences in social and economic status, we have an active outdoor lifestyle, good access to the arts and, like Denmark, we even have honesty boxes at fruit stalls in the countryside - something that speaks to strong mutual trust.

Indeed, none of the positions in the world-happiness rankings are fixed, says Buettner, and New Zealand could well become number one some day. "I think New Zealand has all the elements of becoming the happiness all-stars."

Ours is also a comparatively chilled-out existence. "We're just a bit more relaxed," says Dan Weijers, a PhD candidate in the philosophy department at Victoria University and co-founder of the new International Journal of Well-being, which will be launched next month. "We have a relatively stress-free lifestyle compared to other Western industrialised countries. There's a lot more social pressure, a lot more keeping up with the Joneses, in the UK and the US and other countries like that. In New Zealand, you can walk down the street in bare feet and it will be okay."

That, says Weijers, suggests we have low levels of social judging, which bodes well for the community's general sense of well-being.

Aaron Jarden, the other co-founder of the International Journal of Well-being and president of the New Zealand Association of Positive Psychology, pours a little cold water on our happy party. We should be careful how much stock we place in global happiness surveys, Jarden says, because their methodologies leave something to be desired.

"None of the studies really explain the methodology or the reasons for just asking one question [about happiness]," he says. "Those studies show that New Zealanders are essentially happier than other countries, but they have no idea why." Jarden is heading up the International Well-being Study, a four-year survey that asks participants 208 happiness-related questions. The first set of results is due in January.

Buettner contends science shows that where we live is the most important controllable factor in how happy we are. If we lived in Denmark, we could ride our bikes to work, which would "nudge" us into doing the exercise we need to stay healthy. Singaporeans are happier than other Asians because they have security and housing even if their income evaporates. In San Luis Obispo, the local government has banned drive-throughs at fast-food joints, so it's more likely residents will eat well. In New Zealand, we still feel good about ourselves even if we don't have the latest BMW.

Place, however, is not the be-all and end-all. Attitude - something Buettner doesn't address directly in Thrive - has a large role to play. It's ridiculous, says Lyubomirsky, to think if we could just move to Denmark we would be happy, unless the move came with a concomitant shift in how we think and behave in our daily lives. "Maybe we would become somewhat happier," she says, "but then we'd get used to it. An unhappy person is going to be unhappy anywhere, because they have a certain kind of perspective on the world - to be negative."

During his travels in Mexico, Buett­ner met a newspaper columnist named Armando Fuentes Aguirre, known in his home country as El Catón, the Wise Man. The award-winning, President-meeting, decidedly cheerful Fuentes shared with Buettner his secret for happiness. It was passed down from his grandfather, Fuentes said, in the form of a poem:

Drink without getting drunk,

Love without suffering jealousy,

Eat without overindulging,

Never argue,

And once in a while, with great discretion,


They may be the only words you ever really need to read on the matter.