The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 152: 15 Minutes To Happiness

Have a think about the following question for a moment.

“Please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. Suppose we say that the top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you, and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time, assuming that the higher the step the better you feel about your life, and the lower the step the worse you feel about it? Which step comes closest to the way you feel?”

This question is asked once per year by Gallup, the famous poll company. They ask a thousand people in each of around 150 countries from around the world to work out how happy each country is on average.
Gallup don’t just ask this one question though, there are many more. They ask about their relationship status, how many children they have, how many friends they have. They find out how much time people spend driving to work and whether or not they mow their own lawn or get the kid down the road to do it for a fiver.
There are many other organisations that undertake similar research and if you take all of the data from all of these different sources and stick them into a computer you can look for correlations, so we can see what influences us for the better and what influences us for the worse. It makes some very interesting reading and some of it genuinely surprising.

What we find is that most people in the top 20 countries rate themselves as being between 6 and a half and 7 and a half out of 10.
The UK only just makes it into the top 20 by being at number 19 with an average of about 6.7. To put that into context, the world average is 5.3 and Europe is about 6. Norway is number one with 7.5. So that’s a good number to strive for.

On the whole a Norwegian attitude seems pretty good. Wages are high but so is tax and the cost of living is quite high. So financially, Norway is not really any better off than the UK. But people rarely work past 5pm and they have a great community spirit, which probably helps.

If we look at household income throughout the world, we do see that there’s a correlation with a higher salary and greater happiness, but it’s not a straight line. Once a household has a income total of about 50k it begins to curve quite considerably, almost flattening out so that it becomes increasingly more difficult to get any happiness out of the extra money you earn.

It’s such a gentle increase in life satisfaction that to go up one point on the happiness scale needs an extra £100,000 per year!
That’s not very realistic, but if you ask people to name something that they know would give them an instant happiness boost they’d say more money, a promotion, a lottery win, something like that.

The frustrating thing is that this is a foundation to a lot of peoples beliefs, it may well be yours. But it’s not enough! Having money in the bank might make it easier for you to do certain things that make you happy but maybe you could do those things anyway if you realised that it wasn’t the lottery win you wanted, it was actually spending more time with your family or it meant you had more time to do volunteer work or plan your meals better or exercise more.

It’s definitely worth looking underneath your desires to work out why you feel the need for more money, if you do. Because the security that money brings us has been with us for generations and the desire for it at an unconscious level is probably never going to go away.

Think about it like this. If you go back 10 thousand years most societies were quite small and everyone worked together. We used a bartering system as means of buying goods. One person was good at laying a cobbled floor and someone else was pretty quick at making flint tools and everyone swapped services and goods with each other.
The more flint tools someone had the more spears they could make, the more food they could eat and the safer they were. But it’s not sustainable as society gets larger. Eventually we started using something to represent those goods and services. These tokens became coins, which eventually become bank notes and soon enough they’re nothing more than numbers on a bank statement. But their origins are still about safety, the instinct to desire those numbers on a bank statement are all about preservation of the species, preservation of self, keeping you alive.
So it does take a little bit of strength to override it and ask yourself, “What is it that really makes me happy?” but I urge you to do so, really. Because it might not be the promotion that you want, often the promotion comes with longer working hours or more anxiety, a longer journey to work or phone calls from your boss at 10 o clock at night. When actually it’s working LESS that would have the positive influence on your mental health not working more.

It can be tricky to find the balance between doing too little and doing too much but it’s worth exploring because there are other things that can shift us up a point on the 1 to 10 happy scale. Being less anxious and having more control over your thoughts, being more grateful and appreciative of the simpler things in life, having a healthy opinion of yourself, spending any spare cash on experiences rather than objects. All these things have a better influence on our happiness than savings in your bank account does. So it’s really important to get our priorities right.