The Secret to Happiness

Plainly, a lot of people these days are interested in happiness — how to get happy, why some people are happier than others, etc. For example, there’s Dan Gilbert’s best-seller Stumbling on Happiness and, currently at No. 1 on the N.Y. Times‘s list of most e-mailed articles, a piece by Dan Max about university happiness studies.

Among the most intriguing happiness theories I’ve come across is this one, put forth in a recent issue of BMJ. It asserts that the citizens of Denmark are happier than their European counterparts, even though they rank high in the kind of things that are typically affiliated with a low happiness rank, like bad weather, bad food, and high alcohol consumption.

So what’s their secret?

Low expectations. “It’s a David and Goliath thing,” says Kaare Christensen, one of the study’s authors, in a brief article in today’s N.Y. Times. “If you’re a big guy, you expect to be on the top all the time and you’re disappointed when things don’t go well. But when you’re down at the bottom like us, you hang on, you don’t expect much, and once in a while you win, and it’s that much better.”

This theory makes sense to me, just as it makes sense that people who earn a few thousand dollars more than their colleagues say they are happier than if they were earning more money but less than their colleagues. As with many things in life, relative happiness may be far more important, or at least measurable, than absolute happiness.


The secret to happiness? You mean besides an Ivy League education?

I'd say a Freakonomics sequel. How about it? One coming soon?


Denmark's also noted for having a well-functioning economy. In particular, it is easier for employers to lay off unneeded workers than it is in most other European countries, which reduces the hiring disincentives found elsewhere and helps keep the unemployment rate low; on other hand, unemployment compensation is much more generous than in the easy-layoffs United States and is carefully aimed at training the unemployed for high-demand occupations. On a more general basis, taxes are relatively high but people get a lot for their money, the national and local governments being known for efficiency and lack of corruption.

Ana C.

The Danes don't think they are small like David! What happens is that they have succeeded to make Denmark one of the best functioning societies in the world and they are hyper-proud of that. Besides, the summer in Denmark is fantastic!


Given the answerss Levitt been able to provide on some other things, maybe he should turn from the trivial and tease some sort of data into giving us the secret of happiness.

It would make for a great selling book.


Bad weather? Bad food? High alcohol consumption? I don't know about you guys but when it is raining outside I LOVE pulling into a wing joint, ordering a bucket of spicy garlic buffalo wings, knocking back a half-rack of cold beer, and smiling until I'm silly. Course...that's just me.


As a resident of southern Sweden I might have some insight in the question regarding the Danish happiness. I would say that it is not so much the low expectations as the fact that danes just don't care. They are for instance far more liberal than the large majority of uptight swedes I meet every day. When it comes to politics there's really no limits to what danes may or may not discuss in "Folketinget" their equivalent of the American congress.

All in all the danes have captured the true sense of personal and social freedom. And in my opinion I believe they have a good (maybe not healthy) relationship to alcohol, which is in deep contrast to their regulating neighbour in the east, Sweden, a country with one of the highest suicidal-rates among youngsters in the whole world. No surprise I often gaze westwards to the other side of the small sea separating Sweden from Denmark looking for liberty :)



How about driving in traffic? I'm happier if I'm in the fastest lane of overall slow moving traffic than if I'm in the slowest lane of relatively fast moving traffic...


"As with many things in life, relative happiness may be far more important, or at least measurable, than absolute happiness."

Don't you mean relative *standing* and absolute *standing*? That is, these studies are measuring only *absolute* happiness as independent variable based on *relative* standing as dependent variable.

Talking about absolute happiness or relative happiness is interesting, though, in a "meta" kind of way. Suppose you exceed your neighbor in every aspect that leads to happiness, but your neighbor still winds up happier than you. Does that reduce your happiness even further?

Or suppose you're the exception, the type that feels guilty if you're happy. You are now happy because you make more than you're neighbor. But then you're unhappy because you're happy. So at least you're now unhappy ... which makes you happy, right?


Practce mind control through yoga, especially breathing technique; in an absolute and relative sense you will be happy.Happiness is psychological.Don't mix it with economics.


Low expectations - I love it.
Like my affection for the Cleveland Browns and Purdue football. You may only get one good season a generation but what a ride when it comes. Chicago Cubs fans can relate to this also.


"Don't you mean relative *standing* and absolute *standing*?"

I'm standing in a bus, you're standing in that bus. Relative to each other, we're both standing.

I'm standing in a bus, you're standing on the pavement. Relative to you, I'm moving fast, so very fast.

I'm skating backwards with my torso absolutely still with speed equal to the bus', and you're standing on the pavement. Until I smash into the back, I'm standing still relative to you.

Doug Karr

I wrote a 'Happiness Manifesto' for Hugh MacLeod's blog that I think summed up my theory on happiness:



Happiness is first and foremost a function of individual's brain chemistry and outlook. Everyone has a 'baseline' level of happiness. If it is too low, that is dysthymia, a form of depression. Some people have chemical variations in that baseline - that can be either manic-depression or major depression, depending on whether the variations are from a 'normal' level down, or from way above to way below normal. This baseline isn't a subject for economics, it is a psychological and medical issue.

2nd is the 'relative' happiness we've been discussing. It is really the happiness of knowing you are envied, or the unhappiness from coveting something you can't have. This can range from the relative price of your and your neighbor's cars to the apparent talents of your kids relative to his. This is a topic of economic interest.

3rd is progressive happiness - the happiness coming from the knowledge that today, I'm better off than yesterday, or the unhappiness of the reverse. Absolute changes in wealth and income can drive this, but absolute levels do not - if my income position increase 10% while yours increases 0%, I get more of this happiness than you even if I'm going from 20k to 22k per year, while you sit still at 100k per year. This can be forward looking, too - if my future's so bright I gotta wear shades, that is a source of happiness. Security plays a role here - people are risk averse, so small probabilities of disaster (losing a job, for example) can have large effects on this happiness, and reduction of this probability, even balanced so that expected values are the same or slightly lower, can benefit happiness. (Herein lies the appeal of European style job-protection, if we assume that those who are 'established' make the rules.) Economics has a lot to say here, too.

I do not believe that absolute levels of well-offness affect happiness above a subsistence level - no study has found it to be the case in the field. Unfortunately, this is the thing 'utility' seems to measure, and so a lot of what Economists have done isn't directly useful in discussing happiness.



Dennis Prager in his book, Happiness is a Serious Problem, is very big on the idea that expectations are the greatest impediment to happiness. His point, derived from Buddhism, is that if you expect to be happy (or to be healthy, get that promotion, etc.) and your expectation is met, then it won't increase your happiness much since it was, well, expected. On the other hand, if you don't get it, you will actually get unhappy because you didn't get what you expected to get. On the other hand, if you have fewer expectations, then getting nothing becomes the neutral result and any positive thing becomes an unexpected reason to be happier.

Buddism suggests, however, that the key to removing expectations is to actually get rid of desires, but to drop desires is to also drop the impetus for people to strive.

So, to take an example at random, let's say you are an author who publishes a book. It is good to desire that your book has an impact, to desire that lots of people buy it, and to desire that lots of really smart eloquent people should come to your blog and post witty and inciteful comments. But, you should try hard not to expect it. Then, when your book is on the best sellers list, you can be properly happy and appreciative.

Having something good happen that isn't expected makes it easier to be grateful for it, and gratitude is another key ingredient to happiness.



If our expecations can affect our happiness as meomaxy has suggested, then perhaps it is our collective expectations that have brought us all to be concerned with happiness.. making literature like Stumbling on Happiness a popular read.

With the somewhat recent boom in post-secondary education, it was -- and IS in some cases -- the expecation of many that if you go to university or college, you will get a great job and be happy. You will be happy. That is the expectation.

And I'd guess that this was the expectation because a generation or two ago, most people with an education past high school DID go on to get higher paying jobs.. likely increasing the chances of personal growth and happiness.

So then when the employment market became flooded with all these educated youngsters, people were baffled as to why they are not getting their expected rewards (the "good" job, the "good" life).

And many people were (some still are) shaking their heads wondering what happened. Why aren't we happy yet? The by-product of this may then be that many minds have come up with evolving ideas surrounding this somewhat recent mismatch of expectations. In a round-about way, they are making attempts to answer that question -- why aren't we happy yet?

And on a side note, I am thankful that our society is not homogeneous, as many people did not fall into this category of persons.. and have found happiness regardless of edcuation. Diversity within our societies is really a great thing!



I'm very skeptical about all of these "happiness" surveys. They seem to be designed by conservative economists to prove, in essence, that since money doesn't make one
happy, one needn't worry about the poor or the increasingly large gap between the haves and the have-nots or haves-not-much...the benign equivalent of "Of course, our slaves are happy. They are always singing."

If economists are simply asking "are you happy?" or "on a scale of 1-10, how happy are you?", the results will be pretty much meaningless for any or all of the following reasons.

1. Culture
The willingness to say or admit that one is happy is often affected by one's religion, ethnicity, culture or nationality. I'm reading a book called "Born to Kvetch" and came upon the following passage about the same time that the Economist came out with its Happiness edition (and just weeks after the WSJ printed an article on the subject).

"Real good"? As a response to a Yiddish question, it marks you as someone who knows some Yiddish words but doesn't really understand the language. Gants gut [real good] --- if you're not afraid to say it, you have no business speaking Yiddish. [page 114 of the 2006 Harper paperback edition]
[end quote]

The likelihood that a happiness survey would find any degree of happiness (let alone an admission that one is "happier") among such speakers, regardless of wealth, is, I suspect, vanishingly small. Nor are Yiddish speakers the only people in the world who will not admit that they are happy, that the harvest was good, or that one's children are beautiful for fear that saying so out loud is asking for trouble. And, at the very great risk of tarnishing an entire nationality on the basis of a few Norwegian acquaintances, I find it hard to imagine many "very happy" responses to such a survey in Norway.

2. Optimists and Pessimists
By the time people are old enough to answer such a survey, I suspect their personalities have long been formed. If "glass-half-full" and "glass-half-empty" people are equally distributed in a population, it would not be surprising to find that the rich are no happier, or sadder, than the poor. This outlook on life, whether the result of genetics or genetics and early environment, is independent of many variables.

It may also be that there are more optimistic rich people (for whom more wealth therefore adds nothing) than poor people because optimism is one of the factors that helps one acquire wealth. Or, it may be that there are more pessimistic people among the rich (for whom more wealth equally adds nothing) because it is the very need to find security that drives them to gain wealth. Neither result is a justification for ignoring the unequal distribution of wealth in the world.

3. Lottery Winners
In any discussion of money and happiness, lottery winners always pop up. "See. They had nothing and now they have millions, and they're still not happy." But I don't think I've ever seen any more detail than that. Are all lottery winners less happy than they were? How old were they when they won, how much did they win vs. how much they had to begin with, what happened to them afterwards, and, most important of all, what were the percentages? In addition, factors 1 and 2 above still apply to lottery winners. Finally, surely there are differences in response to windfall money vs. inherited wealth vs. earned wealth. Forgive me if I suspect this oft-repeated phrase has more in common with the oft-repeated but misleading "welfare mothers riding around in Cadillacs" than with reality. And, by the way, have any studies been done of people who had wealth and then lost it? Is the pauper who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth happier now that he is living on skid row?

4. Construction of a useful survey
If the objective of such a survey is not to prove that "the poor are happy so we needn't worry about them" but, rather, to determine how much wealth contributes to happiness, it would approach the question laterally: do you like where you live? where your children go to school? would you like to take more vacations? (with due attention to item #1 above which is an issue even with these kinds of questions). It would also correlate conditions such as health, drug or alcohol abuse, criminal records, employment, community/political positions, awards, etc. with income. It might even ask such simple questions as "when was the last time you saw a rat?", how often do your children go to bed hungry", "do you feel safe when you walk down the street? ", etc.

Furthermore, economists truly interested in the subject, rather than in confirming a prejudice, should be conducting longitudinal studies (akin to medical epidemiological studies) to capture the effects of changes in income over time on a wide variety of people.

On a personal note: given the choice between being sad and poor or sad and rich, I'd definitely choose the latter - and I seriously doubt that you would find many people who wouldn't.



I've never viewed these surveys as being friendly to 'conservative' economists. They say, basically, relative position matters but absolute doesn't. That is a recipe for arguing for redistribution from the rich to the poor, and ignoring the losses in growth from government regulations. After all, if it doesn't matter if you have 100k per year or 50, as long as your rank stays the same, then who cares about a 50% income tax and the 100k premium you pay for housing because of land use restrictions reducing construction?

These surveys also mostly find a (low) level of income below which money does buy happiness. Hello Welfare!


I lived in Denmark for a while. Their food is not bad, I thought it was rather good. Americans with bland palates who haven't experienced life might think the food tastes terrible.

Vedasri Kada

Its ironic how we are taught to reach of the stars, expect the best, feel we well deserve it all through life and finally discover that low expectations are a key to happiness in life and in marriage. It mostly makes me wonder why the flip?
Its almost like we are read fairytales to bed in childhood and then rudely told that lifes no fairytale when we are adults!!!
Am sure low expectations are a key to half the world's problems. But can we please get it with a piece of lime, preferably when younger!!


The secret to happiness? You mean besides an Ivy League education?

I'd say a Freakonomics sequel. How about it? One coming soon?