Can you measure happiness? And should we even try?

Two-old-people-laughingWe recently published a post on ‘let’s talk’ by Rin Hamburgh, a regular contributor to the Positive News network, which aims to  ‘inform, inspire and empower our readers, while helping create a more balanced and constructive media’. We are happier if read more positive news it seems; if we appreciate that despite what many journalists would have us believe, the world is full of good people, doing positive things to encourage global social and environmental change.

This has sparked a lot of interest on the blog, and here at The Terrace and we want to find out more. When the current UK government came into power in 2010, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, stated his aim that Britain should be happier and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) now produces analysis based on National Measures of Well-Being. These measures, including economic, environmental and social measures also includes a measure of ‘personal well-being’. The latest figures, for 2012/13 were released last month and showed that overall, 77% of us are satisfied with our lives overall and that around 70% of us would describe our happiness levels as ‘medium to high’. You can find links to all the latest data here.

There is a concern that if politicians and civil servants are measuring happiness, they will ask questions that skew the results in favour of their policies, or choose a sample that includes people they know to have relatively ‘happy’ lives by any standard. So here on ‘let’s talk’ we wanted to canvas your ideas about what constitutes well-being. Is happiness our ultimate goal? If so, what is it that makes a human ‘happy’. Can any of the questions be the same for everyone?

For an analysis of happiness, should we measure things like self-esteem, number of friends (real rather than online), engagement with and kindness to, other people, love of laughter and jokes. Or should we look to practical things like money and health?

The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire was developed by psychologists Michael Argyle and Peter Hills at Oxford University and includes such questions as:

  • I am intensely interested in other people.
  • I have very warm feelings towards almost everyone.
  • I find most things amusing.
  • I am always committed and involved.
  • I find beauty in some things.
  • I feel I have a great deal of energy

Alongside statements such as:

  • I do not think that the world is a good place.
  • I don’t think I look attractive.
  • I feel that I am not especially in control of my life.
  • I don’t find it easy to make decisions.
  • I don’t have a particular sense of meaning and purpose in my life.
  • I don’t have particularly happy memories of the past

Each statement is answered on a scale of 1 to 6, strongly disagree to strongly agree. You can take that questionnaire yourself here.

carouselimage1803_tcm77-356741Do the positive statements better measure our levels of happiness? If faced with a negative statement, are we more likely to respond to it in a negative way? There are so many questions and endless answers – surely we cannot all be grouped together under such an amorphous heading as ‘happiness’. Or can we?

We find this a fascinating subject, linking as it does to our commitment to overall well-being and physical and mental health. We also love to laugh, and find it therapeutic.

Do please comment and let us know what you think. We would love to publish your ideas about what makes you happy and how you think it could best be measured.

 

On positive news – and why scaremongering can seriously damage your health…

bkph-3-2-SMALLToday we are lucky to have a guest post on ‘let’s talk’, written by Rin Hamburgh,  a Bristol-based journalist specialising in psychology and well-being, green living and other lifestyle subjects. You can visit her website and blog at www.rin-hamburgh.co.uk. She writes here of the positive news movement, which is gaining in popularity as an alternative to the sensationalist news reports we are frequently faced with on a daily basis. It offers a new way of problem solving; one that supports our well-being instead of undermining it….

I hate reading newspapers. That probably sounds a little strange, coming from a journalist, but it’s true. It’s not that I don’t want to find out what’s happening in the world, it’s just that it’s all so relentlessly depressing. People are killing each other. The economy is in tatters. Your favourite food is going to kill you.

Often it is not the facts of the stories themselves that are so terrifying, but the way they are reported. Driven by sales figures, editors choose attention-grabbing drama over less colourful but more worthy stories, so that our papers are filled with terrorism and political scandal and celebrity sex, and we don’t hear about the rise of the sharing economy or how volunteers are making a difference in flood-ravaged Somerset.

Scaremongering headlines convince us that the end is nigh, even if it’s just a remote possibility, and since most of us don’t get past the first few paragraphs of any story (if that) we tend to miss the balanced argument (if indeed there is one). And so our view of the world is shaped by negative soundbites, and we either become discouraged and apathetic, changing the channel or flicking through to the lifestyle pages to avoid the bleak ‘realities’ of the news, or we become addicted to the endless stream of hype.

Neither option is ideal. The apathy that comes with a diet of stories about terrible things we can’t change makes us passive; we no longer believe we can make a difference, and so we don’t even try. On the other hand, if we keep feeding our obsession with the Oscar Pistorius trial or the ever fluctuating (but always doomed) economic situation, we can actually do ourselves psychological and physical harm – a story in The Guardian last year stated that “news is toxic to your body”, triggering the limbic system and releasing cortisol, the so-called “stress hormone”.

Thankfully, there is an alternative. The positive news movement is gaining ground – albeit slowly – as people begin to search for a way to stay informed without the need for antidepressants. Rooted in positively psychology, this new style of media calls for a solutions-focused approach that doesn’t skirt the issues but does avoid sensationalising them. It also seeks out stories that highlight the people and initiatives making a difference to the world.

One of the leading publications in this campaign for a more balanced viewpoint is Positive News, which was founded in 1993 and aims to “inform, inspire and empower our readers, while helping create a more balanced and constructive media”. Despite not being able to pay as well as the nationals (there’s a reason why the big boys print the stories they do), I write for this dedicated and passionate team, and recently took part in a short promotional video about them, because I believe that we need more headlines like Brazil takes steps to save threatened tribe and New reforms for children in care ‘most significant in a generation’.

Next time you pick up a newspaper, or flick over to the evening news, be aware of the effect it is having on your well-being… and then make a change. Challenge the views you are being presented with, dig deeper into a story and find out what the truth of the matter is, get hold of a positive news publication in print or online, and remember that no matter what the media tells you, you can make a difference. Oh, and rest assured – the odd teaspoon of sugar probably won’t kill you.